A short disclaimer: I’m completely aware that while people have the right to interpret their holy books and lore as they see fit, they also have the right to let others interpret it for them. Due to my lack with any scholarly research of the Scriptures and the contexts/languages they were written in, libertarian/egalitarian political views, as well as verses like these:
“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” -Romans 2:1 (NIV)
“The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.” -Romans 14:3 (NIV)
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” -Matthew 12:36 (NIV)
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” -Luke 6:37 (NIV)
and finally, my personal favorite passage out of this bunch:
“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.” -Matthew 23:8-15
I don’t feel comfortable telling anyone else what the “right way” to practice Christianity is, no matter how confident I am in my interpretation of the Bible. However, I would like to share my views on the worship of the One Who, despite all my heretical leanings, is still the core of my religious and philosophical worldview; that’s all this post really is.
One of the most common criticisms of Christian philosophy is the accusation that Christ’s teachings of radical love, acceptance, humility, and forgiveness require His followers to be doormats for the sake of “being Christlike”. Considering how many Christians present His teachings -or rather, twist His words around for their own agendas- it is really not that surprising that people assume the Scriptures themselves actually teach that the only moral and acceptable behavior in the face of abuse and oppression is constant, almost masochistic, submission and pacifism. Worse (in my opinion) is how we often frame the Scripture’s teachings on loving, praying for, and forgiving one’s enemies into some kind of self-righteous, passive-aggressive criticism of whoever it is we’re having issues with: “I’ll be praying for you,” etc…. all the while not actually offering our genuine compassion, respect, friendship, and help to anyone who doesn’t do things “our way”, or anyone who our politicians and news sources tell us is a “threat to our way of life”. To anyone who actually takes the initiative to independently study the Bible and the context it was written in, it is blatantly obvious that none of this is what Jesus was trying to teach.
Suffice to say: I am not happy with the way modern-day Christians (or at least, Bible Belt fundamentalists) seem to interpret the word “love”. As explained here, the particular translation of the word “love” as pertaining to verses like these:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:27-26 (NIV)
can best be defined as “having compassion, brotherly love”, or a more spiritual sort of love that the Greeks called “agape”. Characteristics of this sort of “godly” love that Christians are told to aspire to include:
Love is not defined by the act, but by the character of God within the act.
Love precludes hypocrisy and play-acting.
Love is unselfish; not based on self-need or want.
Love is not conditioned on reciprocity or calculation of repayment.
Love doesn’t care who gets the credit.
Love is active; not merely passive or theoretical; love doesn’t loiter.
Love believes, trusts and expects God to overcome all things.
Love is directed toward people; not things, ideas, doctrines, principles…
Love of neighbor desires them to have everything you have, and more.
Love precludes resentment, covetousness, and judging another.
Love seeks to commend, not condemn.
Love is not conditioned on the lovability or action of the recipient.
Love is not fickle; it is unchanging and limitless.
Love precludes despair at the loss or absence of the person loved
Love precludes favoritism and aversion.
Love does not engage in comparison.
Love is not possessive, seeking to own or control another person.
Love does not find its identity or life in the one loved.
Love is the antidote to fear and paranoia – I Jn. 4:18
Love seeks the highest good of the other, with no thought of benefit to oneself.
Love involves self-denial, self-renunciation, personal sacrifice, humility.
Love is willing to suffer slights, hurts, abuse.
Love builds others up, nurtures, edifies; it is constructive, not destructive.
Love seeks to avoid grieving or offending another – Rom. 13:10; 14:15
Love of one’s enemy removes his relation of power – Matt. 5:40
Love precludes partiality, preference, distinction, exclusivism; it is universal and equal Love does not take the situation into one’s hand to resolve the problem.
Love does not preclude confrontation, opposition and discipline – Heb. 12:6; it is not always capitulatory or soft (“tough love”); cf. Matt. 10:34; Lk. 12:49
Love cannot be coerced or obliged by law or moral principle and program.
Love is not retaliatory (Rom. 12:17); it turns the other cheek (Matt. 5:39)
Love does not dictate performance standards or expectations to others.
Love prompts one to take the initiative to be the first to act – (Matt. 7:12)
Love dissolves the emotional blocks which keep us from sensitivity to others.
Love does not demand its personal rights.
Love excludes suspicion and mistrust.
Love allows one to be free to be man as God intended man to be.
