The Cost of Love
While at General Theological Seminary in NYC our Christian Ethics Final Exam had the following essay question: All you need is love. Defend or critique this statement. It was 1981. The Beatles were still around, although John Lennon had just been shot and killed in NYC the year before. It seemed an apt question at the time. It still is.
My colleague and Spiritual Director, the Reverend Pierre Wolff, teaches: We come from Love, We return to Love and Love is all around. God is Love. Love is God. Created as we are, imago Dei, in the image of God, we are called to become the love that is all around – that is, we are to become the light and life that emanates from this Godly Love. We are to bring light and life to the world about us. That we are called to be included in the love that is all around. That is what we call Grace. This grace, this love, this light and this life is all given, and yet, comes with a cost and responsibility.
A group of concluding sayings at the end of the fourteenth chapter of Luke (14:25-35) serve as a reminder of this cost and responsibility.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Yes, this sounds harsh to modern, post-modern, post-enlightenment ears. Yet, spoken in a world in which there was little or no understanding of people as individuals with individual rights, one’s identity was defined by one’s family, clan and tribe. One’s identity and survival was tied to family, clan and tribe.
This means everything you say and everything you do reflects on the rest of your family, clan and tribe. This has positive ethical dimensions of course. As in the Confucian societies in China and throughout Asia such responsibility engenders respect for elders, filial piety and always being aware that one’s behavior, actions and words, represent those among whom you were born and live and move and have your being.
Yet some, like Confucius, Socrates, the Hebrew Prophets, Jesus and Mohammad, all recognized that tribalism comes with a dark side as well. Defending the honor of one’s family, clan, tribe, and the tribal gods, too often becomes a matter of violence and eventual warfare. Jesus and Mohammad in particular, drawing upon the Abrahamic tradition of abandoning tribal gods to worship one God, sought to bring people together into one tribe, one clan, one family and one God. The result was the end of inter-tribal warfare in specific regions and over the longer arc of history the birth of the nation state. Like tribalism itself, the nation state comes with its own set of positive and negative dimensions.
One man, a German Christian theologian, was teaching at Union Seminary in America during the rise of Nazism back in his home country. Among other things, Nazism was a movement motivated by asserting the power of one particular tribe, white Aryan peoples, over the power of the nation state and all other peoples. While attending the Abyssinian Baptist Church in nearby Harlem, New York City, Dietrich Bonhoeffer heard The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. proclaim a notion of “cheap grace” in his sermons, a term that Powell had coined himself.
This struck a chord within Bonhoeffer. He went on to write The Cost of Discipleship as a way of analyzing just why one of the strongest of Christian nations and cultures was resorting back to such wanton and violent tribalism, racism and anti-Semitism.
According to Bonhoeffer, "cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer says, is to hear the gospel preached as follows: "Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness." The main defect of such a proclamation is that it contains no demand for discipleship. In contrast to cheap grace, "costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: 'My yoke is easy and my burden is light.'" Bonhoeffer argues that as Christianity spread, the Church became more "secularized", accommodating the demands of obedience to Jesus to the requirements of society. [Wikipedia: The Cost of Discipleship]
Bonhoeffer obviously learned much from the protest culture of the African American church and adopted its anti-temporal power ethic when he, against much good and loving counsel, returned to Germany to fight against the Nazi uprising, which ultimately led to his execution in a Nazi prison. His understanding of the kind of Love Jesus calls us to live aligned him with martyrs throughout the life of the church. He exemplifies the cost of Love, Grace and Discipleship.
One need not do a thorough analysis of what is happening in America and the world today to see that a variety of tribalisms are asserting themselves. Perhaps most pernicious of all is the Alt-Right movement attaching itself to the current presidential campaign asserting the kind of White Supremacy openly in ways that have not been heard from for several decades.
Were Bonhoeffer alive today he might remind us that, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” [The Cost of Discipleship] This is in fact what the Black Lives Matter movement and others are calling us to do. He also wrote, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” [The Cost of Discpleship]
I do not remember just what I wrote for my Ethics Final on “All you need is love.” I do know, after time spent in Philip Turner’s Christian Ethics class, that more than just love is what we need to follow in the way of Jesus. That his words about family are a call to remind us that we are in the end one world, one family with one God, the God of Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Rachel, Leah and Jacob. That we come from Love and we return to Love. That we are to become the Love of God that is all around. That all of life is a homecoming, a coming home to God – the God who is Love – a love that respects the dignity of all people, not some people, not a lot of people, but all people. A love that strives for justice and peace for all people. A love that came with a cost on the cross, and a love that is just as costly today as it was one day outside the walls of Jerusalem when state sponsored capital punishment and execution took the lives of three young men, to assert the power of the state over the power of love. That Love, like Grace and Discipleship, comes at a cost. Yet, not to pay the cost will be and is even costlier in the end.