A Gospel of Love

Posted by on July 23, 2011 in women | 12 comments

Recently I was listening to Krista Tippett’s On Being (a favorite public radio show of mine); her guest Kate Braestrup (a chaplain to the game wardens in the parks and forests of Maine) made a comment about Christianity that had me first a bit angry and then a bit sad. Here’s what she had to say:

Krista Tippett: You point something out that’s very simple, but really striking and unsettling in good way and bad. That even when the miracle . . . is of a life restored that is always a temporary restoration and you say that most of the time, perhaps, a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death.”

Kate Braestrup: “This is an argument I have, probably a continuous argument that I have with Christianity, I always felt that it was answering a question I wasn’t asking. . . . .If you decide that the most important thing, the highest possible value is life, that is breath in the body and walking and around and eating sandwiches whatever, then you’ve lost . . . because we’re all going to die. Then you have to posit this whole other set of things that you can’t see and can’t connect with. . . . If I posit instead that the most important thing is love—then what i have is, yes I have a world that is full of suffering and evil and pain, and I have something to do. I have something to look for and I have something to do. To me that works better, that is of more practical value, than fretting about, okay “Is death real? do we live forever? what does eternal life mean? would I want eternal life? if there’s a hell doesn’t everybody get eternal life, just some of us in hell and some of us in heaven? . . . You can still talk about it but it becomes less of a pressing issue.”

What Braestrup said had me a bit angry because, in my mind, it’s a blatant misinterpretation of Christianity. I think it’s fairly impossible to read the New Testament as the foundational record of Christianity and not understand that the gospel of Jesus is a gospel of love first and foremost. The two great commandments he gave are both entirely caught up in love–love God, love self, love neighbor. His actions almost always demonstrate love and compassion. It seems undeniable to me that Christianity is about nothing if it is not first about love.

After re-listening and thinking about why it is that Braestrup may have concluded that Christianity values life more highly than love, my anger turned into sadness. Thinking about what Christianity has to say about eternal life, I can understand her perspective. Some versions of Christianity have become so obsessed with the notion of eternal life, that they hang their doctrines on the binary of heaven and hell. Those who are saved and come to Jesus are rewarded with eternal life; those who either refuse to come to Jesus or who are so misfortunate as to never hear of Jesus are condemned to eternal death in hell. And to deny the existence of that eternal death in favor of the loving inclusion of all mankind is to brand oneself a heretic, as Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson discovered the hard way.

Other versions of Christianity are perhaps less strident on the topic of burning in hell, but still emphasize the notion of Christ as the bread of life, the living waters. This Jesus is the savior not because he suffered or because he knows each of us intimately, but because he overcame death making living forever possible. I understand why Christianity so often emphasizes life as the highest value. Jesus promised life. The whole notion of the atonement, when understood as the betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is about robbing death of its human victims and instead giving humans eternal life, both spiritual and physical. And that eternal life is the promised reward: be good, do good, and you’ll live forever just like Jesus.

And this is where my anger turned to sadness. Because I think that this emphasis on life, especially the after life, is misguided. The way I read the message of Jesus is this: Love everyone. Period. In my mind the two great commandments must be conflated. The only way I know to love God is to love the people I encounter (you know, that whole “inasmuch as ye do it unto the least of these my brethren, ye do it unto me” thing). Even the line “if ye love me, keep my commandments” is about love, not obedience. So often Mormons argue that we show our love through unwavering obedience to all of God’s commandments; I simply do not agree. Jesus gave this particular instruction as part of his final evening spent with his disciples and it is squarely situated between multiple iterations of his new commandment: “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, love one another. By this shall all people know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” in the previous chapter and “This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you” in the following chapter. It is clear to me that Jesus’ primary concern is not life, nor is it obeying various and sundry commandments–it is loving each other. I love God when I love people. And the only thing life has to do with that is as a reward for fulfilling that commandment.

