Back from holidays. On a previous post Larry commented that he hopes that the refreshment will lead to grace-filled blog-posting. So do I. Here is a first go.
Ask any Christian to give a one-word description of what God is like and I hope the very first thing they say is love. He is love. He is loving because he is the definition of love. The reasons we Christians obsess about acting lovingly, loving our neighbour, loving our enemies, growing churches that are known and famous for their love and compassion is that God first loved us. For all its faults - and let's not paper over them - the Church of Jesus Christ is still the most loving institution on the planet. I hope that if you were to get non-Christian friends and neighbours of your church in, and ask them to describe you, the first thing they would say is that you love and care well for them, and in this they see something of God's love.
But then there is that line from Jesus about loving our enemies. It hits us straight between the eyes, doesn't it? We can feel we don't have too many opportunities in Britain to live out and apply the Sermon on the Mount because not too many people are actively oppressing us. Part of me wonders if this is rapidly changing at the moment to the point where it will become much clearer that we need to do it. Some quite innocuous posts before my holiday drew some atheist responses that I can only describe as disproportionately ferocious. While not in relation to these comments I notice Richard Dawkins in the Times last week saying that anyone who doesn't agree with evolution as a fact (I am not revealing my hand about where I stand on evolution by saying this) is worse than a holocaust-denier. It is a small step from that to saying that certain beliefs ought to be criminalised. Combine that with recent comments from other new atheists to the effect that society ought to ask if some people ought to be killed for holding certain beliefs, and I start to think that the knives are well and truly coming out.
In the time I have been in Christian leadership I have watched the following responses to the Christian message come in and out of vogue:
- Science has burried God. You can't be a Christian because it is disproved by the facts
- When that started to wane, the rise of relativistic postmodernism (ironically equally distrusted by modernist atheists and Christians) suggested that there is no such thing as meaning or truth. Tolerance was the order of the day - so long as nobody said they believed something was actually true for all. That wasn't to be tolerated. It was very common to hear "if that's what you want to believe, that's fine for you, but my truth is different"
- This was replaced by a rather more belligerant relativism: if you say there is only one way to God, that is deeply intolerant in a pluralistic society. If you stray that far from societal norms you shouldn't be allowed to hold those offensive views publicly. All of a sudden it is open hunting season on Christians who want to let their faith influence their morality in the workplace. So much for freedom of speech
- Which brings us to the present where we see a new position emerging: Christians are so far from societal norms that people are increasingly happy to label us as immoral. This, of course, is nothing new. Nietzsche said the same, accusing Christians of denying human potential with our emphasis on humility
So the question comes back: how do we love our enemies. Because there are certainly an increasing number of people who have decided that they want to paint us as immoral, intolerant, offensive and unworthy of being allowed to contribute in the public square.
The first thing to say is that it is normal and that Jesus promised it would happen. If it hasn't been like that for us in recent years, that's unusual and we should be grateful, but now normal service is being resumed. Here is what Jesus said to do:
- If we are slapped on one cheek, turn the other
- If our shirt is taken by persecutors, give them our coat as well to bless them
- If we are made to suffer unjust burdens, bear them willingly and do more than required
- Love our enemies and be kind to them
- Pray for them
This is acting like our Father in Heaven. Now, here is the challenge for me: I find it easier to help people understand that we should love our enemies, than to teach how to love our enemies. How to grace them and bless them and model the love of God to them. I simply haven't had much experience of being in the situation.
There is something about this change in society that may provide a fresh opportunity for us. It is one thing to say theoretically that we love our enemies when we don't actually have to work out what that means. I suspect that it is something we can only learn to do when the reality arises, and therefore we may start to see opportunities to learn something about the way God loves his enemies, and how to follow him in this, that we simply can't do hypothetically.
Why do I find it hard to teach Christians to love? A good question to start to work through in our churches would be "how can we learn practically to love our enemies and do them good?" It will stand us in good stead for days ahead if we do.