Tag Archives: christianity

Unarmed Truth & Unconditional Love

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Ralph Abernathy and Will Campbell grieve the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Lorraine Motel (April 1968)

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was deep in the heart of rural Texas when the chaos in Charlottesville unfolded last weekend and found myself in a conversation with a couple of local police officers about other matters. I mentioned that they should visit us in California sometime and one offered a kind smile and said, “Nah, Californians don’t like Southern Republicans.” We laughed, but there is some measure of truth to his statement. And vice-versa, of course. There is plenty of not liking to go around these days.

I am a Christian, which unfortunately means many things to many people, but for me it means that I must love everyone. No exceptions. So I stand in opposition to hate in any form, which most assuredly includes all versions of white supremacy. And because I must love everyone then I am necessarily opposed to acts of violence. It is a package deal. Violence toward a loved one is unfathomable, so when you choose to love everyone it kind of takes the wind out of Violence’s sails.

“‘Don’t the Bible say we must love everybody?’ / ‘O, the Bible! To be sure, it says a great many such things; but, then, nobody ever thinks of doing them . . .'” – In Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Will D. Campbell is a personal hero of mine who was an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement and a fierce advocate for the victims of deep racism. However, Campbell started to notice that many of his fellow activists used the same dehumanizing language  and tone toward the “segregationists” that segregationists used toward African-Americans. Since Campbell was a Christian, he took a stand against that, too.

“With the same love that is commanded to shower upon the innocent victim of his frustration and hostility, the church must love the racist. Moreover, the church is called to love those who use and exploit both the racists and their victims for personal wealth and political gain. The church must stand in love and judgment upon the victim, the victimized, and those, both black and white, who exploit both, for they are all the children of God.” – Will D. Campbell, in Race and Renewal of the Church (1962)

Some things in this country have improved in the half century since the milestone moments of the Civil Rights Movement while many others have quite obviously not. And the version of Christianity touted by “Brother Will” and Dr. King often appears unopened in the shrink-wrapped box.

But I remain hopeful. For I, too, believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will someday have the final word.

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What Gives Me Hope

interfaith-group-2017As nostalgia sets in at the prospect of leaving the law school, the privileges I enjoy become more pronounced.  One of my favorites has been hosting the Interfaith Student Council.

Early this week, sixteen wonderful people—fourteen law students, one undergraduate student, and one lawyer—showed up for an evening of discussion (the lawyer took the picture above!).  This fine group represented various flavors of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Atheism.

The leaders offered two potential topics for the evening: a heavy discussion about the controversial Trump immigration executive order, and a lighter discussion of dating practices in various faith traditions.  The group decided to do both and briefly discuss the heavy topic before moving to the lighter topic.  It may be unsurprising in the rear view mirror, but we never made it past the first.

Early in the conversation, one of the kindest people I have ever known shared a personal story that involved a close acquaintance sharing things that characterized this person’s entire religion in a terrible light.  I don’t think this kind soul has the capacity for anger, but there was definite hurt.  And confusion.  I mean, what do you do when someone you know portrays you and everyone in your faith as evil?

Everyone tried to help, and a good conversation ensued.

Later on, after the conversation took several twists and turns, a different student spoke up—one who comes from the faith that was used to characterize the other student as evil—and directed remarks back to that tough situation.  And she apologized.  She apologized on behalf of her entire faith.  And then she started crying, which made the other student start crying, and if we weren’t careful it was going to get all of us but they hugged it out and gave us a fighting chance.

If I am honest, as I sit here and type away, you know how your tears like to hang out in your upper cheekbones watching television and how they stand up and put their shoes on when you start thinking about touching moments like this one?  Well, maybe that is happening right now, but you’ll never know.

At the end of the evening, I asked everyone what gives them hope when times seem dark.  Folks shared some great answers, but I have to tell you that what gives me hope is an evening like that one and an encounter like the one between those two wonderful students.

Some may look at the world right now and just see stormy weather, but in that one embrace I believe I saw a break in the clouds.

Love Down in Early Trading

11I’m not sure that I met the height requirement for this American roller coaster, but I am apparently strapped in and here we go.

Let me just say that I believe love wins in the end.  But right now love is getting clobbered.  It’s like love is the Cleveland Browns.

The unique American experiment used the language of equality at its inception, which was absurdly false.  With time, various social justice movements emerged that brought differing measures of hope and progress to those beaten down or discredited due to their skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.  Such progress occurred through acts of love by courageous advocates who put their lives on the line for their brothers and sisters.  However, one category was rarely on the list of people to love, and that was a love for the people doing the beating or discrediting (i.e., “the enemy”).