And that, right there, is the problem and the source of my sadness. That Christians have allowed their attention to shift away from Jesus’s essential message–love each other–to the promised reward. And that this focus on the promised reward so often prevents us from living the essence of the message, that in the name of giving others access to Jesus as the bread of life and the living water we fail to first know and love them. I would even argue that the failure to know and love others equates to a failure to gain the reward of life, no matter how diligently someone lives every other commandment or how dedicated one is to saving others by spreading the good word. After all, eternal life is to know God and Jesus (fn. 1), and we know God by virtue of loving others (fn. 2).

And that is why I do not care what happens after I die. It is why I care very little about the nature of God. I am Christian and I am Mormon insofar as those philosophies have shaped my life and how I think about things. And they have led me to one very simple conclusion: the only thing that matters is love. If that makes me sound like a hokie hippie, I suppose I’m okay with that.

1 John 17:3
2 1 John 4:7-8

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12 Comments

  1. I agree mostly with your view here. I would also add, though, that the commandments ARE about love; treating others and ourselves with love-honoring, loving instead of adultery, coveting, stealing, etc. They all point to love and respect, either by doing or by avoiding specific actions.

    • I understand the theory of your comment, Mtboston–that many of the commandments (if not all) are at their heart about the kinds of behaviors that will help us show love, or about avoiding certain kinds of behaviors that might damage love. That said, I do not think that our attitudes about obedience have a lot to do with love. For instance, the kind of “if you don’t obey the strict letter of the law, I can’t love you” mentality of Bednar’s earring story has essentially nothing to do with love and everything to do with controlling. A young man who would end a relationship he had been considering turning into a lifelong marriage relationship on the basis of his partner’s adherence to the letter of the law as dictated by the current prophet has failed to grasp the concept of knowing and loving another person as herself rather than as a performance of “goodness.” That is what I think we far too often get hung up on–this performativity of goodness, rather than a deep understanding of the principles of goodness and how to apply them in the flawed and complex realities in which we exist.

      So yes–the commandments, in the abstract, are often about love. But the attitude with which we approach them is often not at all about love (and is often dictated by a kind of obsessive determination to win the reward by perfectly enacting obedience). And, even worse, we build lots of hedges around the law meant to help us avoid breaking the commandments. And those hedges absolutely interfere with our capacity to know and love others.

  2. Beautiful. I’ve never, even in my most orthodox moments, felt that it was all about life and whether or not we hold onto it.. I’m not sure if I missed that message or if my views were tainted by something else early on, but I didn’t see God as a God that particularly cared if people lived or died necessarily. Maybe it’s how I got over the horrors of genocides and famines, but I’ve always thought that there was something more basic to strive for than preservation of life at all cost. When we hold life up as something to be respected and even worshipped, I think we’re missing the point, especially when it comes at the expense of love (as it does in some key “life” debates).

    However, though I agree that love should form the foundation of our pursuits, I still think it also has something to do with what comes next, whatever than may look like. I think learning to love in the purest form, including loving ourselves is vital to our most basic existence and awareness and will prove to have further reaching effects than anything else we learn in life, and will naturally extend to us being able to give our very best selves to everyone around us and allow for love to be truly manifest in and of itself, not just as a stepping stone to eternal life.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post Amelia. I agree that it’s sad that this has become the focus (at least perceived) for so much of Christianity.

    {And I’ll add that while I did have moments of wanting to cling to life more – with all the beliefs involving “together forever” – and avoid any thought of death when first having children, it’s something I’ve since given up in order to find peace with living and the inevitability of death – something I’m thinking more about with our current series}

  3. I don’t think your Hokie pokie hippie

    That being said, I have great difficulty believing the embodiment of Love commandment. I have been the victim of abuse by people in our Church, yet I am commanded to love these same people. I don’t think so, why do I need to love people who have shown me none.

