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Love Loses

I’ve had some interesting conversations (online and face to face) recently with people about psychology professor and blogger Richard Beck’s ongoing series on the need for a “post-progressive Christianity.” He’s covered some interesting terrain in the series thus far, everything from how progressives approach the Bible to the phenomenon of deconstruction to how they understand the role of the church and others. In each case, Beck describes how he has found progressive Christianity’s approach to faith insightful in important ways, but also lacking in others. Hence the need for a “post-progressive Christianity,” however much some of us might cringe at the introduction of yet another “post” into our cultural lexicon.

Yesterday’s entry in the series was on love. Beck helpfully contrasts progressive Christianity’s prioritization of inclusivity and appreciation of difference with the Jesus’ cruciform call to love in a way that goes beyond mere tolerance of difference to actually loving enemies. Further, Beck points out that when it comes to this uniquely Christian call to love, progressives and conservatives both rarely live up to (or even aspire to) the teachings of Jesus:

And yet, when it comes to cruciform love, loving our enemies, progressive Christians are no more loving than evangelical Christians. That’s a hard thing to say, but are progressive Christians doing a better job at loving the people they consider wicked? As we are all well aware, there is an intolerance associated with tolerance, and this intolerance has left its mark upon how love is expressed with progressive Christianity, although many try valiantly to resist this influence. The sad irony is that an ideal of tolerance simply creates a new definition of “evil.” And once that “evil” group is identified, it becomes really hard to love them. In fact, it’s downright immoral to love them.

I got a firsthand example of this a while back. I was speaking with a group of progressive-ish Christians and the topic turned to the loathsome phrase, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” It’s a locution that usually accomplishes very little besides leaving the “sinner” feeling just as hated as the “sin” (and, I suppose, affirming the imagined righteousness of the speaker). One of the reasons the phrase is so detested amongst progressive Christians is because it’s been used primarily by conservative Christians against those they deem to be guilty of sexual sin. One rarely hears “Love the sinner, hate the sin” trotted out in conversations about greed or pride or gluttony. I spoke of my distaste for the phrase for precisely these reasons (and others, besides). So far, so good. We were tracking together up until this point.

“But what if,” I said (perhaps foolishly, in hindsight), “for the sake of symmetry, we were to substitute someone that more progressive Christians would consider to be a ‘sinner’ into the conversation? What if the ‘sinner’ we were called to love while hating their ‘sin’ was a MAGA hat wearing racist homophobe? Would that change our view of the phrase? Would ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ be a good way of describing a faithful Christian approach in this case? Are progressive Christians called to love even those whose ‘sins’ we detest?” At this point, the tone of the conversation took a quite noticeable turn. There was a bit of outrage, a bit of “Those aren’t morally equivalent!” (despite the fact that I had not suggested moral equivalence) and no small amount of visible discomfort. Some people left the conversation entirely. To seek to love people whose views were seen to be morally abhorrent was nothing short of complicity and it was outrageous to suggest otherwise.

I think Richard Beck is right. Cruciform love of enemy is simultaneously the most Christian expression of love and the least practiced by Christians, whether conservative or progressive. This is not particularly surprising. Enemy love is, well, brutally hard. How do you honour the humanity of someone that you are convinced is desperately wrong about really important issues? How do you refuse to label them and write them off? How do you try to see the best in someone who you see as not only misguided but dangerously so, and who is jeopardizing the lives of vulnerable people? How do you stay in conversation with someone whose views you believe represent a threat to much of what you hold dear? Is there even a way to “love” someone while unequivocally expressing your conviction that they are wrong and actively opposing them? Jesus certainly seemed to think so. But, well, we’re not Jesus. Not by a long shot.

