God of Life, God of Justice, God of Healing, God of Love,
Have mercy on us.
In ancient days, in the face of a world filled with violence, your rainbow promise embraced the skies with every color in creation. Renew in us our commitment to that rainbow of hope.
We pray for the lost and the wounded, for their families and beloved ones. Watch, O Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep. Hold fast the sorrowful, and make us all instruments of your peace.
We pray for the LGBTQ community around the world, but particularly here in this country we call home, as together we confront this devastating act of terror, the worst shooting in U.S. history. Our hearts are broken. Surround us with your Spirit of healing, your graceful presence in the midst of grief.
Save us from hate, from prejudice, from the ways we turn away from you and from each other. Embolden us to follow Jesus in crossing lines of hostility and suspicion, building bridges between neighborhoods, religions, and regions of your world. Save us from the contempt that leads to violence, and also the contempt that leads — in the wake of violence — to an even more fragmented, segregated, polarized world. Make us a people of faith, not fear.
We know you are God of law, of Torah, of instruction and insight and learning. We pray for our leaders in government and community life, and for the people they are called to serve. Give all of us wisdom and courage as we build our common life. Let our laws become at once more sane and more humane. Stir in us a holy impatience with a world so full of gunfire.
And above all, save us from that most banal form of sin, the sin of numbness and weak resignation. Save us from accepting this as “the way things are.” Come Holy Spirit, breathe in us, inspire us, and wake us up — so we might renew our participation in your making “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Have mercy on us. Save us. Breathe in us, awaken us, and make all things new.
In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen
Students, faculty and staff will represent CTS at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina in July. The festival’s theme is “Story.”
When potential students apply to Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, they tell us about themselves. High GPAs. Terrific references. Years of devotion to their home churches.
But it’s not until they’ve settled in a bit — when they get through orientation, move into their apartments, go to class — it’s not until then that the true stories come out. Stories of joy, hope, support, epiphanies. Stories of abuse, loss, shame, doubt.
Novelist E. M. Forster used this example to show the difference between facts and a story:
The king died, and the queen died.
The king died, and the queen died of grief.
A list of facts doesn’t do much. Stories, though, turn strangers into friends. Skeptics into believers.
Jesus’s story is full of joy, hope, support, epiphanies, abuse, loss, shame, and doubt. No wonder we connect to it, are transformed by it, seek to follow his “way.”
We can’t wait to swap stories with old friends and new at Wild Goose Festival this year.
Dear CTS Friends,
The season of Advent is a time of shadows, of gradually gathering darkness: each night a few minutes longer than the last. We light candles of hope not because of the light, but because of the dark. We light them because we need to find our way through the shadows.
The news headlines these days provide plenty of gloom: a world awash in conflict and refugees, weaponry and violence, acts of terror and calls for exclusion. And so Christians wait and hope for God’s coming (“Advent” means “coming”), wait and hope for a baby lying in a manger, wait and hope for the Prince of Peace.
What does it mean to follow the Prince of Peace today? For example, can we American Christians agree that, at the very least, it means acknowledging that our communities are too violent, our homes and streets too overrun by assault weapons? In the wake of San Bernardino and Colorado Springs and Roseburg and Charleston and Newtown and on and on, can we witness together that the peace to which the Prince calls us does not include privately owned assault rifles, and that instruments of war have no place in our neighborhoods?
Jesus of Nazareth lived in a time of violence, too, and many of his contemporaries (some of whom were known as “Zealots”) called for violence against the Roman Empire. But this only makes more striking the ways in which Jesus took a different path, living and teaching in ways that make for peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he declared in the Sermon on the Mount. “Put away your sword,” he later said to Peter. Even in distress, Jesus did not take up arms — and the very idea of “assault” is the opposite of his Gospel of love and justice.
We may disagree about the extent to which firearms belong in our neighborhoods at all, but surely Christians can come together around a movement to ban assault weapons — machines expressly designed to kill people swiftly and extensively — from our streets and homes. We cannot let despair or political complexities render us silent or cynical. The shadows may fall, but we can only light our candles of hope again and again.
And surely we can also come together around a movement to dispel the fear in our communities, remembering those beautiful, challenging words with which the angels always begin: “Do not be afraid.”
