On Faith and Love
August 5, 2021
by Autumn Dawn Galbreath, MD, MBA
My recent contributions to this blog have explored some of the issues I have wrestled with throughout the turmoil of the last year and a half—namely, how faith has impacted the church’s response to issues, and where we have strayed from biblical truths in our responses. I have wrestled with faith and politics, faith and freedom and faith and fear. But the overarching issue, I think, in Christians’ response to recent—and, in fact, any—world events is love. There are only two things that Scripture tells us explicitly identify the Christ-follower: their fruit and their love. Jesus Himself said that all men would know we are His followers if we have love for one another (John 13:35). In fact, He repeatedly commanded that we love one another (John 13:34, John 15:12, John 15:17). And the rest of the New Testament tells us more than 20 times to love one another.
Lest you think Jesus’ command to love stops at “one another” (i.e. fellow Christians), He made it clear that we are to love those outside of the faith, as well. He considers this love to be part of the greatest commandment in the law:
“Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39, NIV).
And during the Sermon on the Mount, He took this concept even farther. Not only are we to love our neighbor, but we are even to love our enemy:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-47, ESV).
As I ponder Jesus’ commands in the context of recent history, I find that we in the American church haven’t used our voices in ways that identify us as Jesus’ followers. The secular world around us isn’t seeing love, which is the quality Jesus noted should differentiate us. We haven’t shown love for one another, let alone love for those who are different from us. We have resorted to politics as salvation and cries of persecution as excuses for bad behavior. We have preached, posted and argued with vitriol against those who are different, rather than engaging in expressions of love for our neighbors. As poet Emmett Wheatfall so eloquently summarizes, “What we see now from evangelicals is more political posturing than Christian teaching. We’re mixing secular political positions with the gospel, and the New Testament is being choked out.”
You think these assessments too harsh? I challenge you to go back to your social media of choice and look at your feed from the last year. Look at it as objectively as you possibly can. Try to read it through the lens of a non-Christian. Or a woman who has had an abortion in her past. Or a young teen struggling with same-sex attraction. Or a young man in Houston’s Third Ward who came to Christ through the evangelistic work of George Floyd. Or a Honduran mother separated at the border from her children. Or a child whose parent died of COVID-19. It’s a tall order, I know, but set aside your own views and try to read those posts from the viewpoint of someone else, even someone whose behavior you find sinful, illegal or wrong.
I’ll wait for you, because this will take some time….
Welcome back. Here’s my question, and the point of this exercise:
As you read through the eyes of the “other,” how many of your own posts and those of your Christian friends called you to Jesus? How many of those posts made it clear that the writer was a follower of the Man who said, ‘Love your enemies” and “Pray for those who persecute you” and “They will know you are My disciples by your love?” I know my feed is an abject failure. My own posts stray far too often to anger, judgment and failure to love. And the posts of those whom I have always considered my community are often laced with vitriol, conspiracy and blame. A particular role model of faith for much of my adult life has posted only angry, political or critical posts for more than six months—not one single post that points to the hope of Christ. In fact, I can only identify two or three people whose posts consistently point to Jesus. Two or three out of hundreds.
This is an abject failure of the gospel in our lives, and I believe Jesus is deeply grieved. In a time when many have suffered and have been in need of love, compassion and support, Jesus’ own bride has blamed, rejected and demeaned them.
I heard a story recently that I had never heard before. Most of us have heard of the RMS Carpathia, the ship that responded when the Titanic sank in 1912. But did you know about the other ships that were in nearby waters that fateful night? The ship most discussed is the SS Californian, whose captain had actually sent out iceberg warnings to all nearby ships earlier that evening, warnings that were ignored by the Titanic’s crew. When the Titanic hit an iceberg and its flares went up, the SS Californian was less than 20 miles away. She theoretically could have reached the Titanic twice as fast as the RMS Carpathian, but her captain, Stanley Lord, chose not to move his ship. Of course, he was surrounded by the very icebergs he had warned the Titanic about earlier in the evening. And reportedly, the signals coming from the Titanic were unclear, causing Lord to believe the ship was not in distress. So, over some crew members’ objections, he chose not to respond, ordering the Californian’s wireless office shut down for the night, as was standard at that time. And Stanley Lord went to sleep.
The Californian’s story is well-documented, but there are less clear reports of another ship in those waters that night: the ironically-named Samson, a Norwegian sealing ship. The Samson, though named for the legendary Israelite hero, reportedly failed to demonstrate any heroism that night because her crew was illegally hunting seals in nearby waters only seven miles from the Titanic. The story of the Samson is debated, but if it is true, the Samson could have arrived twice as fast as even the Californian.
