A young pastor took exception to a recent post of mine that indicated I believe unconditional love should be unconditional. Her question to me confounded and alarmed: “Don’t you think we cheapen the gospel when we love people we shouldn’t love?” I pressed her to identify whom she felt Christians shouldn’t love. “Terrorists,” she immediately responded, “and criminals who aren’t sorry for what they do, and evil people who reject God, and all people who choose sin over God.”
“That’s a bunch of people,” I replied. “Do you believe all these people are beyond any kind of redemption?”
“Only God knows that!” she emphatically explained. “But when we love people like these, it sends the message that what they do is okay.”
“You have kids,” I ventured. “Do you stop loving them when they are bad?”
“Well, no, they aren’t ‘bad’ the way we’re talking about,” she responded. “Naughty isn’t bad.”
“So, are you saying that if one of your children did do something really BAD you would stop loving them?” I pushed.
“No, I would still love my kids. I can’t imagine them doing anything that would make me stop loving them,” she said.
“So, the ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only Son’ passage makes sense to you?” I asked.
“Sure. We’re God’s children, and God will love us no matter what,” she agreed.
“So, do you think there are people God doesn’t love?”
“I think there are people who don’t want God’s love — who reject it,” she answered.
“That’s not what I asked. Your kids might decide not to love you; would that change your love for them?” I asked.
“Well, no,” she admitted.
“Do you think it is a good idea for us to choose not to love people that God loves? Don’t you think God wants us to love the people God loves?” I challenged.
“We’re not God. Lots of people choose not to believe in God, not through ignorance, but through defiance. There are people who hate God. There are people who do hateful things. There are people who wallow in sin and love it,” she argued.
“And so, those people no longer deserve to be loved, or cared for, or respected, or accepted? Aren’t they still children of God? Aren’t they still created in God’s image?” I replied.
“No. They aren’t children of God — they ran away from home. They disowned God. They no longer belong in the family, and we shouldn’t waste our time and energy loving people who don’t want to be loved!”
I am often surprised by how many people share a similar view. My theology and my interpretation of the scriptures that define our faith are grounded in a fundamental “God is love” ethos that drives the Holy Spirit to work the miracle of transformation in our lives and world. I find no value in wasting time and energy figuring out who to hate, who to condemn, who to reject, who to insult, who to attack, who to disrespect and who to vilify when there is such great need in our world to do good. It is a simple equation for me: each effort to condemn another wastes resources to serve, love and affirm another. Each effort to make the other person bad, wrong, evil, worthless, inferior, or deficient robs us of precious time and energy to uplift, encourage, support, heal and love. Hating sin is not the same thing as loving the good. And hating those who sin is simply reprehensible. If we would focus all our energies on doing good for others, we would find that we simply lack the time or energy to worry about who else is doing things wrong.
And this is a choice. We all have the option of choosing life over death, love over hate, kindness over selfishness, generosity over greed, grace over judgment, and compassion over intolerance. I talked with a man this morning who surprised me. I mentioned something about Pope Francis and he blustered back, “I will be so happy when Poop Francis heads back to Rome and I don’t have to hear about him all the frickin’ time.”
“you don’t like the Pope?” I asked.
“Of course not,” he explained. “I’m a Christian, not a Catholic. He can talk all he wants to to the Catholics, but I shouldn’t have to listen to him!”
“You don’t like what he says?” I asked.
“It’s all this namby-pamby ‘be good,’ ‘give to the poor’ ‘we’re killing the planet’ sop. He isn’t saying anything new, but people are falling all over themselves to worship the guy. I worship God, and that’s it.” he declared.
“But he is not saying anything you disagree with, is he? He isn’t saying anything that doesn’t have a base in the Bible,” I asserted.
“Oh, yes he is. He is spouting all kinds of political crap and passing it off as religion. This climate change thing is a prime example. There is absolutely no scientific basis for all these doom-and-gloom claims, but he acts like he’s some kind of expert. He’s telling people what to think, and I don’t like it. They pretend that if you disagree with the Pope, that makes you some kind of a sinner. It’s why I’m not Catholic.”
I am pretty sure there are some other reasons why my friend isn’t Catholic, but the convoluted reasoning and the broad generalized assumptions make it hard to have a serious conversation that might lead somewhere. It is the classic “us/them” stratagem writ large; “those” Catholics don’t have anything to say to “us” Christians that we should listen to. Those “sinners” have nothing of value to give to us “saints.” “Them” simply aren’t as deserving as “us,” and that’s it, end of story.
Why is it so important to “us” to have a “them”? Why is the concept of “all of us together” so threatening and/or distasteful to so many? Are we afraid that the “sins” of “them” are greater than the “faith” of “us” or the grace of God? If we truly believe in the saving and redeeming power of God, wouldn’t we want to keep the sinners closer rather than shove them away? Has the log in our own vision field grown so huge and immense that we can no longer see the image of God in the faces of the men and women we judge and condemn. Are we so sure we are right that we cannot allow we might be committing the greatest sin of all — withholding love and grace from those God loves every bit as much as God loves us? I think we should spend more time talking about love in the church — wrestling with what it is and isn’t, seeing it from all sides and in its fullness. I think we will quickly find that our problem is not that we love too much and too many, but that we haven’t even scratched the surface of the love God intends for all.
Author of 15 books, the Rev. Dan R. Dick serves as assistant to the bishop of the Wisconsin Area of The United Methodist Church. He blogs at United Methodeviations.