But who in their right mind would propose loving an enemy when it is undeserved, especially when hate, resentment, and rage all feel so darn good?  Well, there was Dr. King, but he was a rare bird.  My Christian faith calls for a love of enemies, but it seems that Harriet Beecher Stowe summed it up in this little exchange in Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

“Don’t the Bible say we must love everybody?”

“Oh, the Bible!  To be sure, it says a great many such things; but then, nobody ever thinks of doing them…”

Regardless, we have spiraled into an awful mess.  “I don’t love you because you are a certain category.”  “Then I don’t love you because you are a terrible person because you don’t love people because they are in a certain category.”  “Well, now I don’t love you either because you say I am a terrible person.”  “Well then…”

It is a spiral leading nowhere good.  Specifically, it led to this presidential election, and from what I see, there is no sign of this train slowing down on either side.

It is telling that this presidential campaign produced two “anyone but” movements (i.e., “anyone but Trump” and “anyone but Hillary”).  Both meant exactly what they said.  Both emerged because our (un)civil war led the two sides to offer candidates representing the ultimate middle finger to their sworn enemy: “We propose the worst person you can imagine to be the most powerful person on the planet.”

One side won.  The other is apoplectic.  It was inevitable either way.

Let me be specific.  First, I am from Arkansas.  Second, I voted for Secretary Clinton.  It stings to hear what some friends say about “anyone who would vote for Hillary.”  It is hard to imagine that someone can say such things and love me at the same time.  Simultaneously, it stings to hear what some friends say about “anyone who would vote for Trump”—e.g., when entire swaths of my friends and family are referred to as uneducated, ignorant, redneck, and so on.  It is hard to imagine that someone can say such things and love those I love at the same time.

Love is just getting trounced.  Who knows, maybe it is game over, and if so, hopefully someone will learn a lesson from us someday after we are finished annihilating ourselves.  But I choose love anyway.  Even when it seems impossible, I continue to believe that love wins in the end.

To my friends on both sides who are understandably afraid, I humbly suggest that your fear may be misplaced.  Instead of being afraid of those you believe look down on you or those you love—and maybe they really do look down on you or those you love—I suggest (to quote a president) that the true enemy is fear itself.  And the antidote is love.  Learning to love an enemy is incredibly difficult, but I believe it is the hope of the world.

So how might one attempt to do such a radical thing as love someone you have good reasons to hate?  Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, offers this: “To love our enemy is impossible.  The moment we understand our enemy we feel compassion towards him or her, and he or she is no longer our enemy.”

I say it is worth a shot.  Categorically dismissing others is getting uglier all the time.

Let There Be Light

You live in a prescientific world and notice the amount of sunlight decrease each day, which for you means less time to find food. You wonder if the sun will soon completely vanish and life will end for you in one long cold night. But it doesn’t. Suddenly, miraculously, the day grows longer. The gods have answered your prayers, and there is cause for celebration!

Which is why late December is the holiday season a zillion years later.

Today is the Winter Solstice in Los Angeles (8:49pm PST to be exact), that “shortest day of the year” that signals this darkness/daylight transition and explains why December 25 or so has historically been filled with celebration.

If you are interested, Christians began to co-opt the party about seventeen centuries ago to celebrate Jesus’s unknown birthday and the many pagan traditions that Christians carried into the holiday such as trees, reindeer, gift-giving, and mistletoe led subsequent Christian groups (including Puritans in the American colonies) to unsuccessful attempts to take the Christmas out of Christmas.¹ Those attempts aside, still today, ‘tis the season to be jolly.

Call me a pagan, but for the moment I’m skipping over the religious overtones and arguments to say that I love the astronomical metaphor at this time of year. The darkness has now reached its zenith, and light is about to take the reins.²

I of all people do not want to sound pessimistic, but I have sensed a growing darkness in both rhetoric and reality in this world of ours. It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to identify with those prescientific worriers in thinking that death, destruction, and division just might win and leave us alone in a long cold night. But here is my pledge: I promise to keep watch for more light, and when I see it, to shout the news and unleash the party.³

Let there be light.

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¹ My faith tradition used to be somewhat in that crowd, taking the ironic position of being Christians who were okay with celebrating the non-religious parts of Christmas but not the religious parts since December 25 was surely not Jesus’s birthday, i.e., we were the rare Christians attempting to take the Christ out of Christmas. Maybe it was the irony, but I don’t hear that much from our tribe anymore.

² Ha, unintended-yet-sneaky Santa metaphor!

³ And I will warn you now: When I shout the news, the religious reference will be unavoidable: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1: 5 (New International).