By Thomas Crisp
In this series of articles, I have been talking about knowing God by participating in, entering into the shalom of the inbreaking Rule or Kingdom of God.
I’ve argued that Jesus preached a Kingdom gospel, a gospel which had it that the long-awaited shalom of the Rule or Kingdom of God, prophesied by Isaiah and other prophets, was breaking into history and could be entered into now by anyone who would take Jesus’s yoke upon him- or herself, learning from him how to live, learning from him how to appropriate the blessings of this Kingdom shalom—the blessings of forgiveness, peace, justice, healing, joy, and God’s sweet presence—and minister them to others.
To be sure, I’ve suggested, Jesus thought of these blessings as available at present in only a preliminary sort of way. The Kingdom, said Jesus, is like a mustard seed: it starts small. But don't underestimate the power and goodness of this mustard-seed Kingdom shalom. For though it is now small in our midst, and we enjoy but foretastes of its blessings of forgiveness, peace, justice, healing, joy, and God’s sweet presence, the foretastes of these things are good, deeply precious, like a pearl you might find, said Jesus, which is so valuable you'd be willing to sell all that you possess to lay hold of that pearl.
I’ve suggested that a central practice enjoined by Jesus on his followers, a practice whereby they could enter into these blessings of Kingdom shalom, and minister them to others, was the practice of familial community—relating to one another as family—and that a central mark of their practice of that family life was economic sharing with the poor and marginalized. In last night’s talk, I explored that latter theme in more detail, suggesting that Jesus enjoined on his followers a practice of radical simplicity and generosity, the practice of living simply, not storing up earthly wealth, giving surplus wealth and property away to those in need.
In my final article, I want to describe a third practice Jesus taught his followers for appropriating and ministering the inbreaking shalom of the Rule of God, what I'll call the Way of the Cross.
The Love Command
This practice flows naturally out of Jesus's radical interpretation of the love command, which I briefly discussed last night and want to say a bit more about now.
To recap: In each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we find Jesus interacting with the question, Which is the greatest commandment of the law? In Matthew's version, Jesus gives this answer:
“And He said to him, " 'YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.' 38"This is the great and foremost commandment. 39"The second is like it, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets." —( Matt 22:34-40)
Note the bit at the end: For a devout first century Jew, the Law and the Prophets sum up the whole of morality: they lay out the basic lineaments of right and wrong. To say, then, that the whole of the Law and the Prophets hang on these commandments is to suggest that in these commandments, we have the heart of morality—that these commands, in some sense, sum up the whole of morality.
I was interested in the second of these commandments ("love your neighbor as yourself"), what I called "the love command". To understand the love command, I suggested, we need to answer three main questions:
1. What sort of love is in view in the love command?
2. What work is the expression 'as yourself' doing in the command?, and
3. Who is my neighbor?
Toward answering the first two questions, I suggested we look at the love command in its original context in Hebrew Scripture, Leviticus 19. There it occurs at the end of a long list of commandments to the Israelites, functioning as a sort of summing up of these commandments. So you have this long list of commandments, then, "in sum, love your neighbor as yourself".
I suggested that the commandments preceding the love command in Leviticus 19 fall into three main categories:
· Commandments aimed at assuring the sustenance needs of the neighbor, especially the vulnerable neighbor (so, for example, the Israelites are commanded to leave extra on their fields for the poor and sojourner, and to pay their poor laborers promptly)
· Commandments aimed at assuring the security of the neighbor against violence (so, for example, the Israelites are commanded not to oppress, rob, or slander the neighbor); and
· commandments aimed at assuring the dignity of the neighbor (so, for example, the Israelites are commanded not to curse a deaf man, a commandment aimed, pretty clearly, at protecting the dignity of the disabled in their midst).
Since all of these have to do with seeking the good, the well-being, the flourishing of the neighbor, I suggested that it is clear from its context in Leviticus 19 that the sort of love at issue in the love command is what philosophers sometimes call "benevolence love": love that seeks the good, the well-being, the flourishing of the neighbor.
More, I suggested, these three main categories the Leviticus 19 commandments fall into— provision of the neighbor's sustenance needs, security of the neighbor against violent harm, and respecting the neighbor's dignity—are central features of the concept of shalom in the Hebrew Scriptures. Shalom: the communal state of well-being or wholeness in which there is material sufficiency for all (the sustenance needs of all are met), security (against violence, attack, enslavement), and the dignity of all is respected by all.