From this we can draw the conclusion that the biblical definition of love is, roughly, unconditional respect and compassion for human beings, regardless of differences or even behavior, as evidenced by verses like these:
Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, b there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (AKJV)
(These verses explain why my activism is inseparable from my worship of Christ.) However, this brings us back to one of the core issues of Christian philosophy: how do you handle your religious duty to love unconditionally in a situation where someone is continuously harming you and others? Reason dictates that in order to love your neighbor and enemies as yourself, you first have to love…well, yourself. It serves no purpose to allow yourself and those you love to come to harm for the sake of pacifism, and as critics of mainstream Christian philosophy have pointed out for years, the mindset that to fight back to protect yourself makes you ‘just as bad’ as the aggressor, abuser, or bully only makes you vulnerable to ending up in abusive and toxic situations. Besides which, we see that there is biblical instances of violence being used for God’s will (see: the entirety of the Old Testament), and for the understanding that there is a time and a place to be assertive and aggressive about defending the things one loves, including themselves. But then, how do you explain the philosophy behind Jesus’s infamous ‘turn the other cheek’ sermon?
By putting it in context of the time and society it was given in, of course.
From this site:
In his books “Engaging the Powers” and “The Powers That Be,” Wink argues that Jesus rejected two common ways of responding to injustice: violent resistance and passive acceptance. Instead, Jesus advocated a “third way,” an assertive but non-violent form of protest.
The key to understanding Wink’s argument is rigorous attention to the social customs of the Jewish homeland in the first century and what these sayings would have meant in that context.
To illustrate with the saying about turning the other cheek: it specifies that the person has been struck on the right cheek. How can you be struck on the right cheek? As Wink emphasizes, you have to act this out in order to get the point: you can be struck on the right cheek only by an overhand blow with the left hand, or with a backhand blow from the right hand. (Try it).
But in that world, people did not use the left hand to strike people. It was reserved for “unseemly” uses. Thus, being struck on the right cheek meant that one had been backhanded with the right hand. Given the social customs of the day, a backhand blow was the way a superior hit an inferior, whereas one fought social equals with fists.
This means the saying presupposes a setting in which a superior is beating a peasant. What should the peasant do? “Turn the other cheek.” What would be the effect? The only way the superior could continue the beating would be with an overhand blow with the fist–which would have meant treating the peasant as an equal.
Perhaps the beating would not have been stopped by this. But for the superior, it would at the very least have been disconcerting: he could continue the beating only by treating the peasant as a social peer. As Wink puts it, the peasant was in effect saying, “I am your equal. I refuse to be humiliated anymore.” That is not all. The sayings about “going the second mile” and “giving your cloak to one who sues you for your coat” make a similar point: they suggest creative non-violent ways of protesting oppression.
Roman law permitted soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but because of abuses stringently prohibited more than one mile.
If they ask you to do that, Jesus says, go ahead; but then carry their gear a second mile. Put them in a disconcerting situation: either they risk getting in trouble, or they will have to wrestle their gear back from you.
Under civil law, a coat could be confiscated for non-payment of debt. For the poor, the coat often also served as a blanket at night. In that world, the only other garment typically worn by a peasant was an inner garment, a cloak. So if they take your coat, Jesus says, give them your cloak as well. “Strip naked,” as Wink puts it. Show them what the system is doing to you. Moreover, in that world, nakedness shamed the person who observed it.
Thus, these sayings from the Sermon on the Mount, these seemingly mild sayings, are actually potent ways of confounding and exposing injustice. King and Gandhi may not have been aware of the finer points of modern Biblical scholarship, but they were no doubt clear that Jesus was counseling a radical new way of empowering the underclass.
In this context, the spirit behind the verses becomes easier to understand: essentially, Christ’s teachings of radical and unconditional love, acceptance, and forgiveness is a commandment to treat others with the benefit of the doubt. To react to the different and strange and even unpleasant with offers of friendship and reconciliation. To defuse possibly violent situations, not to prolong conflict for the sake of your own pride, to understand that any given person you’re angry with is a child of God as well and has their own motivations for whatever harm they’ve done to you, to understand that you have no right to judge and condemn others while you are imperfect as well. To prioritize the good of others, even the ones you don’t like, above your own comfort and self-importance.
But not to be a doormat for anyone and everyone who treats you badly. Not to ‘turn the other cheek’ away from injustice and oppression that your brothers and sisters in Christ (which, remember, is every human being, Christian or not) are experiencing. Compassion is not submission, forgiveness is not naivete, tolerance is not ignorance, and love is not self-immolation in the name of “being the bigger/better person”.
And of course, because life isn’t a Christian cartoon, the situation doesn’t usually end with the “Enemy” seeing the error of their ways and accepting your friendship, unfortunately. Usually the situation ends with the “Enemy” laughing in your face and walking away gloating about how they got one over on you because you’re the silly idiot trying to be kind instead of scary, or trying to point out the right thing to do instead of going along with what everyone else is doing, and that means making yourself vulnerable. You mark yourself as different, a target, and people will shoot. You’ll be hurt if you forgive and hurt if you fight, but you have to keep trying anyways.
I guess what I’m trying to get at is that my personal interpretation of “love everyone” means you never get to take the easy way out. That’s just not what love is.