Christmas is a season of small, miraculous things: a star in the sky only a few wise observers can see; an angelic chorus only a few no-name shepherds can hear; and a forgotten, homeless baby, indistinguishable from babies born every day, who is Emmanuel, “God with us.” Even though last night may have been two minutes longer than the night before, now is the time of turnings. Tomorrow night will be two minutes shorter, and over the weeks and months to come, the day will continue to grow. God’s salvation is at hand. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it.
And so let us pray that this season’s small miracles include each one of us recommitting to this ancient good news, this insistent vision of God’s shalom for the whole world, so that every child everywhere may not only sleep through the night, but (as the carolers sing) “sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”
Merry Christmas from Christian Theological Seminary,
This post originally appeared in the opinion section of the Indianapolis Star.
According to the Gospel of Luke, the original Last Supper — typically celebrated today as a meal of Christian unity — was scarcely finished before an argument broke out among the disciples about “which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Luke 22:24).
We’ve been at it ever since.
Disagreement among Christians is as old as the faith itself, particularly on the topic of what it looks like to follow Jesus faithfully in a given time and place.
This diversity means that when it comes to “religious freedom” for Christians, the picture is complicated. One disciple’s experience of freedom is another’s experience of restraint.
Take the Syrian refugee crisis, for example. In one of the most famous passages in the New Testament, Jesus draws on ancient Jewish wisdom to proclaim that the truly righteous don’t only talk the talk of hospitality, but actually “welcome the stranger” (Matthew 25:35).
Some Hoosier Christians who take this seriously might well feel that their religious freedom is curbed or compromised to the extent that new refugees from Syria or elsewhere are not welcomed into Indiana. These Christians will sense a profound irony in debating the question during the season of Thanksgiving, a holiday in which, after all, we invoke the story of a group of (Christian) refugees fleeing persecution overseas and a group of Native American hosts who welcomed them. Other Hoosier Christians, of course, will see things differently.
How do we balance these competing perspectives? What counts as “religious freedom” — and what doesn’t? And how do we settle issues in which claims to religious freedom are on multiple sides of an issue?
In the Indiana legislature’s consideration of expanding the state’s civil rights protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity, whose religious freedom will have priority? The freedom of Christians and others who wish to live in a society in which it’s legal to deny, say, certain commercial services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people? Or the freedom of Christians and others who wish to live in a society in which LGBT people are legally protected from discrimination?
One general approach is to draw a distinction between (1) having a seat at the table of public life and (2) the disagreements that may take place in conversation around that table.
Any robust public life will include substantive, respectful debate, but we each get a seat at the table. Because of the fundamental dignity of each human being — a human dignity that runs deeper than our differences of race, sex, religion, and yes, sexual orientation and gender identity — no one should have second-class citizenship. This is one reason why we need civil rights protections: to help ensure that no Hoosier’s citizenship is second class.
From a Christian point of view, this fundamental dignity is God-given. It is part of what we mean when we say that every human being is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). But that ancient and beautiful idea has to do not only with my neighbor’s dignity, but also with mine. I am made in God’s image, too, and that means I am made to be just and generous and creative and brave. I am made to be dignified, even and especially in turbulent, difficult times.
As president of Christian Theological Seminary, I regularly interact with a wide range of Christian leaders and communities, from conservative to moderate to liberal. What’s been striking to me is that support for civil rights protections for LGBT people cuts across this theological spectrum. Even some of my brothers and sisters who theologically object to homosexuality nevertheless want to live in a society where no-one’s citizenship is second class — and they want this because of their commitment to Christian hospitality and justice, not in spite of it.
The truth is, we all need each other at the table. Like those earliest disciples, no doubt we will disagree from time to time. But where we can and must agree — remembering that rule called “golden” not because it’s easy, but because it’s precious — is to invite one another to the kind of seat at the table of public life we would choose to sit in ourselves.
All the world – tout le monde – grieves and stands with France in the midst of these harrowing days. All the world – kl alealam – grieves and stands with Lebanon. As people of faith, our hearts can only break when God’s children turn against each other in the name of God. And the most elemental, effective way to counter such “turning against” is to reverse the gesture, turning toward one other in solidarity, compassion, and hope.
On Friday night, I attended the student-organized vigil against racism, a gathering powerfully proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. CTS student body president Whittney Murphy spoke eloquently that we are like the candles we held that night: sometimes flickering in the wind, or even going out, but then rekindled by the lights of others. The shadows may fall and the winds threaten, but together we can walk in the promise that God is with us, and that God is a light the world’s shadows cannot and will not overcome.