Shalom, then, is what the commandments of Leviticus 19 are about. Behavior in accord with Leviticus 19's commands is the sort of behavior that conduces to the shalom community. And the summarizing command—love your neighbor as yourself, I suggested, is a command to behave in these ways toward the neighbor, a command to do the things that make for the neighbor’s shalom.
This, then, gave us an answer to our first question. What sort of love is at issue in the love command? It's what philosophers call benevolence love: love the seeks the good, the wellbeing, the flourishing of the beloved, and the specific notion of good at issue in the love command is the good of shalom: the communal state of well-being or wholeness in which there is material sufficiency (the sustenance needs of all are met), security (against violence, attack, enslavement), and the dignity of all is respected by all.
The second question I suggested we needed to answer to properly understand the love command is the question what work the expression 'as yourself' does in the command? I noted in this connection that the commands of Leviticus 19 are quite demanding, that serious obedience to these commands would have required putting a high value on the neighbor's well-being, and that this is the key to understanding the force of the command's 'as yourself' clause. For that is how we pursue our own shalom: with serious resolve and intensity. Leviticus is urging us, I suggested, to put that same value on pursuit of the neighbor’s shalom, to put pursuit of her shalom on a par with pursuit of our own.
And that took us to our third question, Who, from the point of view of the love command, is my neighbor? Here, I think, we find innovation in the teachings of Jesus. The notion of neighbor operative
in Leviticus 19 is something like 'fellow Israelite'. But in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus blows open the category of neighbor to include members of hated, rival ethnic groups, those who are ritually unclean, and, I suggested last night, anyone in need and in reach of your love. Your neighbor, Jesus is teaching, is anyone in need and in reach of your love—even your enemy.
This last bit is where Jesus’s teachings are truly radical. Not only does Jesus blow open the category of neighbor to include members of hated, rival ethnic groups and the ritually unclean, but in various places, he expands it to include even one's enemies, for example, this teaching from Luke 6: 27”
“But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those Who mistreat you. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either. … love your enemies, do what is good to them; then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”
A bit of historical context is helpful here. Jesus was speaking to peasant farmers who had been driven into crushing poverty and debt by the economic policies of the Roman occupying power, who had pillaged and burned their cities, crucified their fellow Jews by the thousands, and imposed crushing taxes on them, resulting in loss of their ancestral lands and, consequently, poverty, hunger, and degradation.
When Jesus spoke to these people about loving their enemies, he was talking about the Romans. (So his teaching in Matthew 5’s discussion of enemy love that "if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two," a reference to the practice of Roman soldiers forcing peasants to carry their gear for up to a mile.) These were the enemies of the peasants to whom Jesus taught and ministered, and they were not enemies of the kind most of us deal with: people who are rude to us, cut us off on the freeway, say snarky things about us behind are back. No, these were real enemies: people who were driving them into poverty and hunger, a hostile and murderous occupying force.
Into a context in which many, many of their countryman were plotting violent, revolutionary uprising against this occupying force, Jesus spoke an utterly different message:” Love these people,” he counseled.
More about this in a moment, but for now I note that we have an answer to our third question, “Who is my neighbor?”
In Jesus's teaching, my neighbor is anyone in need and in reach of my love, even members of a hated, rival ethnic group; even those deemed "unclean" by society; even my enemies; even those who attack my country, occupy it with a hostile military force, burn my cities, crucify my countrymen, and drive my family and I into poverty and degradation by oppressive taxation: these, even these, are my neighbor.
These, even these, are to be the object of my love. For these, even these, I am to seek shalom. Pulling all the pieces together, then, the love command comes to this: Seek the neighbor's inclusion in the shalom community, putting pursuit of his inclusion in the shalom community on a par with pursuit of one’s own inclusion in that community, where your neighbor is anyone in need and in reach of your love, even your enemies (your real enemies), and shalom is that communal state of well-being in which the sustenance needs of all are met (enough food, clothing, and shelter), all are secure against violence, and the dignity of all is respected by all.
This command is, for Jesus, at the heart of the Rule of God and its inbreaking shalom. It is the fundamental rule or principle of the Rule of God. All about the rule of God flows out of it.