To extend cruciform love toward those deemed profoundly unlovable is scandalously impractical and ridiculously counterintuitive. It probably won’t be praised very much and it certainly won’t score many points on social media. It could well result in a lot more losing more than winning, whether it’s an argument or a culture war. The One who calls all Christians—conservatives, progressives, and everyone in between—to love in such a way knows this better than anyone.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Pat #

    The only way I know how to do this, and I do it horribly imperfectly, is to try to see each person as an “I” and a human being and somebody’s child, rather than as a sum of their beliefs/opinions that I detest. Doesn’t always work, but I’m trying…

    July 10, 2019
  2. sheidebrecht #

    Hi Ryan, Your last post about the woman coming into the church for the ask with help for her family still overseas, I wrote a page response and then deleted it. I recently visited with the MCC resettlement worker here in Abbotsford, she is from Kenya originally and understands the global refugee crisis very well. One of the interesting things she shared is that when people who were sponsored by MCC come back into her office asking for more family members to be resettled, she explains she cannot prioritize any more of their family members. She expects them to help support their “back home” family. She went on to say that the UNHCR has a wait list of 800,000 refugees waiting for resettlement, every year the UNHCR meets with global partners, to ask about available funding from each country. Canada has a dismal track record we do not give our fully promised amount to the UNHCR, there are in actual fact only 6 countries that fully give their promised amounts, the US being one of the countries. We work in a refugee camp in Malawi where we visit 2 times per year. We have asks all the time, where do I even begin? I believe we, the Canadian church needs to make another big commitment, much like the one that previously spurred MCC to become what it is, bringing our brothers and sisters out of Russia years back, we need to look at the needs of our brothers and sisters now, ones we know, not invisible faces we can ignore, these beloved, who daily face extreme trauma, food shortages, no school, no medical care, rape, and certain death. I am working on this. How can I not, sometimes I wish I was younger to have more time for the things that matter.

    Your post today, I have long loved the concept of Cruciform love, that God reveals himself in this self-emptying love of Jesus on the cross, and the cross becomes my lens for all I do in the world. Oh my, I struggle to love in a self-emptying kind of way to those around me, let alone my own family. I get to practice this every day I live in my house in Canada with my grandchildren, and I don’t always do this well. My love for my little cuties is even conditional at times, not always, but wow I am so far from where I want to be. And I feel like I should be farther along given my age! Sometimes we think its easier to have this self-emptying kind of love for others, maybe that’s true, but I wonder about my inner being, where things are hidden and how that impacts my actions, thoughts and walk towards all I encounter. I walk this journey slowly, intentionally, with an ear to my inner being that needs constant surrender and transformation to be… in this world. Peace be with you Sherry Heidebrecht

    July 10, 2019
    • Thanks for this, Sherry. I resonate with much of what you say here, particularly with the difficulty of living out cruciform love in everyday relationships.

      Your story of your conversation with the Kenyan woman at the MCC office is similar to conversations I’ve had also. The refugee crisis is so enormous, multi-layered, and complicated. It can feel overwhelming to even know where to begin. I, too, am working on this…

      July 11, 2019
  3. mike #

    Progressivism has infiltrated and supplanted Christian teaching with the religious sounding Utopian Ideal that we are all God’s children regardless of a belief in Christ or not. This is Heresy.

    We are admonished to love our enemies in the sense that we are to PRAY FOR THEIR CONVERSION, that God would open their eyes to the Gospel of Christ.

    2 Corinthians 6:14

    July 11, 2019
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Beck, like most strikes me as a modern version of the wealthy man in scriptures who knows most of the right answers but refuses to lay it all down; his comfort, his position, his notoriety and his wealth and actually follow the Lord Jesus Christ.The one thing I will give the young man in scriptures is that we are led to believe that he recognizes his lack of faith and leaves, crestfallen and silenced.He doesn’t double down on his faithlessness by speaking to truth while hypocritically living in opposition to it. To live in a world filled with injustice and to act as a Christian leader, like Beck and the many do, is I believe, an abomination. You cannot pursue position, tenure, book deals and personal wealth and pretend you are in the service of the Lord. Anyone who speaks of and for the church and isn’t willing to claim the Holy Spirit as author and their lives as example….I think it will go better for them when they encounter their judgement to have said nothing.

    St. Thomas Aquinas on his deathbed is said to have dismissed all his writing, “as straw in the wind”. St. Thomas wrote a lot. He will probably remain remembered long after the “Becks” are forgotten. How well did he pray/love the Lord. How had he loved his fellow men. That was what mattered…that is all that ever matters.