As we stood together in the vigil that night along Michigan Road, the attacks in Lebanon were only a day old, and the news was just beginning to come in about the attacks in Paris. On one level, these various events – the vigil and the attacks – seem separate and distinct. But on a deeper level, they are profoundly connected. The same dehumanizing act of dividing the world into “us” on the one hand and “our enemies” on the other is the root of both racism and religious intolerance. The peace and equality for which the vigil called here at home is the same peace and equality we need in France, Lebanon, and beyond. And what’s more (and more troubling), while France has received a public outpouring of support and solidarity from around the world, Lebanon has not. For many, this has understandably raised the question: When it comes to the world’s solidarity and concern, don’t Lebanese lives matter as much as French ones? If our hearts (or Facebook pages) now bear the French flag’s blue, white, and red, shouldn’t they also bear Lebanon’s red, white, and green?
In the New Testament Gospels, Jesus’ signature move is to stand with outsiders, with the forgotten or marginalized, and to reach across religious and ethnic lines of hostility. Following Jesus as best we can, we can only heed the call to do the same. Jesus is in Lebanon. Jesus is standing along Michigan Road. Jesus is in France, and in so many other places around the world, mending the brokenhearted, calling for justice, calling for love. Wherever the shadows fall, there Jesus goes, the flickering, quickening light of the world.
And so we give thanks for student leaders, their voices clear, their faces illuminated by candles of hope. We give thanks for all of those committed to helping to turn these horrifying attacks into renewed resolve to work toward reconciliation. For as we approach the coming Season of Advent, those four weeks of lament and prayer that lead to a once-forgotten backwater not far from Lebanon, we know our lives depend on the love that binds us together. So much depends on that love. All the world – tout le monde, kl alealam – depends on it.
Matthew Myer Boulton
By Ellen K. Annala
Chair, CTS Board of Trustees
Itinerary snapshot: Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, executive director of the Desmond Tutu Center, a collaboration between Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) and Butler University, led 25 trustees, staff, faculty and students for 12 days in his homeland. In Cape Town, we met with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Reverend Mpho Tutu, executive director of the Tutu Legacy Foundation. We toured Robben Island, attended the JL Zwane Presbyterian Church in Gugulethu, visited the Slave Lodge and the District Six Museum, met with young activists still working to undo the damage from apartheid, and participated in a forum on racism, violence and human dignity post-apartheid (three-person panel included our Dr. Boesak). At Stellenbosch University we heard Prof. Sampie Terreblanche, Prof. Nico Koopman and CTS’ Matthew Myer Boulton and Frank Thomas. We took a scenic tour to the southernmost point on the continent, climbed to the light house at the Cape of Good Hope, and took pictures of penguins at Boulders Beach. In Kruger National Park we saw the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, buffalo) plus zebras, giraffes and hyenas. After leaving Kruger, we visited Blyde Canyon, the world’s third-largest and greenest canyon, and we stopped to eat the world’s best pancakes in Graskop. In Johannesburg, we visited the Apartheid Museum, Constitution Hill and Soweto.
Any American — especially a white American like me — traveling to South Africa can’t help but do some soul searching. Agreeing to write about our trip gave me the discipline I needed to put some thoughts on paper.
Allan led us through a packed two weeks with a perfect balance of learning and listening activities combined with the must-see tourist attractions that showed off the country’s natural beauty. If you’ve heard Allan speak, you’ve been inspired and challenged by his message and his experiences. I’ve listened to Archbishop Desmond Tutu talk about their joint work and Allan’s leadership in the anti-apartheid movement, but to be a first-hand witness to his significance to South Africans was awe inspiring. It became evident on my first walk in downtown Cape Town and reinforced throughout the trip, that we have a national treasure leading our Tutu Center.
After more than 30 hours of travel, our first day was mostly unscheduled, giving us time to rest and adjust to the time change. In the afternoon while some in our group napped and others (President Boulton and Trustee Anita Hardin) climbed Table Mountain, Carol Johnston (CTS faculty) and I decided to walk to The Company’s Garden. Allan volunteered to walk the four blocks with us.