As we move more and more into the love of the love command, we find ourselves drawn deeper and deeper into the rule of God, and deeper and deeper into its inbreaking shalom: its forgiveness, peace, justice, healing, joy, and sweet divine presence.
I turn next to some implications of the love command, which will lead us into discussion of the practice I am calling the Way of the Cross.
The Love Command and the Myth of Redemptive Violence
There is a story about the moral order of things that is at the heart of our culture, our national identity as Americans, and much of our storytelling and moviemaking: it gets at something very deep in our moral psyches. It goes like this:
There are good people and bad people. Bad people sometimes inflict harm on good people in pursuit of their own power and pleasure. Sometimes the only way to stop bad people from harming good people is by violent force. In such cases, it's appropriate, indeed obligatory, that the good rise up and oppose the bad with whatever force is needed to stop them, up to and including violence, up to and including lethal violence. Success at this pursuit is a deeply good thing and something to be celebrated.
There is a name for this story in contemporary discussions of violence: people call it "the myth of redemptive violence", and I'll call it that too, though by calling it a myth I don't mean to suggest that it's false. There are true myths. The myth of redemptive violence, as I say, is deeply embedded in our moral psyche. It is the schema in terms of which we understand much of our national identity: so think here about the American Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the War in Afghanistan, our recent hunting down and killing of Osama Bin Laden. It is the schema at the heart of much of our most beloved storytelling: so think here about the Lord of the Rings stories, the Chronicles of Narnia stories, the Batman franchise, the Jason Bourne franchise, the James Bond franchise, and much more besides.
I have come to think, though, that the love command, as Jesus interpreted it, puts real pressure on the myth of redemptive violence. For from the perspective of Jesus’s read of the love command, the morally proper response toward the enemy who seeks your harm is love: seeking his good, his well-being, his flourishing. And as we've seen, that means seeking his inclusion in the shalom community: seeing to it that his sustenance needs are met, that he is secure against violent harm, and that his dignity as a human being is respected.
And this means, I think, that the myth of redemptive violence goes wrong in at least two ways. First, it says we must use whatever violence is necessary against our enemy to stop him from harming us. Not so, says the love command: we must love our enemy, always seeking his inclusion in shalom, meaning that we cannot visit just any hard treatment on him necessary to stop him from harming us; we must limit our hard treatment of him to that which conduces to his good, his transformation, his shalom.
And second, the myth of redemptive violence says we must kill our enemies if necessary.
Not so, says the love command: we must love our enemy, seek his inclusion in the shalom community, in which his sustenance needs are met, he is secure against violent harm, and his dignity is respected. And you simply cannot seek these things for your enemy whilst simultaneously seeking to kill him. You cannot love your enemy, in the sense enjoined by the love command, by killing him. Here I think Gandhi understood Jesus much better than we Christians: you must always treat your enemy, said Gandhi, in such a way that an essential component of winning your conflict with him is winning his friendship when the conflict is over. This is the essence of the love command: seek your enemy's inclusion in the shalom community, which means, seek his inclusion in a community of love and friendship. None of this is compatible with killing him.
The love command, then, is incompatible with the myth of redemptive violence in these two ways. We must not visit just any hard treatment on the enemy required to stop him from harming us, but limit our hard treatment of him to what conduces to his good, his eventual transformation and inclusion in shalom community. And we must not seek to kill our enemy, which is flatly incompatible with seeking his shalom.
Perhaps for some of you, this seems downright crazy, even offensive. Let me try to respond to this in a few different ways. First, let me get a bit more of Jesus's teaching and other bits of the New Testament before us to try to bolster my case that Jesus and other New Testament writers were understanding the love command in this way. Then I'll respond to a few objections to this read of the love command. I'll close by saying a bit about what it might look like to live this out today.
Before I go any further, though, I want to acknowledge that these issues aren't easy or obvious and are subject to serious debate by people of intelligence and goodwill. There is an impressive tradition of thought in the Christian tradition—the so-called just war tradition— which holds that the love command is perfectly compatible with the myth of redemptive violence. I disagree; I think it flatly incompatible, and I'll try to say a bit more about why in what follows, but people of great intelligence and goodwill have thought differently.[END PART 1]