Of course, with neither the Californian nor the Samson taking action, the rescue was left to the Carpathian, whose course was headed away from the Titanic when her captain Arthur Rostron was alerted to the Titanic’s distress signals. Rostron gave an immediate order to turn his ship around, before even verifying that the message from Titanic was a true distress call. The Carpathian was 58 miles from the Titanic, a significant distance to travel at night in treacherous waters. Rostron did all in his power to reduce that travel time, ordering the hot water and heat to be turned off for the entire ship, in order to make more steam available to the engines. He posted extra lookouts to watch for icebergs, and, risking his ship and the lives it carried, he raced through the icy waters toward the Titanic’s distress call. Ultimately, after traveling three-and-a-half hours and arriving after the Titanic had sunk, the Carpathian was able to rescue more than 700 people from the lifeboats.
As I listened to this story, it called to mind a much older story that Jesus told. In the story of the Good Samaritan, two potential rescuers passed by the dying man on the side of the road. We don’t know much about the priest and the Levite, but presumably they had reasons for not helping, just like the Californian and the Samson. Maybe they felt it was dangerous. Maybe they felt the man had already been warned about thieves in the area and had failed to heed the advice. Maybe they had something else they needed to attend to, or something they didn’t want anyone to know about. Maybe they just wanted to believe the man wasn’t really in distress. But regardless of their intentions, they left the dying man at the mercy of his wounds, other bandits and the elements while they went on their way. And, like the Carpathian, it was the Samaritan man, the one who was farthest away culturally and spiritually and the one who arrived last, who provided rescue.
Reflecting on the story of the Good Samaritan and its more modern echo in the story of the Good Carpathian, I see a similar theme: the two who passed by first have lived in ignominy throughout history, while the one who passed by last has lived as an example to us. And what was the fundamental differentiating factor between the first two and the third in both stories? A willingness to sacrifice.
Love inherently involves sacrifice, for what does it say about our love if we are not willing to sacrifice? A parent is willing to sacrifice everything he has for the health of his child. A lover goes to every possible length to be with her beloved. A Savior gave His very life for those He came to save. And that very Savior said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NIV).
We are called by Christ to love. To love those who are like us, and to love those who are not like us. Therefore, we are called by Christ to sacrifice for the good of others. It seems we are following the path of the priest/Levite/Californian/Samson much more often than that of the Samaritan or the Carpathian.
Imago Dei pastor Rick McKinley says, “Scripture would tell us the way we heal (current divides) is through sacrificial love. And I don’t know that the American church is willing to sacrifice. Loving your neighbor? What does that mean if wearing a mask is too much for you?” He goes on to comment that, rather than being willing to sacrifice, we as an American church continue to demand our rights and claim persecution.
In a similarly eloquent summary, columnist Steve Duin comments, “Separated though we are by the coronavirus and corrosive politics, I know a multitude of Christians are still feeding the homeless, reaching out to prisoners, and welcoming immigrants and other strangers to the neighborhood. But the raw, primal energy of an evangelical movement that finds salvation in Trump and Republican control of the U.S. Senate?….Fearing change, and increasingly disheartened by their isolation, too many…Christians find relief and security in political combat and national/ethnic pride.” We deconstruct and invalidate other ideas so that we can write them off, which is easier and more comfortable than having to engage with the strangers around us.
Unfortunately, Jesus never once told us that we have rights, or that we can expect not to be persecuted, or that the world around us would not change. He never promised us security with regard to our circumstances in the world. To the contrary, He repeatedly called upon us to give up our rights and to expect persecution. And He repeatedly cautioned us that we are not of this world. That our treasure is not here. That we can freely render to Caesar what is Caesar’s without fear because our transcendent goal is not government or prosperity. It is gospel…evangel…good news.
And it is only through sacrificial love that we can carry this gospel to our neighbors.
My pastor recently asked our congregation: “Do you ever go to bed bored? Are you bored rather than tired because you are so self-serving? Imagine what would happen if you went to bed tired because you have poured your life out for the gospel and for others.”
Imagine what would happen in your neighborhood, or your kids’ school, or your workplace. Imagine what it would really look like to step out of a posture of fear and self-protection and into a posture of gospel. Because the “gospel was never about protection. It’s about proclamation. It means you go out into that dark, scary world, and live a different story,” as Rick McKinley wrote.
Let’s purpose to do that.