Just a few steps from our hotel, we were stopped by an older man who greeted Allan with an enthusiastic hug. A dozen more steps and a young man asked if he could get his picture taken with him. This happened everywhere we went — a guard at Robben Island, an entertainer at Artscape, two young women at a rest stop in the middle of Kruger National Park. Most appeared to be working class people, but not all. Most were black, but not all. All who approached him showed deep affection and appreciation.
At the Apartheid Museum, I purchased Apartheid, An Illustrated History. In it is a picture of a young Allan at the microphone at the launch of the United Democratic Front in 1983. Surrounded by students, he was rejecting the Tricameral Constitution. The man who leads our Tutu Center led, survived and changed the history we only read about.
Being in South Africa is like having a mirror held up to Americans and others who have yet to resolve the damage done by slavery and segregation. South Africa now has democracy for all citizens. So do we. But the remnants of apartheid are evident, especially when you leave the city limits.
Under apartheid, whites moved people of color out of the cities to the townships — opposite the U.S. experience when schools were integrated in the 1970s and white families moved out of cities to the townships. Driving out of Cape Town, you see distinct neighborhoods where the houses get smaller and closer together the farther you drive. The darker your skin, the smaller the houses and the greater the density in your assigned district.
We saw miles of shanty towns, one with more than a million people living in shacks built with whatever scrap materials they could find. The government provides port-o-lets to give a minimal level of sanitation. Children who are fortunate enough to go to a private school have a chance to rise above their circumstances, but the odds are stacked against those who go to the overcrowded substandard public schools.
Some of us visited Christel House South Africa and saw what can happen when children from the poorest townships are given a chance with a quality education. Sound familiar? Maybe we don’t have shanty towns on this scale, but we know that the zip code a child is born into can hugely determine the child’s chances for success in life.
As we toured the Slave Lodge in Cape Town and Constitution Hill and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, I was struck by how well South Africa has addressed its past. Because apartheid ended only a couple decades ago, they have the evidence and testimony of those who were imprisoned, brutalized and treated as inferior human beings. I was dumbstruck when watching the video of the Prime Minister explaining apartheid as a “policy of good neighborliness.”
Upon entering the Apartheid Museum, we were each handed a card, randomly distributed, declaring our race. My card said I was non-white, so I was required to enter a different door than many of those I was traveling with. This was intended to make a point. It did. I found myself wondering what my travel companions were seeing that I wasn’t. And I resented that I couldn’t get to their side.
At the Slave Lodge (the actual home where hundreds of slaves were kept in cramped quarters), they documented their slave past in historical detail. But taking it a step further, they honored the contributions of slaves by recognizing that they built the city and changed the culture, language and food of the country. I don’t know of comparable museums or institutions in the U.S.
I bought another book, this one at the Tutu Legacy Foundation office, The Book of Forgiving, by the Archbishop and his daughter, Mpho Tutu. In the forward, they write, “In South Africa, we chose to seek forgiveness rather than revenge. That choice averted a bloodbath. For every injustice, there is a choice.”
As we sat with the Archbishop and the Reverend, they talked about forgiveness and about the work still to be done. I experienced a man who was willing to use his power position in the church to fight for a more just society; a holy man who embodies grace, kept his humor and continues to lead.
When visiting Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he was imprisoned, we were led to his cell by a former prisoner. After sharing his own experience, the former prisoner said that he now lives on the island and is both a neighbor and a friend with former guards. When he finished, he invited questions but only received silence. I couldn’t verbalize what I was feeling and thinking: “How could you have forgiven men who brutalized you and kept you in subhuman conditions?” Mostly, I was in awe and wondered if I had that same capacity to forgive.
The District Six Museum in Cape Town was created to memorialize the integrated neighborhood that was bulldozed to make way for a new white neighborhood. The museum’s education director took us on a bus tour of several of the townships where former residents were moved to their designated “Colored,” “Asian” or “African” township.
Afterwards, we returned to lunch and dialogue with young activists. Most expressed their disappointment and disillusionment with their current state of affairs — poverty and the lack of opportunity for so many. Some had given up on the government and placed their hope in empowerment at a grassroots level. One young woman, an attorney, acknowledged that injustice still exists, but said they have a tool they didn’t have before — a constitution that is a model for the world. She also talked about her mother, who still marvels at her daughter’s achievement, something she never dreamed possible when this young woman was born 30 years earlier.
I found myself asking South Africans what justice would be for them. Some want their land back. But my driver in Soweto disagreed. He was in his mid-50s and lived more than half his life under apartheid. He told me it was too late for reparations, but what should happen is taxes — very high taxes — for the very wealthy with the money going toward education. For him, the path to justice and equality is through quality education.
