Love – it isn’t easy. Possibly one of the hardest things Jesus ever told us to do was to tell us to treat others as we would like to be treated, and this fact is no more apparent than in today’s political climate. Rev. Ronald Bonner, the pastor at Atonement Lutheran Church in Atlanta, Georgia, has a reflection on what the Christian ethic of love has to say to us in our time and place, and how much our time and place needs it. Read, comment, and share.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
“Be imitators of God, therefore as dearly beloved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Ephesians 5:1 NIV
At the center of Christian ethics is the concept of love.
Christian love is not the sense of emotions or sentimentality but love is a construct of caring for another to the point of personal sacrifice for the well-being of another. The soldier who dives on a grenade, like Milton Lee Olive III, to save the lives of his fellow soldiers is a tangible example of love, caring for others, which is the at the center of Christian ethics. Love and loving others was at the core of Jesus’ preaching and teaching. Since Jesus espoused a love ethic, it is easy to state that at the heart of Christian ethics is love. But in today’s world it appears that love has been replaced with a self-serving concept of personal achievement, even it means sacrificing others at the altar of personal success. As the theological consortium of Rose Royce would conclude regarding the appearance of Christian ethics: “There’s a vacancy Love don’t live here anymore.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer posits that the absence of Christ, and thus love, in the Christian message raises the possibility that Christianity becomes nothing more than distilled self-expression and thus “radically religionless.” This would leave a state of liminality in the practice of Christian ethics and would lend itself to popularity rather than the rigors of discipline or discipleship, producing a fruitful harvest of what Bonhoeffer would call “cheap grace.” It is evident that we are living in an age where the Christian message of being imitators of Christ as written in Ephesians 5:1 has little relevancy in our business or political ethics.
Historically, Christianity has brought the world genocide, racism, sexism, classism and many phobias against same gender loving and queer people. But let’s refer to that as “religionless Christianity” merely a virus-infected form of behavior that is Christianity in name only, seeing as it does not conform to the concept of love, but instead embraces the globalization of masculine hetero-hegemonic white supremacy. Much like the purportedly Christian-inspired Doctrine of Discovery which authorized and gave birth to global racism by stealing land in the Americas and then stealing and enslaving people from Africa to work and develop them.
Today ‘s corrosive political climate clearly reveals that the core of politics is not to represent the needs of the people but to assert coercion in the search for power. Politics in today’s world does not reflect the nobility of the words of the shapers of the United States Constitution. The current political climate stands in stark contrast to the vision embedded in what was written in founding the country, despite the injustices that occurred at that time:
“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”
The vision always was larger and deeper than the visionaries for even George Washington who held persons enslaved in 1790 wrote in a letter to Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, “Happily the Government of the United States… Gives to Bigotry no sanction, to Persecution no assistance.”
These words have lost their value in today’s political climate as have the words of Ephesians 5:1 in the expression of Christian ethics, especially for those who support policies that do harm to those who are the most vulnerable in our society. We are under siege, living in a Reinhold Niebuhr-defined state of political coercion. A state of coercion, not for the benefit of the people or for bringing justice, as was the case during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The siege and coercion we live under is for the benefit of a hegemonic elite that seeks to jettison the doctrines of consent and the edict of “We the People” for personal gain.
Today, those called politicians, especially those that have served for more than two decades, have become anesthetized to the mores of civil engagement in the pursuit of power, performing not for the will of the people but for the societal elites that contribute to their campaigns and desired lifestyles. These in office are further anesthetized to the pain and suffering that their callous disregard for others is causing. They behave like myopic malevolent minions focused on establishing an oligarchy form of government, where the personal earned rights of its citizens are subject to elimination or eradication.
We see this callous disregard in the current Congress’ desire to undo the Affordable Care Act. Our current Congress is led by a man who for the past eight years has had a single mission to serve as an obstructionist to the opposition party and, in particular, the former President of the United States. This behavior is inimical to the benefit of the people that he took an oath to protect. But in the pursuit of control, the fact that his leadership could cause 33 million people to lose health care benefits is of no concern to him or those who follow him. This partisan blindness to the welfare of the people is akin to the apathy for others displayed in the famous Milgram studies of the 1960s. In that experiment people were instructed by a person in authority to administer electric shocks to learners who got answers to the test questions wrong. The range of volts or shocks ranged from five to 450, with 450 being considered lethal. In the initial study 65% of the test subjects were willing to administer the lethal dose when encouraged by the tester who was viewed as an authority figure.
In today’s political climate those in Congress are willing to administer the lethal dose by rejecting health care, by rolling back Food Stamps, selling federal land to developers, rolling back EPA guidelines, dismantling international relationships dismantling Social Security, and weakening Medicare. And the so-called opposition party mostly remains silent as this destruction becomes more evident and this disease spreads to local politics as well. An example is what is called the school to prison pipeline, where rural America’s economy is supported by urban center decline.
Edmund Burke stated: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (people) to do nothing.” Albert Einstein put it this way: “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlewaithe would say “if one does not dissent then one is a collaborator.” Our political climate has become a circus of those who coerce and those who collaborate.
When seeing “Christians” endorsing the policies of despair and those who initiate them we must ask questions about the validity of Christian ethics as a moral compass. The questions for Christians are: How do we rescue the church from its historical and current level of collaboration with coercion for the sake of power and personal gain? Where do we engage our society not merely in social media or written dissent but in actual action driven resistance to the current climate of political balkanization? The answer is the church can’t rest on its indifference because that is what caused God’s wrath to be poured out on Sodom. Good people who became indifferent to the conditions of others because of the blessings that they have received. Ezekiel 16:49 reads: “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters (sons) had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
Our political process has become a process of coercion and indifference which is the opposite of the love ethic expressed by Howard Thurman and displayed by Fannie Lou Hamer, Marian Wright Edelman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, including Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. I believe that Dr. King, would liken the current political process to cannibalism at the dawn of the age. Our current political climate and policies are cannibalizing our future for the sake of the few. If these policies and the current political direction are maintained, they will force many innocent people into a life of poverty and facing a constant state of coercion and terror. Christian ethics must resist the collaboration with evil and indifference and seek to eliminate and not exacerbate injustice, poverty and apathy in the 21st century.
Ronald S. Bonner Sr., is the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Atlanta, GA. And a Director of Evangelical Mission/Assistant to the Bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And the author of two books, No Bigotry Allowed and The Seat.