    I may becoming cynical but, I have seen many ugly things done out of love by some very religious people. I’m starting to think that I am liking the theology of religion rather than the practice of religion precisely because of all the ugliness done out of showing love of God. But, that’s just me

    • sorry, it should have said, I be becoming cynical

    • Diane, you raise the hairiest problem with understanding the commandments about loving people–what to do about that commandment in the face of abuse and mistreatment. I certainly don’t have a simple answer. And I completely agree with you that you are under no obligation to love your abusers, not when “love” is understood to mean certain kinds of kind and thoughtful behavior (which is how we so often understand the word “love” in our culture). For me, the essence of the two great commandments is love as a form of knowing and understanding ourselves and others as a means of knowing and understanding God. In other words, I can only love my neighbor insofar as I love myself; and I can only love myself and my neighbor insofar as I know and understand myself and others. And when I do that, then I am becoming like God. So to love those who hurt you and despitefully use you (to borrow from scripture) is not, in my mind, to show them kindness or thoughtfulness; it is not to make yourself vulnerable to them (which would, at the end of the day, demonstrate some lack of love for yourself which is a problem); in my mind loving those who actively hurt you is about some degree of understanding. You don’t have to sympathetically understand or like what you understand; I think it’s more about learning to comprehend what you see in other people and then be able to behave accordingly, even if that behavior is to never have anything to do with them again.

      I also agree with you that a great deal of ugliness happens in the name of religiously inspired love. Give the podcast I linked to (the second one about Carlton Pearson) a listen–it does an amazing job of showing how problematic the “love” people show each other based on religion can be.

      Not sure if all of that makes sense. One way or the other, I am sorry you’ve been mistreated by those who should have been showing you compassion. And I agree that it is not your obligation to love them in any kind of daily fashion.

  4. I LOVE this, Amelia! I agree, there is so much emphasis on the details and nuances and the “why we are different from other Christian religions”- that we fail to recall and celebrate the message of love. Thanks for this!!

  5. If you are right though, that we should love others without thought of reward.. why are we promised all these rewards from God? There are lots of people in the world who love others without any belief in God or thought of reward.. why did God tell us of the reward.. he could have still given it… (sorry, just putting it out there)

    • Isn’t it possible that the “promises” of rewards are instead observations of a natural order of things? That if we learn to love as God does, we will naturally become as he is? Right down to having eternal life?

      I think we actually know very, very few concrete details about what happens after we die. But we have extrapolated from the very little bit we do know a whole hell of a lot of detail that we have then ballooned into promises (our version of the 72 virgins–call it mansions in heaven and worlds without end). And doing so has turned what started as a fairly simple observation about how things work into elaborate understandings of life and death and hell.

      Even if we read these comments about the nature of the afterlife as promises of reward, I still maintain that we don’t get them unless we learn to love as God loves. I very firmly believe that it doesn’t matter how well we enact goodness or love, if we don’t make the effort to learn how to genuinely love in the same way God does, we’ll be up the crick. That may take the shape of any number of things and I personally don’t care much what shape it takes. I do care that we seem to place far too much emphasis on what comes next instead of what we have here and now and how to love each other in this moment.

  6. This is really resonating with me, Amelia. I find I am less and less sure of so many of the details surrounding eternity and what/who God/dess is. At the end of the day the Gospel is LOVE. It’s pretty simple, isn’t it?

  7. “So often Mormons argue that we show our love through unwavering obedience to all of God’s commandments; I simply do not agree.”

    Right on Amelia! Thanks for a great post!

  8. “Isn’t it possible that the “promises” of rewards are instead observations of a natural order of things? That if we learn to love as God does, we will naturally become as he is? Right down to having eternal life?”

    I love this. This makes so much sense to me. I think God works this way (that is, with natural cause and effect) much, much more than most of us realize. I often find myself lamenting the lack of emphasis on love in gospel settings. Not just in lessons, but in interactions with others as well. This is a good reminder to me to put love first.

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