    I believe it was the great Rabbi Hillel, who is said to have said, the entire scripture distills down to loving God, self and neighbour. The rest is just commentary.

    We have had close to two thousand years of commentary. Pray more, serve more, read and write less commentary.

    His peace always be with you all. 🙂

    September 3, 2019
    • “Abomination?” Wow, that’s strong language. You must know a lot more about Richard Beck’s motivations and behaviours than I do.

      September 4, 2019
  5. Paul Johnston #

    I know nothing of him. But I know from the Holy Spirit that only the Spirit speaks truthfully on behalf of the Lord our God. If they will not claim the mantle of prophet or the very least have the courage to say that what they share is their best understanding of the Spirit and ask you pray and test the Spirit they believe they share, they are not from God. No one should ever speak of God unless they are darn certain God has asked them to speak. God’s prophets don’t get book deals and don’t lead affluent western lives of fame, comfort and wealth.

    And the first abomination is that NO written word from God is ever presented as the work of one individual. Take your name of what you write. If it is from God it isn’t yours. Claiming authorship is theft. And all the monies made, other than a modest stipend/wage, give it all away for the betterment of others. In that way, though your ego will always be at battle with you, the fruit of your efforts will be clearly understood. Inspire others, and be pleasing to God.

    I hope you all spend 10 minutes today on your knees before the Lord your God. :)There you will learn what no man can teach. 🙂 A peace beyond all understanding….”You hairs are numbered, you have been consecrated and made holy, He has a plan for you, you are precious in His sight.”

    Let God love you and the struggles of the world and all of Satan’s temptations will not overwhelm you.

    September 4, 2019
    • Just so I’m clear, you chose a post where I cited an author who is urging all Christians to extend cruciform love toward those deemed profoundly unlovable to make the following points:

      1. Richard Beck’s words aren’t worth listening to because he doesn’t claim they are God’s words and they don’t come from the Holy Spirit.

      2. Richard Beck should never speak about God because he has written books and apparently leads an affluent life of wealth and fame.

      3. Claiming authorship is theft (I guess I should shut this blog down)

      4. Richard Beck should pray more (and I should, too).

      And, again, all this in response to an article extolling the centrality of cruciform love in the Christian life.

      Do I have this right?

      September 4, 2019
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Beck offers rationally pleasing arguments without a hope of them being realized….you want to understand something about cruciformed love, here it is….spend hours before the Lord your God in silence, over weeks, unpacking your depravity, your dirty little secrets, your actions that led to harm, the intellectual arrogances that left little room for the Holy Spirit….plead for mercy as if your very salvation depended on it, it just might.

    In time the Lord will respond, he will make what is scarlet, white as snow. You will be forgiven you will be healed, you will know you are loved with a love that transcends your depravity and in these moments, maintaining a faithful prayer life, you will be ready, as a novitiate, to help your brothers and sisters.

    People who talk about cruciformed love are a dime a dozen. Many, wittingly or not, in the service of the antichrist. Live a life of cruciformed love and in order to do so you must have a daily prayer regimen similar to the workout regimen of a world-class athlete….you want to speak for the Lord your God you best be ready!
    …..in no particular order…

    (1) All God’s chosen prophets acknowledge the Spirit as the author of their words. No man leads you to Christ by the force of his own intellect.

    (2) No prophet is in it for personal profit or fame.

    (3) hmm….it is only theft if the author truly receives his words from the Lord through prayer and for fear of ridicule, amongst other reasons, refuses to acknowledge his source. Most times it is a misrepresentation.

    (4) Yes, we all should pray more.

    (5) I can’t speak to what you should do with any of your writing/preaching. I am not your spiritual advisor. I offer you sound advice, from the Spirit. Pray and test, if you do not believe.

    I weep for the Christian world, so much empty chatter. Let God lead you to a deeper, more meaningful prayer life. Encourage your brothers and sisters in Christ to do likewise….FUCK THE REST…for now. It is long past time for us to all stop talking and start listening to the Holy Spirit.