Then I met an older white couple and was reminded that prejudice runs deep and doesn’t change just because laws change. They explained to me that apartheid was no different from the former segregated policies of the United States, and no different from the current segregation in many European cities. Quietly but emphatically they declared, “That is the way it will always be.”
Justice and equality of opportunity have not been achieved in South Africa just as they have not been achieved in the U.S. South Africa has addressed truth and achieved democracy, yet justice appears to have eluded them so far. Those who gained power and wealth from apartheid lost nothing. So many others who lost their land, their homes, and their well-being are just barely surviving. We have much in common with South Africa.
I thank Christian Theological Seminary for sponsoring this trip and Allan Boesak for his leadership. It felt like we did it all. The country is beautiful. The food was delicious. The people were welcoming and forthcoming. And we will be forever changed.
I came back with a renewed commitment for the cause of justice and equality. I’m retired, and it’s easy to look back and think, “I did that. I marched in the ’60s and ’70s. I spent my career as an advocate for the disenfranchised. It’s now okay for me to relax, learn bridge, take trips, and have long lunches with friends.” I don’t think so. I can’t leave South Africa in South Africa.
Within a day of each other, two unforgettable events took place last week that go to the heart of Christian faith: an unspeakable act of what appears to be racist terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina; and the official release of “Laudato Si,” an extraordinary papal encyclical on ecological degradation, the global economy, and the world’s most vulnerable people.
In very different ways, each of these events has put Christianity at the center of some of the world’s most important conversations. And in very different ways, each presents a range of opportunities that Christian Theological Seminary cannot and will not overlook in the months and years to come.
First, our hearts are broken by the murders in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killings that appear to have been motivated by the hateful ideology of white supremacy. Our prayers are with the dead and their families, with the city of Charleston, with our students and colleagues at CTS in the AME tradition, and with all of us in the broad American community, as we struggle together to face the demons of our history and our present. We are inspired and humbled by the forgiveness already demonstrated by family members of those who were killed, and by the solidarity across racial and religious divides in Charleston and around the world. Their testimony helps remind us of what genuine Christian faith looks like, and that God is always present even and especially in times of tragedy and loss, transforming horror into hope, violence into reconciliation.
And yet: we refuse to think of this catastrophe as an isolated act by a deranged loner. The church known by many as “Mother Emanuel” was not a random target. Whether the shooter knew it explicitly or only vaguely, Emanuel AME is a historic congregation deeply connected to African-American liberty, from today back to the civil rights movement, and all the way back to an unsuccessful slave rebellion planned in 1822. The fact that the shooting itself took place on June 17, the anniversary of the exodus that planned rebellion would have enabled, is either a dreadful coincidence or another sign of the shooter’s racist intentions.
Likewise, white supremacy is not an isolated idea. It is part of American life, as we in Indiana — where the KKK was more powerful than anywhere else in the country, less than 100 years ago — know all too well. We do not like it, of course, but we must face it. Indeed, Emanuel AME is only a short distance from Sullivan’s Island, once the largest slave port in North America, through which some 40 percent of the 400,000 slaves brought to British North America passed. The legacy of the sins of slavery and racism is death, and that legacy is still very much present to us all. The opportunity before us, then, is to redouble our efforts to confront these sins in ourselves, in our neighborhoods, in our institutions, and in our wider communities — and to do so by deepening our connections with the ways Christian churches have, at their best, played crucial leadership roles in the service of liberty and dignity for all of God’s children.
Second, we strongly affirm what Pope Francis has done in “Laudato Si” (a phrase he borrows from a song written by St. Francis), at once bringing a theological framework to the ecological crisis and bringing a lucid ecological focus to Christian life and work. On both counts, his encyclical has stirred significant debate around the world — which is exactly what any good papal teaching will do. But we have not seen an encyclical of this depth and engagement with socioeconomic issues since Pope Leo XIII addressed labor and capital in 1891 (“Rerum Novarum”) and, in a different way, Pope John XXIII addressed war and peace in 1963 (“Pacem in Terris”). In effect, Pope Francis has declared that the world’s economic and ecological challenges are theological and spiritual challenges, and we strongly affirm this core conviction.
