“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you
We in the West live in an age of passion. We have been taught that the pathway towards truth, the pathway towards justice, the pathway towards well-being is to be found in strong emotions that we feel, speak from, and act upon, that our heart (in the modern sense of emotions, not the biblical sense of purpose) is the place where live if given meaning, hope, and direction. This is not an altogether bad thing in that our stronger emotions may be understood as our passions may be metaphorically understood as our bodies teaching our minds things that may be good to search for, explore, etc.
The problem, however, is the way we give passion primacy in determining truth and, as a consequence, the way our frameworks for morality, ethics, and justice are becoming increasingly prone to the black-and-white thinking of stark dualisms between pure good and utter evil. As a consequence, anything that might ruin our good ‘vibe’ is taken to be a sign of bad, wrong, evil, etc. Any person who says something that challenges our dreams of passionate bliss is hostile to us in some manner. When as a society our passions are given the primacy of truth in the form of emotivism, rather than possibilities to explore and learn from other sources, including most notably other people, we find ourselves in a world full of conflict and strife. In such a culture, is it any wonder that we are often biting each other’s heads off?
In Matthew 7.13-14, Jesus contrasts two instructed ways of life. One way of life that one enters into in a wide gate, representing the various teachers of Jewish piety and Torah in 1st century Judea, has a lot of people walking this broad path, but this ultimately leads to destruction. On the other hand, there is another way of life that is narrow, because Jesus alone is the one who brings people to the Father (John 14.6), that few find to take on a hard road that takes up the cross that will lead to life. While this passage has often been taken to be a warning about heaven or hell, where Jesus is the only one who can get you to heaven, it makes better sense with the Sermon on the Mount that this refers to the results that occur in people’s lives as a result of which path of religious instruction people take: do they embrace many of the so-called teachers of Israel, which ultimately leads to a way of life that puts people towards destruction as the Jewish rebellion of 66-70AD that culminated with the destruction of Jerusalem, or do they embrace the cross-bearing path that Jesus teaches that brings life? The former may seem right to many people, but it promises what it cannot deliver, whereas the latter path promises life only with the cost of being willing to give up one’s life.
How fitting this is for our current situation we face in the West. We have been taught by many people, including religious teachers, various ways of pursuing the good life. Whether it be some form of veiled Stoicism that appeals to God, Jesus, etc., but yet fundamentally denies the significance of emotions as if creation and the heart is by default bad and evil1 or the hostile reaction against Stoicism that teaches our passions provide the pathway to blessing, life, and (often relativistic) truth, we have witnessed the destructive trajectory that these teachers have brought about within Western society. Stoicism veiled within total depravity and pagan mythology veiled with popular psychology (and perhaps a dash of “love” from the Bible) has been a path that has brought us towards destruction. Shall we look at this year, 2020, as the year of God’s judgment come to fruition on the center of the Western world, the United States, by allowing the fruits of our sins, idolatries, ideologies, and ultimately teachings that lead to destruction to come to pass: coronavirus, a potentially record-setting hurricane season, record-setting wild-fires, all of which can in one way or another associated with the environmental devastation of God’s creation and our dreams of unhinged economic expansionism, protest, and unfortunately riots, in response to the pervasive injustices committing against African-Americans, and even a sign in the heavens of an asteroid that will come near to the earth the day before the presidential election? Perhaps what we have been taught for decades has been the road to perdition and God is allowing the fruits of our teachings to come upon us.
Is there any hope for our future? Can unity and peace beging to define our world more? Yes, if a people were to enter the narrow gate that brings people on the harder path, perhaps these people can be those who bring life and peace in the midst of the pervasiveness of death and chaos that we are inhabiting. At the heart of the pedagogy of the Western world has been a way of life that ultimately erodes the basis of peace and unity. Whether it be the highly contemptuous judgment of Christianized Stoicism or the rages against perceived injustices among the party of passion, these ways of life have ultimately set our hearts against each other. However, it is people that embrace the love of the cross in their own lives that have the possibility for becoming bridges that create shalom in our world.
