It was a sermon illustration I will never forget.
Our pastor told the story of Father Michael Renninger, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Richmond, Va. While a college student on his way home one weekend, Renninger stopped to visit his grandparents. They lived in the same row house in Philadelphia he had known growing up. His grandfather had a series of strokes that left him paralyzed on one side and unable to talk or swallow. His grandmother determined to take care of him at home, even though he required a feeding tube.
On that day, Renninger recalled, he opened the squeaky front door and immediately knew things were not right. The goopy liquid food was splattered all over his grandfather, whose face was red. His grandmother was struggling to care for him when she realized their grandson had entered the house. The college student started to leave, assuming he didn’t need to walk into this embarrassing situation.
Then he heard his grandmother’s stern voice: “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare leave. Sometimes this is what love looks like.”
His grandmother taught him an important lesson that day: Love cannot look away when life gets messy. Love cannot look away when the room is smelly, when despair is on display, when things are falling apart.
Love makes us look. And in looking, we are compelled to act.
I’ve thought a lot about this story in the last few weeks, especially while hearing so many folks bemoan how they just wish the media would give them some “good news” and stop telling so many hard-to-hear stories. The truth is that we need to hear — we must hear and see — these difficult stories.
We must see the images of federal law enforcement beating citizens in Portland. We must see children held in cages at the Texas-Mexico border. We must hear the stories of families ravaged by COVID-19. We must hear the stories of businesses going under because there is no business. We must listen to teachers who fear for their lives by entering their classrooms. We must feel the pain of children kept outside hospitals while their parents are dying inside. We must watch the videos of Black men and women being violently assaulted and murdered by overzealous police officers. We cannot — we must not — avert our eyes.
It is the ultimate expression of privilege — and usually white privilege, at that — to be able to say, “I’m not going to pay attention to this horrible thing going on because it makes me sad.” Only those of us safely out of harm’s way could make such choices. Only those of us living above the poverty line, outside the racial isolation zone, beyond the border, free of coronavirus could dare say we’re just going to avert our eyes. This is an arrogant, insensitive thing to say.
Here’s what’s going on in America today: There’s a steaming pile of goopy food flying about in the next room, and too many of us are asking someone to please put up a curtain so we don’t have to see and smell that unpleasantness. We just can’t be bothered by other people’s problems right now; we’re too stressed out already.
“Putting up a flimsy curtain to hide the inhumanity of the present moment does nothing to make it go away.”
Putting up a flimsy curtain to hide the inhumanity of the present moment does nothing to make it go away. It merely obscures reality or denies reality, which is another form of telling ourselves a lie. And God knows, believing lies is on the uptick these days.
We must not turn our gaze from Portland, from Atlanta, from Dallas, from Tulsa, from Washington, D.C., from Chicago, from Richmond, from Los Angeles, from McAllen. Love does not look away.
From the earliest accounts of the Judeo-Christian tradition, we hear the denial of Cain, who has slain his brother, Abel. When God comes looking through the front door, Cain tries to pretend nothing is amiss: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The answer from Genesis is a resounding “yes,” a declaration that echoes throughout holy Scripture like a cry from the grave: Yes, we are our brother’s keeper. Yes, we are our sister’s keeper. Yes, we are responsible before God for the rest of humanity. We cannot turn a blind eye.
“Jesus didn’t travel from village to village putting up courtesy curtains so the entitled didn’t have to see the village’s problems.”
The answer from Jesus is resoundingly clear, too: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus didn’t travel from village to village putting up courtesy curtains so the entitled didn’t have to see the village’s problems. Jesus tore down curtains and exposed unjust conditions. Then Jesus stepped in with healing. He healed people when it wasn’t the right day for healings or when those healed weren’t the finest of citizens.
In America right now, we are beyond differences of opinion on how best to do important things for the common good. We are down to a wrestling match over what is the decent and moral thing to do, what is the ethical way to live.
We won’t wear masks because they are uncomfortable or because we just don’t want to be told what to do. And people are dying as a result. We want to travel and go to parties and act like its 2019, while people are being scarred and dying because of our lack of self-control. We won’t stand up against presidential lies and gross misconduct because we like the stock market or the judicial appointments or believe we’re winning the “culture wars.” We won’t take down offensive monuments to murderers and kidnappers and slavers because we want to believe in a magical heritage that never truly existed.
This is not what love does.
Love does not beat peaceful citizens and break their bones because someone in Washington wants to score political points by calling them “anarchists.” Love does not treasure your great-great grandmother’s heritage when that heritage continues to hold millions of people in economic and social bondage. Love does not label others “violent thugs” for marching peacefully for justice. Love does not brag about establishing “law and order” by doing things that are neither lawful nor orderly. Love doesn’t dehumanize the perceived villains just as love doesn’t dehumanize the victims.
This is not what love does.
Love is like a grandmother tenderly caring for her incapacitated husband, even when she’s not a nurse. Love is like a grandson who doesn’t turn back when he sees his grandparents in distress. Love looks.
Love doesn’t lie; love tells the truth. Love doesn’t hide; love steps forward. Love doesn’t promote self; love cares for others first. Love doesn’t strike out; love embraces and holds tightly.
This is what the call for justice in America is about today, a call for this kind of love. For as the philosopher Cornel West said: “Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.”
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