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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.

6 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

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