By Derek Penwewll
Tomorrow we go to the polls. Of course, we regularly have elections, but tomorrow we vote for the President. Presidential elections, by their very nature, ensure a debate about what the body politic truly values in ways that other elections don’t.
This election cycle has produced a particularly intense debate about how we ought to organize our common life. At the heart of the argument between Democrats and Republicans lies the question of how best to structure government so that it does what it does well, and is prevented it from doing that which it does poorly.
No matter your political leanings, it’s safe to say that Christians have a stake in this debate about just how much government we should want—when and to what extent should government be encouraged to interpose itself into the lives of its citizens?
The rate and objects of taxation, for instance, occupy a central role in the debate, as well as what we ought to do with the revenues once we receive them. Better social safety net? Bigger military?
How should Christians think about these issues? Is there a guiding principle that ought to buttress our thinking?
Jesus, when asked a question about the chief principle upon which faithful devotion to God is built, paraphrased Deuteronomy and quoted Leviticus: “You shall the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30, 31).
Love, apparently is at the heart of how Christians envision their participation in the world.
Which is a good thing, right? Proper training about what it means to be an adult in America includes learning about love. Popular culture socializes us endlessly about the wonder and magic of love.
As a kid I remember watching Love American Style and The Love Boat. I listened to music extolling love’s virtues: Everybody from Barry Manilow to Bob Dylan weighed in on the subject.
Heck, we even devoted a whole summer to it in 1967—a whole season to champion the merits of “free” love.
I remember wanting to be in love. I’d heard so much about it. It seemed to occupy a great deal of the popular consciousness. Erich Segal wrote a novel, and titled it—modestly enough—Love Story. We even had Leo Buscaglia—”Dr. Love.” Remember him?
Love, we were told, meant “never having to say you’re sorry.”
Then we were told that, in reality, love meant ” always having to say you’re sorry.”
Love always wins. Love never fails. “If you love something, set it free; if it comes back to you it’s yours; and if it doesn’t, it never was”—or if you got the other t-shirt—”set it free; if it comes back to you, it’s yours; and if it doesn’t, hunt it down and kill it.”
I don’t suppose it’s changed much since then. We still love “love.” In fact, of late, we’re not above viewing love as a trans-species phenomenon; vampires and werewolves are apparently acceptable outlets for our fixations.
People get tattoos to tell the world how good love is. Then they get tattoos to tell the world how love has broken their hearts and sucked their souls.
You can give love. You can spurn love. You can embrace love or walk away from it. You can feel love. You can withhold love. You can cry or kill for love. You can wonder “what’s love got to do with it?” You can even scream to the world that “Love stinks!”
But love will find a way. It is, after all, a many splendored thing.
And … in the end … you know … the love you take is equal to the love you make.
Why? Because the greatest love of all is easy to achieve … since, according to Whitney Houston, the greatest love is the one inside of me.
All of which suggests, I think, that love is something we possess. It’s something we look for, and if we’re lucky enough, we’ll find—whether in the face of another or in our own heart.
Love is an emotion, a feeling. In fact, it’s “more than a feeling.” Love is all you need.
So, when Jesus says love the Lord your God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself, it feels like we already know what he’s talking about.
If our culture has it anything like right, what Jesus is telling us is to do is to feel warmly about God and everybody else.
So, there you go. Here’s my advice: Go out there and feel the way you’re supposed to feel. Dial it up. Put on some top 40. Watch some chick-flicks—whatever you’ve go to do. Just make sure your emotional muscles are toned up, and you should be good to go.
But maybe what Jesus means by love and what Hallmark means by love aren’t the same thing.
I see a problem. How do you command love, if love is just a feeling?
You can’t feel on command.
If love is only an emotion, then Jesus can’t command it—any more than he could command hunger or thirst. Emotions just happen … as a reaction to stimuli.
So, obviously Jesus means something more than being favorably disposed toward another when he says that the greatest commandments include love of God and love of neighbor.
The answer, I would suggest, is to be found in the passage in Leviticus.
Beginning in Leviticus 19:9, the author begins to flesh out the whole “love-of-neighbor thing”:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.”
A couple of verses later, Leviticus tells us:
“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.”
How about this?
“You shall not render unjust judgment … You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.”
The author of Leviticus finally unveils the point of all these rules:
“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”
Jesus didn’t offer some airy commandment about feeling kindly toward other people. He commanded us to do something.
Love requires activity. Love isn’t an abstraction; it’s a way of living with other people that takes their needs as seriously as we take our own.
The way we treat those who are hungry, the way we treat the laborer, the way we treat the disabled, the way we pursue justice—these all have to do with love.
Jesus draws upon the tradition in Leviticus that seeks to even the playing field between those who have power—those at the top of the food chain—and those who find themselves at the bottom always looking up. The resonances Jesus raises call attention to the inequities in the way we order our common life.
- Are the poor taken care of?
- Do those who labor share in the fruits of their labor in ways that don’t perpetually favor the wealthy?
- Has provision been made for those who are disabled?
- Is our system of justice equitable, or do the powerful almost always win, while those born with the wrong skin color and on the wrong side of town almost always lose?
In other words, is the society in which we participate a society that protects the vulnerable against the predations of the powerful?
If we take Jesus seriously, the government Christians ought to want is the one that allows us the greatest range of options for expressing our love toward our neighbors, rather than one that reinforces our penchant for selfishness.
And I think the fact that Jesus links love for neighbor and love for God suggests that the way we love God is through our love for our neighbors. Jesus doesn’t offer up some vague notion of love that centers first on our ability to muster up the correct emotional responses. He gives practical, concrete standards by which to judge the character of our love.
The author of 1 John puts it this way:
"Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before God … Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also" (1 John 3:18-19; 4:20-21).
So here’s the thing: if you don’t provide for the needs of the least of these, if you don’t seek to protect the vulnerable, if you fight to keep power in the hands of the powerful, then no matter what feeling you have in your heart toward God or your neighbor … it’s not love.
So yeah. According to Jesus, Christians have a stake in the kind of government we promote. If our social arrangements aren’t loving and just, we fail both God and our neighbor.
If you need a meditation to bring with you into the voting booth tomorrow, that’s not a bad place to start.