One of them, an expert in the law, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 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.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” — Matthew 22:34-40
A religious tradition becomes what its leaders and adherents make of it in every generation. Sacred texts may be unchanging, paradigms of textual interpretation may be quite ancient, structures of leadership may appear sturdy, but a religious tradition is still a profoundly changeable thing.
That is a big deal, because religious traditions with numerous adherents, such as Christianity, affect the behaviors of hundreds of millions of people. If a religious tradition such as Christianity takes a wrong turn in a particular time and place, its positive potential can turn to ruinous toxicity.
“If a religious tradition such as Christianity takes a wrong turn in a particular time and place, its positive potential can turn to ruinous toxicity.”
I believe this is what is happening to a significant chunk of American Christianity at this very moment.
Long ago, I used to think Christianity was very clear and its people quite unanimous about certain central teachings. I used to think certain guardrails existed, setting outer boundaries on the behavior of so-called Christian people.
How naïve of me.
The most central of those central teachings I used to think all Christians agreed on was that we are called to love God with everything and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s the passage quoted at the beginning of this post. We used to call it the Great Commandment. Jesus said everything hangs on these two commands. Love God. Love neighbor.
If there are questions about who we are supposed to love, what the boundaries of love are, who our neighbor is, Jesus seems to answer those, too. His answer begins with the story of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke 10:25-37, which he offers as an expansion of the love command. The neighbor, Jesus suggests, is anyone in need. And: We are called to be true neighbors to those in need.
It also helps that Jesus said striking things such as we are to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). It is also memorable that he appeared to hang our eternal judgment on how we treat “the least of these.” That’s in Matthew 25:31-46.
That’s quite a bit of material emphasizing the centrality of love and defining it as care for those who are vulnerable, wounded, hurt.
I knew love was supposed to be central for Christians because it was taught to me in the Catholic Church I was raised in. It also was emphasized in the Baptist church into which I converted in high school. It was reinforced in every Christian congregation I ever joined. And when I started studying Christian ethics, all my teachers brought us back to the greatest commandment. All reminded us of the centrality of love in historical Christian ethics.
Love was non-negotiable. This was Christianity 101.
Imagine my surprise when I realized there are Christians without love, Christians who do not appear to value love, who do not act with love, whose behavior is not restrained by love.
I was brought up short by this reality last week when a friend of mine, Zach Lambert, pastor of Restore Church in Austin, Texas, quoted a statement of mine on his closely watched Twitter feed. Here it is:
Better is one day in the company of those bullied by Christians but loved by Jesus than thousands in the company of those wielding Scripture to harm the weak and defenseless.
This is probably my most widely quoted statement, drawn from my book Changing Our Mind. As of the time of this writing, Zach’s quote of it has been viewed 62,000 times in less than 48 hours. It is apparently striking a chord. Many of Zach’s followers love it and are sharing it.
But if you have access to Zach’s feed, and have the stomach for it, check out some of the comments from people who do not agree, who call Zach and me false prophets and hell-bound heretics for making or endorsing such a statement.
It’s not so much the disagreement — hey, I am used to disagreement — it’s the hatefulness, the snarling spirit, the macho posturing, the own-the-libs aggressiveness that is so shocking. I gather that such feedback is part of Zach’s daily bread. I am grateful it is not generally part of mine.
“I am still surprised because I thought Christianity had certain guardrails.”
Zach is a generation younger than I am. His Twitter feed is full of this kind of “Christian” vitriol. He does not appear to be surprised any longer. But I am still surprised because I thought Christianity had certain guardrails.
But then, of course, it struck me: What would this religious tradition called Christianity look like if its adherents were no longer taught the centrality of love? What if they were being “discipled” into a different ethic, a different vision of what it means to be a Christian?
What would Christianity without love look like if believers had been fed a loveless version of Christianity for a generation or more?
It would look like the comments on Zach’s feed and a hundred other feeds. It would look like the kind of toxic masculinity Christianity described by Kristen Kobes Du Mez in Jesus and John Wayne. It would look like the erstwhile Fox TV show of Tucker Carlson, the old radio show of Rush Limbaugh, the “moral vision” of the Christian J6 insurrectionists, and the rallies and rhetoric of Donald J. Trump. It would look like tribalist, reactionary, authoritarian, angry, loveless men lacquering Christianity over their resentments and aiming dead-on at the scapegoats of the moment. It would look like a movement discipled not by Jesus but by false gods, idols.
Christianity without love is the negation of what Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated.
Christianity without love is a violation of the Spirit of God.
Christianity without love is worse than useless. It is actively dangerous.
I ask today’s Christian preachers, teachers and parents whether you are teaching the religion that Jesus taught — and if you are actively, explicitly, urgently resisting this unholy other thing.
There is no hiding from this one. Too much is at stake.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. serves as distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and senior research fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is a past president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. His latest book is Introducing Christian Ethics. He’s also the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
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