    September 11, 2019
  7. Paul Johnston #

    I forgot one more thing. You and or Mr. Beck may have had a deeper experience of the Spirit in your lifetimes, then I have. You may no more about God then I do but I tell you this, if you think blog posts, published works and generally reasonable and encouraging words are going to be enough to lead any of us to salvation, you grossly underestimate the enemy you are dealing with….I have, “danced with the devil” in my lifetime and without the presence of the Holy Spirit consciously present to you and a humble and contrite heart doing it’s best to respond truthfully to the Spirit, we all die.

    September 11, 2019
  8. Does it ever occur to us to ask ourselves if our faith is fraudulent? There is a simple test. If your, “faith” as you understand it has remained mostly static and the conditions of your life would be better described as relatively prosperous and secular, rather than consistent with your understanding of Gospel, you should question whether or not your faith is real….”truly you call me Lord, Lord and I do not know you”….discussions of cruciformed love/agape can only be led by those who have first lived a life that embodied love of God , self and other. Then after years of discipleship, the very few, guided solely by the Spirit can live out and speak of such things. Self denial and sacrifice are the hallmarks of agape. In my lifetime perhaps only Mother Teresa can speak to the spiritual reality of cruciformed love. Most everyone else ought to seek deeper communion with the Holy Spirit and stop talking about things they clearly haven’t been called to speak about.

    It shocks me how many Christians think they are entitled to speak about God. Shame on us! Live the life the Gospels call us to live. The commentary is the sole prerogative of the Lord our God.

    September 14, 2019
  9. As per usual with you, Ryan, you avoid the substantive nature of my discourse…at the end of the day I am trying to challenge what I see as superficial, weekly rooted, Christian expression. If we are,”lukewarm” we shall be, “spit out”…you know whose words those are. They aren’t mine.

    If we never progress from speaking for ourselves and developing the gift of prophecy through spiritual disciplines, how can we ever know God’s will for humanity?….Or how about this, “You will know by the fruit”. The “fruit” of discipleship in the time of our Lord was a community that shared fairly among its members, as per their need, lived communally and worshipped together daily at mealtimes. Today’s Christian communities provide privileged jobs of leadership, tenured teaching positions, book deals, television shows, personal fame and wealth. A wealth not for the expressed purpose of dividing among the community, as per need….sound like fruit of the same spirit to you? Not to me.

    Instead you default to pithy comments about the “tone” of my concerns and the use of challenging adjectives. I take heart in the fact the St. Paul is said to have used a rather robust language when confronting unspiritual practice. That is to say, ideas not grounded in the Holy Spirit, are harmful.

    We were given a Spirit of truth at the Pentecost, thus making the crucifixion and resurrection not only events that happened once in time but then becoming events that through the Spirit and the Spirit only exist through time.

    I used to think you were a voice that God’s people needed to hear. I no longer think that…for now. You have a prodigious intellect and are a very capable writer but you operate under mostly your own will and a purposefully restricted voice of the Holy Spirit.

    I am beginning to think you are part of the problem. A well spoken young man who fears the accountabilities real faith requires ( make no mistake I am in the same line, perhaps at a different stage…)

    September 17, 2019
    • I’ve been trying to determine how to respond to the litany of assertions and accusations in your last few comments, Paul. I confess I don’t know where to begin or if it would even be worth the effort.

      Rather than painstakingly responding to each of your grievances or insults, I thought I might simply ask a question: You mentioned the test of “fruit” in your most recent comment. What do you think the “fruit” of making a wide array of assumptions about two fellow Christians whom you’ve never personally met (i.e., Richard Beck and myself) and who you know next to nothing about with respect to how they conduct themselves in their relationships or the practices and priorities they commit to in their local communities, yet feel quite free to confidently pronounce upon their impoverished spirituality, their inadequate prayer lives, the privileges they are no doubt gleefully hoarding, and the myriad reasons for which they are disqualified from having anything to say about God… What do you think this “fruit” is evidence of?

      You are of course free to think that I am part of the problem (I almost certainly am) or that I am a failure as a prophet (I’ve never claimed to be one—indeed, the Apostle Paul makes it quite clear that it is a gift not given to all) or that my voice isn’t worth listening to (as I’ve reminded you many times over the years, you are very free not to read what I write). But I remain completely mystified as to how this original blog post could possibly have been a springboard to the comments you have left in response. You have somehow taken a post that was about the non-negotiable centrality of Christ-like love for even enemies as a launching pad for a series of comments about the unworthiness of two relative strangers—both of whom claim to love Jesus and his church deeply—to speak about God. I simply cannot understand this.

