Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Does is it Really Mean to Love as a Christian?

There is a lot of pain in the world and I’m not talking about physical pain, although there is that pain too. I’m talking about emotional pain mostly caused by hurt feelings and abuse by others. Today in Florence, South Carolina, it was announced that a murderer was convicted and sentenced to more than 80 years in prison. Immediately the comments on Facebook started… reading some of the comments you might have thought the murderer was the devil himself, but I know the comments come from pain rather than hate.
If it’s one thing I have learned, it is that pain causes us to speak out in ways we would never have otherwise commented. During labor this is called “transition” and attending fathers are warned not to take personally what their wives “say” to them during this stage because, “It’s the pain talking.” In other circumstances, like today’s murder conviction, pain breeds frustration which brings more pain and anger, both acted out with what we hear as hate speech, especially from family members and friends of the victims. Such violent crimes bring increased pain on a society if no other reason than the feeling of hopelessness for a safer neighborhood or worries that “it could have been us in the store,” etc.

But this is where the rubber hits the road for Christians. We are called by our Lord to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love our enemies. Did Jesus really mean for us to love the person who violently killed our best friend? And if He did, what is that love supposed to look like?

Now let me just say I don’t believe loving a convicted murderer means letting him run free through society. All sin carries a price, both spiritually AND in society. I think that is where we allow our anger and pain to get out of control. We represent society so we feel it is our duty to inflict pain and suffering, sometimes even death, to convicted murderers. Some people even quote the Holy Scriptures where Saint Paul said

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God's minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God's ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not bear false witness," "You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. (Romans 13)

I don’t believe it is a coincidence that Saint Paul speaks of being subject to authority in the same context as he commands us to love. If we all loved more, there would be no need for courts and prisons; that’s for sure. We return then to how this love is to look?

As an Orthodox Christian Priest I will never suggest that God desires us to be violent to each other. The commandment to love one another is clear enough. He does however expect us sometimes to show “tough love” by having consequences for our actions. In the Old Testament Law, often misquoted by the way, “An eye for eye,” was a limitation to vengeance rather than a suggested response. It was only permissible to go as far someone had done to you, but no further. The same is the basis for many criminal codes in our country.

But Jesus clarified this when He said, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5.38-39) And besides....who exactly is the victim?

We tend to take on the role of victim in our day quite readily but all sin is against God. The psalmist said, “Against You only have I sinned and done evil in Your sight; that You may be justified in Your words, and overcome when You are judged.” (Psalm 50.6) If we are not the victim, then “an eye for eye” bears no weight in our defense.

So we are once again back to what does this love look like? I think the best way we can love, even the most vicious criminals is to pray for them. After all, God loves them too, and no less than He loves us. Isn’t that worthy of a little mercy? There can be no room for death sentences for a Christian. Life in prison is sufficient for the protection of society AND it gives the criminal a chance of repentance.

I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if jail wasn’t perceived as a hotel stay either. I’ve heard from prison chaplains that prison, no matter what we might hear, is not a pleasant place to be.

I’ll close by admitting that I have never lost a close friend or relative in a violent crime so I do not know that level of pain, nor do I pretend to know. I’m just a priest trying to bring a little peace to a world full of pain.

Have a blessed Pascha (that’s the Christian Passover for you non-Orthodox readers out there)

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