The love of the cross, agape love, has two expressions that broaden the range of people that we treat with benevolence and deepens our commitment to those who we have affection for. Agape love calls us to a benevolent love that regards even those who might set themselves against us as people we are called to love, pray for, and bless like our Heavenly Father brings sun and rain on the good and the evil alike. However, agape love also calls us to an affectionate love for those who we share life together with, friends, that culiminates in sacrificing ourselves for them. In learning to both face vulnerability to those who at against us by not fight but loving, praying, and blessing and by being willing to give ourselves for our friends, we broaden the circle of love and we deepen the center of the circle.
These two expressions of love, benevolent love and affectionate love, are both essential to realizing a life-giving, shalom-bestowing way of life. On the one hand, as humans we all need people we can share deep bonds of affection of shared life together with along with being able to live in relative peace with those who we don’t identify with in a deeply personal way. However, the way the West has idealized the passions of romance as the underlying metaphor for how we understand ourselves and our relationships has ultimately cut against benevolent and affectionate love. Passion is ultimately egocentric in that it is attracted and drawn to someone or something because of the various goods we consciously and unconsciously imagine something or someone else to bring to us, whether it be attention, power, sex, wealth, etc., etc. However, like most powerful expressions of emotions, these passions fade with time, making these flimsy foundations for the long-term, and these passions make us defensive towards anyone who might critical of them, setting our hearts against those who we believe set themselves against us. When our passions are taken to the the center of our “love,” it makes us increasingly less benevolent and less likely to be selflessly affectionate towards others. However, when we look at our relationships through the lens of ever-expanding benevolence and ever-deepening affection and concern for the well-being for others, we have the basis to building bridges between people. When we endure the cross that comes with ever-expanding benevolence and ever-deepening affectionate concern, our passions lose control so that we are not being increasingly being set against others and unrelentingly subservient to whatever desires we have for ourselves.
May two different visions of marriage and romance be taken as representative for the contrast with the way of passion and the way of agape.2
In the way of passion, two people may develop a deep desire, if not craving, for each other that may allow for a relationship to blossom. Insofar as they give to each other the dreams of their passion, the relationship will continue to grow and blossom, possibly to even marriage. However, as each other’s interests and desires begin to diverge and change, so will the relationship be shown to be on a shaky foundation. Irritability, defensiveness, and even derision and disgust may increasingly define the relationship as each partner feels the other partner as failed to give them what they think they deserve, which is defined by the egocentric desires that fueled their initial passion. Divorce and potentially even enmity is the pathway that passion leads to. When passion excludes and rejects other teachers of the heart and life, disappointment, despair, and hostility stand at the doorstep.
On the other hand, there may be a woman and a man who find a passion for each other. However, rather than letting the passion control, they focus on the well-being of the other. As their relationship grows and builds, they learn to give to each other the desires of their hearts that started the flames of passion, but the foundation of their relationship is built upon an initial benevolence towards each other that blossoms towards affectionate concern for the other. Their relationship persists and happily so because the foundations of their heart is ultimately grounded in a mutual, agape love that is the foundation for life shared together. However, this can only happen because each has been willing to bear their own cross in their life, which directs them to remain benevolent in the face of relationship conflicts and to deepen their affection through self-giving. Passion has a teacher in the cross that does not ultimately reject the desires that fuel passion, but calls these desires to be pushed into the background so that benevolence and affection for the other may grow.
As much truth as this has to bear for relationships between a man and a woman, may this be taken as a metaphor for how agape can bring shalom in an increasingly hostile culture.
- It is common to appeal to Jeremiah 17.9 to describe the fundamentally corrupt nature of the heart, but a better translation based upon the context, Septuagint, and the Hebrew letters used would suggest it is better translated to be about the imperceptibility of the heart and the human that only God can understand, and not about the innate corruption of the human heart. A possible blog post exploring this in the future is in the planning stages.
- I do not represent the way of Stoicism here as I do not wish to dilute the portrayal of the way of passion.