      September 17, 2019
      • Your assumptions here are false. I exhort all of us to a deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit. You, me and the cacophony of professional religiousy voices, like Mr. Beck need to be held accountable, that is all. The fruit for me in doing this has been, lo and behold :), a deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit. I am no longer a finite person limited by my own and others very narrow definitions of myself but rather I am engaging with the “voice” of him, …” that knew me before I was born. Consecrated me; made me holy. Had a plan for me”….I am simultaneously elated, bewidered and ashamed. Overjoyed that I am final through the door. Dumbfounded that the sinner known as Paul Johnston has been made welcome in His Father’s house….and ashamed that it took over 60 years to get here, knowing that most of the decisions I made in life, made it so.

        If you do not feel present in your Father’s house, pray more and it will be so. It is essential that the foundation of your prayer life be your best efforts at a contemplative relationship. You will know it is working when all you can do is kneel, smile and adore….”let him who has ears to hear, hear”…..I don’t offend anyone.

        I offer good fruit.

        October 8, 2019
      • So, yet again, for the sake of clarity, the “good fruit” that you offer is this?

        To impugn the motives of two fellow Christians whom you’ve never personally met (i.e., Richard Beck and myself) and who you know next to nothing about with respect to how they conduct themselves in their relationships or the practices and priorities they commit to in their local communities, yet feel quite free to confidently pronounce upon their impoverished spirituality, their inadequate prayer lives, the privileges they are no doubt gleefully hoarding, and the myriad reasons for which they are disqualified from having anything to say about God.

        And all of this, again, in response to a post that was about the non-negotiable centrality of Christ-like love for even enemies? This is the content for which you felt that “religiousy voices” like mine (or Richard Beck’s or both) need to be “held accountable” for? This is evidence of the “deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit” that you speak of?

        October 8, 2019
  10. Before you take offense…understandably so, solely from a personal perspective…you are a voice for Christ both here and as a pastor. I hope you take the time to personally challenge your assumptions through a self confessional process mediated through the Spirit. Also you should be open to what others think are Spirit informed critiques of your work. The work of salvation is too important for us to prioritize polite language above all other concerns.

    September 17, 2019
    • Paul Johnston #

      I have read you for many, many years. I may know something about you, assuming your writing is honest and not persona.

      As for Mr. Beck, my grievence is a conflated one, I would agree. I am simply tired of the thousands of careerists who write book after book intending to inspire and evangelize from the safety and comfort of western priviledge and culture. When was that posture anything remotely scriptural?

      Your false equivalencies are breath taking. You speak here! You speak of God, you have at times spoken for God. Beck .et al, speak similarly and then you have the audacity to claim you are above criticism and rebuke! Because I don’t know you or him personally? Really!

      You can’t have it both ways. Either limit your engagements with people regarding Christ to only those you meet in person and stop writing here or accept that I just might have something to say to you that you should at the very least contend with.

      This is deadly serious business we engage in. I am not called to go for coffee with you and be your bud, though I honestly think that would be nice. I am called to test Spirits.

      I find yours lacking. Should I just keep quiet or am I called to speak? What do you think love commands me to do or say? How does love expect you to respond?

      Seriously bud get over what reads like pithy, self righteous indignation.

      The battle is coming. The battle is here. You could be a general. Instead I fear that you will simply stay on the sidelines and take notes.

      October 9, 2019
      • Perhaps I am simply misunderstanding the nature of your communication in this context. I (perhaps naively) assume that comments directed to me (or referring to people I quote) on this blog should have some connection, however tenuous, to what I have written in the post. For example, I think that in a blog post about loving enemies, it would make sense for critiques and rebukes to engage the substance of what I have said or quoted in my engagement of the ideas. This is how most communication works, it seems to me.

