Embodying Love

or, Love in the Era of Trump

Yesterday at GracePointe I continued exploring our community values, beginning with love. The question that guided my process was this: 

What does love look like in the era of Trump?

We live in deeply divided times. Most of us have experienced the pain of relationship fractures. Many of us are also processing the grief of seeing friends, family, and church members behave in ways and condone actions that were unimaginable just five years ago. With all of that in mind, what is love and what does love look like when it is embodied in these times?

First, I think we need to acknowledge that, in our over-use of the word love, we have robbed it of some of its power, its edge. Here’s what I mean: I might talk about how much I love my kids, then in the next breath talk about how much I love tacos. Does the word love have the same meaning in those two examples? Are my kids on par with tacos, both vying for my affection? Paying attention to what love means, and how it’s embodied in real, practical ways is vital in these days.

I love how Paul talks about love in Galatians chapter 5. In this well-known passage, Paul is describing the “fruit of the Spirit,” what is produced in the lives of people who are “guided by the Spirit.” He writes:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23a)

I find it interesting that, in the Greek of the New Testament, the word “fruit” here is singular, not plural. This information has totally changed how I understand the meaning of Paul’s words. We aren’t being given a buffet of virtues from which we get to pick and choose. They are a package deal. Of course, he’s not saying that they all show up at once, or that we ever embody them perfectly. I think he’s saying that the fruit of the Spirit is love, and as we embrace how love works in us and on us, all the other virtues begin to emerge. 

With all that in mind, a couple of thoughts. 

First, love is often embodied best in the practice of empathy and compassion. Look, I totally get it. Some people make empathizing with them so, so difficult. It’s also not fair or healthy to ask someone who’s been victimized or harmed to “feel sorry” for their abuser. Maybe part of that difficulty is that we assume empathy means somehow agreeing with, ignoring, feeling sorry for, or excusing harmful behavior. We’ll talk more about this in a minute. However, what would happen if we saw empathy as trying to see the humanity of another? The great danger is that we end up dehumanizing the dehumanizers, which just keeps the dehumanization in circulation. (Which is the opposite of our mission in the world, to take dehumanization out of circulation.) 

Love doesn’t mean that we don’t have boundaries. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. That means that we can’t love our neighbor, truly, unless we love ourselves first. Love, compassion, and empathy begin at home, within ourselves. The best way I can practice or embody love with certain people is to have space, a clear and well maintained boundary that allows me to be healthy. It’s also likely that for me to be able to acknowledge the humanity of some people that I need to do that from a distance. 

Second, love and justice are inseparable. For love to actually be love, and not just a warm fuzzy sentiment, it must take the implementation of justice seriously. The philosopher Cornel West has said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Jesus’s own understanding of God was grounded in a call to justice. When teaching his disciples to live lives free of worry, of the frantic pursuit of more, he says:

Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33, CEB)

The word righteousness has a certain connotation. It carries an air of sanctimony. In the original language, however,  the word is dikaiosune and it means “justice.” Love embodied will always look like people working for a more just and equitable world. 

Third, love has a prophetic edge to it. The prophets weren’t fortune tellers. They were the voices who called the powerful and wealthy to do justice, to share, to practice faithfulness to God by practicing generosity to their neighbors. The prophets weren’t soft and cuddly. They probably came off as a bit cranky. They definitely weren’t appreciated by those in power, who were the focus of the prophetic critique. Listen to these words from Amos:

Doom to those who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or sought refuge in a house, rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Isn’t the day of the LORD darkness, not light; all dark with no brightness in it? I hate, I reject your festivals; I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies. If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food— I won’t be pleased; I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals. Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:18-24, CEB)

This isn’t warm and fuzzy, but it is love being enacted by calling for justice. This is why I have decided that for me, as a faith leader, I can no longer sit back and stay quiet when injustice is present. I’ve been told by plenty of folks to “shut up and preach,” that politics and religion shouldn’t be mixed. The problem is that politics are essentially about how we order our shared, common life. Everything ends up having political implications. The belief that religion should focus on telling bible stories and preparing people to leave this world for another one is a modern invention, and a foreign concept for the prophets, including Jesus. To be a Christian, then, is to understand that this world is actually our home, and the transformation of this world—into a just and generous home for all human beings—is our work. Love in public always looks like justice, and the need for justice means that injustice is present, which also means that love isn’t being embodied well in the world. As Dr. King said, 

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Perhaps we can think about embodying, be-ing, our value of love like this:
Love is practicing empathy, expressed in compassion, and working for a more just and equitable world. May this be more and more what we mean by love.