This week, the Huffington Post reported bomb threats against Jewish community centers in 10 states. Sixty-seven such incidents occurred at 56 Jewish centers in 27 states since 2017 began.
This week, the Winston-Salem Journal detailed a local meeting where the convener expressed concerns about a nearby Islamic Center, noting: “There’s mosques being built all over the place. We’ve got to keep our eye on them.” Another attendee commented that he was “ready to start taking people out … killing the hell” out of Muslims. An audio recording of the meeting has been sent to the FBI by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Reading those stories, the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s epic novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, came immediately to mind. Thomas Pynchon’s 1988 New York Times book review sums up its premise: “Suppose, then, it were possible, not only to swear love ‘forever,’ but actually to follow through on it — to live a long, full and authentic life based on such a vow, to put one’s allotted stake of precious time where one’s heart is?”
Garcia Marquez tracks the life and loves of Florentino Ariza, whose relentless obsession with the lovely Fermina Daza dominates his life. The book’s setting includes “a time of cholera,” a deadly and symbolic disease of both the body and the heart. A third character, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, marries Fermina Daza, whom he meets when he examines her for cholera. She didn’t have it, but others in their Latin American town weren’t so fortunate. Garcia Marquez’s narrator observes: “The epidemic of cholera morbus, whose first victims were struck down in the standing water of the market, had, in eleven weeks, been responsible for the greatest death toll in our history.” As the novel progresses, it is clear that cholera is an internal distemper that inhabits the nature of humanity itself.
While every era of human history is choleric in some way, aren’t there moments when certain socio-spiritual plagues sweep across our internal and external lives? Are we there yet? Are the threats to Jewish and Muslim sanctuaries, the volatile language permeating social media, and an abiding mistrust generated by “alternative facts” signs of a dangerously choleric epidemic threatening our society and ourselves?
Perhaps our “time of cholera” can become the church’s Sermon on the Mount moment. Yes, the Sermon on the Mount is a timeless guide to Christian living that applies to every era of human history. But sometimes life gets particularly out of hand when danger is real, justice elusive, and courage tested. Seeking “love in a time of cholera” requires us to ask again what the gospel has to with times like these.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a guidebook (not rulebook) for participation in the kingdom of God, God’s New Day in the world, which he says “is within your reach.” He begins in the law of Moses, external rules that hold Hebraic religion together, then internalizes them.
Participants in God’s New Day are a mixed crowd: the poor, the sorrowful, the gentle; those who “thirst” for righteousness, show mercy, and have pure hearts. They are peacemakers, shaking things up enough to get into trouble. The world tries to beat the heaven out of them, but in the end, “the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”
He calls them to be like salt and light — spice things up and drive out the gloom; provide a contrast to the way things are in the world. Practice the presence of God, because sooner or later some inevitable, often unsought, crisis will fall on you; and the promise that “God’s New Day is within your reach” may be the thing that gets you through the night.
In Stride toward Freedom Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “When I went to Montgomery as a pastor, I had not the slightest idea that I would later become involved in a crisis in which nonviolent resistance would be applicable. I neither started the protest nor suggested it. I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman.” For Dr. King, dissent against choleric Jim Crow culture was inseparable from Jesus’ own sermonic dissent. King recalled, “When the protest began, my mind, consciously or unconsciously, was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount, with its sublime teachings on love, and the Gandhian method of nonviolent resistance.”
When a movement of those who thirsted for righteousness needed a leader, King “was driven back to the Sermon on the Mount.” His response to politically entrenched injustice was a sign that the gospel itself was alive, demanding action against government-entrenched discrimination. King wrote, “Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of [humans] and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”
Such Sermon on the Mount language had decidedly this-worldly implications. King captured it, noting that “in substance,” Jesus told us: “Whenever I come, a division sets in between justice and injustice. I have come to bring a positive peace which is the presence of justice, love, yea, even the Kingdom of God.”
When the peacemakers show up, they bring love and justice with them. In a time of cultural and spiritual “cholera,” that’s our best hope. It’s testing time.