        Perhaps you disagree and think that your task is to simply criticize and rebuke and “test spirits” in general—in a way that has nothing specifically to do with the content under discussion or the theme of the posts here. Perhaps you think it’s fine to just respond to anything you read with more broad and sweeping criticisms of the inner lives and motivations and competencies and imagined practices (or absence thereof) of those who write publicly—that “love” commands you to do this. If so, that’s fine. I will simply bless you to do what you feel called to do, while acknowledging that I have neither the bandwidth nor the desire to respond to such expressions of love.

        October 10, 2019
  11. Your self-absorption runs deep. And your constant refusal to engage with my critique betrays you. You do not bless me, you know this, I know this, any thinking reader knows this. You profane the Holy Spirit when you speak of blessing in such a smug and cynical manner.

    And therein lies the heart of my complaint with you and me and anyone else who dares, I say dares, to speak of, for and about God. Read again what I have written, though I am rebuking you, I have answered all your concerns. You simply refuse to engage with my answers.

    Your twisting of, Pauline understandings is sadly ironic. Yes, there are many, “gifts” but all those who claim any gift do so only through grace. Grace is understood here to mean, “calling’. You write and have written and written again about God. You have done so for years, so I ask you, by what grace? By what calling? By what authority, brother?

    You react as a wounded ego does, not as a man called by God to speak.

    October 21, 2019
    • You have not, in fact, answered “all of my concerns.” Not by a long shot. You still have refused to address a very simple question that I asked you near the beginning of this tortuous thread, and which I have repeated in various ways since.

      I remain completely mystified as to how this original blog post could possibly have been a springboard to the comments you have left in response. You have somehow taken a post that was about the non-negotiable centrality of Christ-like love for even enemies as a launching pad for a series of comments about the unworthiness of two relative strangers—both of whom claim to love Jesus and his church deeply—to speak about God. I simply cannot understand this.

      You have not once given an even remotely compelling response to this most basic question. Instead, you have expanded upon these themes in quite confusing ways. You seem to think that by responding in more agitated and aggrieved tones, dispensing more insults and assumptions, that I will thus be inspired (compelled?) to respond. You are, I regret to say, mistaken.

      You ask why I don’t respond? Ok, here, are a few reasons why I might not be eager to engage with your comments here at any given moment (this is not an exhaustive list):

      1. Sometimes I am attending to needs in my church and community and family that require a good deal of my time and energy.

      2. Often I am simply bewildered. You evidently feel compelled to quite persistently criticize me based on a set of criteria that I have never claimed for myself. I have never claimed to be a prophet or to speak on behalf of God or to have “authority” or any such thing. I write here as an imperfect pilgrim, follower of Jesus, student, pastor. That’s it. It’s not good enough for you, I know. You think that I should claim more, that I am being a poor steward of my talent, that I am purposefully stifling the Holy Spirit, or who knows what else. I get it. I don’t agree, but I get it. I’m sorry, I don’t know what else I can say.

      3. Sometimes, I am feeling depleted and weary and have no emotional bandwidth to deal with accusations from someone who doesn’t know me. Sometimes, I don’t even have the intellectual energy to engage in demanding dialogue. Your comments are often long and cover a great deal of very loosely connected terrain. Sometimes I just don’t know where to begin.

      4. Sometimes, I just don’t feel like it. One thing I have learned over nearly thirteen years of writing online is that life is too short to be worried about people who are angry at me or who are convinced that I am wrong on the Internet. It gets boring. There are far better ways to spend my time.

      5. You are not owed a response simply because you leave a comment here. Sometimes I can’t think of anything interesting to say. Sometimes I’ve run out of ways to express my disagreement. Sometimes, I simply have no interest in arguing. This is my prerogative. As I’ve said before, circling the same wagons with you over and over again is not particularly rewarding or fruitful. So, I don’t.

      One more thing. You accuse of me of “self-absorption” and of responding out of a “wounded ego.” I wonder, what does badgering and insulting someone for not responding to them in the way that they would prefer signify? Is it possible that there is something of your own ego at work in your belligerent, accusatory, and assumption-laden personal tone? Is this evidence of the fruit of the Spirit? It doesn’t seem so to me.

      October 22, 2019

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