Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Love One Another: Healthy Sectarianism

In Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27 Jesus famously tells would-be disciples to “Love your enemies.” However, John’s Jesus puts it differently and with emphasis: Jesus’ is, “Love one another” (13:34-35; 15:12, 17). The Johannine Epistles take up this “new commandment” and make it the sign of true discipleship (1 John 3:11-24; 4:7-12; 2 John 5).

Which is more noble, to love everyone, even one’s enemies, or to love those in one’s own group? The first reaction for most people is to favor “Love your neighbor.” Indeed, that’s the ethical teaching for which Jesus is most famous. It’s easy, as Jesus says, to love your friends but hard to love everyone. We all know those people who can be gracious and charitable within their group but vicious to those outside.

I’d suggest that we pay attention to “Love one another.”

For one thing, the Bible speaks with multiple voices. It’s a conversation, not a monologue. On a host of questions the Bible offers apparently contradictory advice – and we should attend to both sides. Is wealth a blessing from God or a spiritual danger? Does human suffering represent God’s judgment or a call to mercy?

We should also look out for the social and literary contexts of biblical teachings. Over the past forty years or so, scholars have expended lots of energy on the social context of Johannine Christianity. One of the most striking things about John’s Gospel is the blend of high-flying spiritual and mystical language (“In the beginning was the Word”) with signs of deep social trauma. As Jesus says to his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you” (15:18). Social scientists call that sort of religious outlook, in which the larger society is considered hostile and dangerous, a sectarian worldview.

Let’s look at the full context of that verse:

This I command you, that you love one another. If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you.

Without going into detailed hypotheses about why the Johannine Christians came to believe that the world hated them, let’s simply notice this one thing: the “love one another” command results from the perception that the world is a hostile place. The Johannine Christians survive because they love one another.

(We might note that the “love one another” command is not limited to the Johannine literature. Paul was big on it, and so was the author of 1 Peter.)

I would suggest that Christians need to think about loving one another. At times faithful discipleship will elicit hostility. If followers of Christ speak out against violence, against a culture of greed, against the stigmatization of Muslims, against the oppression of queer folk – or, if we speak for peace, for a compassionate society, for blessing all people – we will experience hostility. Precisely at those times, loving one another goes hand in hand with loving our neighbors and our enemies. A sectarian outlook is a healthy thing for serious Christians.

In the great prayer of John 17 Jesus prays that his followers “all may be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:21). Loving one another is one way in which we love the world. Or to put it technically, a healthy sectarian outlook nourishes our catholicity.


Anonymous said...

I never looked at this issue from this perspective and reading your post was an "AHA!" moment.

I think that emerging Christianity is struggling with what it means to love or even to be Christian. I think that emerging Christianity is struggling with what it means to be "catholic" or "congregational," what it means to believe in free will and/or predestination. I even wonder whether emerging Christianity really cares about those distinctions because ultimately all of us want the same thing: to live productive lives, to do what is right and what it is all said and done to go to Heaven.

Pablo Picasso said once that "Art is a lie that tells us something about the TRUTH."

Your post illuminates the tag-o-war/struggle/search that is illuminated by the modern art. ABC's FLASHFORWARD's cliff-hanger ended with a question: "what if it is free will AND the destiny?" Many episode's of ABC's LOST raise questions like "what does it mean to love?" and "is there a difference between 'them/others' and 'us'."

Thanx you for your post....

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