And yet: we refuse to think of these issues as matters of mere opinion and discussion. Francis rightly calls his readers to consider how — in our personal lives, family lives, institutional lives, and broad community lives — we can contribute in ways great and small to the urgent work of turning the tide of the ecological crisis. We can and must engage this work more closely, always with an eye toward action and change. And in doing so, again, we thereby deepen our connections to the ways Christian churches have, at their best, played crucial leadership roles in the service of caring for God’s creation. As the stories in Genesis 1-2 make wonderfully, poetically clear, we are gardeners, after all, created to care for the Earth and all its creatures.
Our prayers are with Charleston, and our prayers are with the whole of God’s creation. At the same time, our hopes are with Charleston, and our hopes are with the whole of God’s creation. The invitation before us is to pray and hope together, and so to work together, in ways that genuinely follow Jesus and the Holy Spirit, all for the sake of the future God intends — the future towards which these historic days urgently, heartbreakingly, hopefully point.
Christian Theology Seminary (CTS) believes deeply in religious liberty. But we witness to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth – the one every Christian disciple seeks to follow – calls us not to a freedom to exclude, or a freedom to discriminate, or a freedom to create an atmosphere where prejudice may flourish. On the contrary, again and again, Jesus calls us to a freedom of inclusion, equality, justice, and profound respect for the dignity of all.
CTS opposes this act, then, not only because it represents an offense to the spirit of civil rights; not only because it cuts against the best of Hoosier hospitality; and not only because it has created a public relations crisis for the state of Indiana. CTS opposes RFRA primarily because it violates the Christian values we hold dear: values of inclusion, equality, justice, and the dignity of all people, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
The Christian Gospels are replete with examples of these values. In the Gospel According to Luke, in response to the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” a lawyer asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” It is a clannish question, a question that seeks to draw a circle around one group we are required to love and serve, creating another group we supposedly may exclude as outsiders.
But Jesus will have none of it. In his response – the parable of the Good Samaritan – Jesus flips the question on its head, as if to say, “Don’t waste your time asking the clannish question of who your neighbor is; instead, go and BE an excellent neighbor, serving all with mercy and justice.”
Three weeks ago, I was a keynote speaker at a church service rallying against RFRA. In conversations afterward, many of us who attended, including some of the event’s organizers, lamented that it appeared the bill was headed for passage. I take heart today at the bipartisan, statewide, nationwide outcry against this unwise, unjust legislation. And I continue to be inspired by the many Christians and other religious people who stand against RFRA as a matter of faith, conviction, and genuine religious liberty.
Real damage has been done, but together we can and must begin the work of repair. Indeed, for Christians, as we move ever deeper into Holy Week, we can only be challenged and encouraged that God is a God of hope and resurrection.
“I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love,” declares Martin Luther King, Jr., his voice echoing down through the decades. “I’m talking about a strong, demanding love.” That’s the kind of love we need now. As the country reels in the wake of the grand jury’s decision in St. Louis, we need strong, demanding love more than ever.
It’s precisely the love Jesus had in mind. When he famously said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he wasn’t quoting Hallmark. He was quoting ancient Jewish scripture: Leviticus 19:18, to be exact, which reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
No emotional bosh here. What Jesus had in mind was love for our neighbors in precisely those situations during which we might be tempted to take vengeance upon them, or bear a grudge against them. This is no domesticated love. This is wild, difficult, true love. Turmoil is its natural habitat, and so it must be strong and demanding and clear.
We will never know what happened in what the county prosecutor called the “altercation” alongside and inside Officer Darren Wilson’s police SUV. But we do know that Wilson decided to leave that vehicle, pursue Michael Brown, and use deadly force against an unarmed young man.
Stepping back from the storm of controversy around the disputed details of the case, one of the things that’s most heartbreaking is how awash our neighborhoods are in violence. Police officers risk their lives every day, and they deserve our continual thanks and respect. And yet, surely there are alternatives to lethal force in situations like these. Surely there are other options: staying in the vehicle; calling and waiting for backup; pursuing at a distance; withdrawing when a suspect turns to approach; firing warning shots; shooting to wound, not to kill; using a weapon other than a firearm; and so on.
The inner genius of Jesus’ call to love is that it is set directly in contrast to vengeance, to the raw impulse we feel in situations of stress and injury to avenge, to inflict injury in return for injury. In this sense, true love is a species of restraint, of forbearance, of practical wisdom under pressure. It is not easy. To act in this way is demanding, and requires great strength. We’ll never know exactly why Officer Wilson made the decisions he did, but Jesus’ teaching about the nonviolence of love is a lesson for us all.
And so his call goes out to each of us. Many feel anger about the grand jury’s decision, or about Officer Wilson’s actions, or about the actions of the crowds in Ferguson, or about the fact that our society seems to sanction deadly force against unarmed young men of color, or about the opinions expressed around us with which we sharply disagree. And as the anger smolders on every side, the temptations to avenge arise yet again.
But precisely in the midst of such temptations, Jesus calls each of us to a strong and demanding love, fierce enough to listen to those with different points of view than our own. Rigorous enough to speak the truth as we understand it, faithful enough to imagine new ways to respond to violence without escalating it, dedicated enough to continue the indispensable work of building relationships long after the tear gas and the headlines have faded away.
It’s a simple, gritty, challenging commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. “And who is my neighbor?” someone asked from the crowd. Your neighbor is Michael Brown. Your neighbor is Darren Wilson. Your neighbor is that person on the other side of the political spectrum, on the other side of the color line, on the other side of town.
Pray for the neighborhood. Pray that the Holy Spirit might continue to work with us and through us and for us, turning us away from vengeance, away from grudges, away from violence, away from blood. And toward love. Only love. Strong, demanding love.
The kind of love, put simply, with which Jesus loves us.
A friend of mine recently told me that if he had one wish for his children, it wouldn’t be that they’d become wealthy, or famous, or prestigious, or influential. It wouldn’t even be that they’d live happy lives, or healthy lives, or long lives.
He wants the best for his children, of course, but he knows that life’s joys are invariably accompanied by sorrows and sickness, losses and limits – and that sometimes, those trials enrich our lives as much as they burden them. No, if there’s one thing he hopes for his children, it’s that they learn to live with a deep, abiding sense of gratitude.
Living a grateful life – now there’s a laudable goal. And as we enter this fall’s season of thanksgiving, it’s worth asking how we might more nearly approach that goal in our everyday routines.
One ancient practice for cultivating gratitude is to intentionally make time to “count our blessings,” as we say, in a diary, a gratitude journal, or some other method of reflecting and recording. The sheer discipline of considering on our days with an eye to what we ought to be grateful for can be a wonderfully illuminating exercise, helping us see aspects of reality we might otherwise miss, distracted as we often are by our difficulties and complaints.
But there’s another practice that’s even more elemental. If you want to cultivate a grateful life, many thoughtful teachers have said, try daily prayer.
When it comes to prayer, one of the oldest theological conundrums is this: if God is all-knowing, then why do we have to inform God about our needs and wants, our struggles and requests? Why pray at all? Over the centuries, many Christian theologians have answered this question along these lines: You don’t pray for God’s sake; you pray for your own sake, to help you have a felt experience of what’s actually going on whether you pray or not, namely, that God is graciously, generously providing for your daily needs.
How does prayer work in this way? Well, suppose tomorrow you are going to eat a sandwich for lunch. For many of us, the experience of eating can become something we do without thinking, as if consuming a kind of fuel, or simply laying claim to our own property, something we pulled out of the fridge or ordered off a menu.
But the deeper reality of our situation, these theologians insist, is that in and through the sandwich, God is providing for us with love and grace. The food in the fridge or on the restaurant’s plate is a divine gift – but we miss this fact in our entitlement or obliviousness or distraction.
But suppose we begin the day tomorrow with the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the line, “give us this day our daily bread.” This wouldn’t guarantee that we’d experience our sandwich as a gift, as an answer to our prayer, but it may well increase the likelihood that we do. More to the point, consistent daily prayer may increase the degree to which we cultivate a life of conscious, grateful acceptance of the many blessings in our lives.
We might say, then, that daily prayer is a discipline of noticing, a practice that helps us be mindful of our actual situation as children of God whom God cares for every day. Praying daily for our basic needs helps us receive whatever provisions come our way not as our own achievements or property, but as God’s loving gifts. And receiving our lunch this way will make us more thankful, infusing our day with a palpable sense of appreciation. It also promises to make the sandwich even more enjoyable!
So this Thanksgiving, let’s count our blessings. But let’s also commit or recommit to daily disciplines that help cultivate one of the greatest gifts of all: a grateful, gracious life.