Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Laying Claim to Love

"We love because he first loved us." 1 John 4:19

That is the first Bible verse I ever memorized. I was about four years old when my Sunday School teacher decided that it was a good time for us to start memorizing Bible verses, and she chose this one. It was perfect because it's short, simple, and it's easy to understand—we are able to love because God loved us first.

For most of my life, I understood that verse to mean that we as Christians are able to love because we received Jesus, who is the ultimate manifestation of God's love. And that shaped how I understood the world. I walked around my school's hallways saddened because I believed that all of my non-Christian friends were not truly able to experience love. "If only they would accept Jesus as their savior," I thought, "then they would finally know what love is really like...."

All of that was a mistake.

For some reason (that I don't completely understand) Christians decided at some point to lay claim to love. They snatched love away from the herd of human emotions, tackled it to the ground, and branded it with a red-hot cross. They claimed love as their own, believing that it was something perfect and holy—and exclusive.

The only problem is that the rest of the world didn't notice. No one realized that love had been stolen and that it now belonged only to a small band of religious fanatics. No one went around looking for it. Everyone just went on loving as they had always done before.

And that's because love didn't go anywhere.

For so much of my life I believed that Christians were better people than everyone else. I thought Christians were more honest, more loving, more hospitable, and more ethical. After all, isn't God sanctifying us now that we know Jesus?

As far as I can tell, though, Christians don't seem to be much different than anyone else. Sure, Christians are more likely to follow their own moral code (even that isn't the case all the time!), but that's only because other people have their own sets of morals. But as far as most of the basics go—like honesty, loyalty, compassion, and justice—Christians don't seem to be doing much better than anyone else.

This became very apparent to me at work recently. One of my multiple bosses is a Christian who is very up-front about her faith. She is constantly talking in pathetically veiled "Christianese," nearly always speaking in terms of believing and having faith (regardless of what the conversation is about). The only problem is that she is one of the most dishonest, manipulative, two-faced, selfish people I have ever met. Don't get me wrong—she always has good intentions, but it seems that she believes that the end always justifies the means.

On the other side is another one of my bosses, who is a staunch atheist. She is cynical, harshly realistic, and has no intention of believing in a god. But the funny thing is that she is very truthful, fiercly loyal, and exceedingly compassionate. She is the most thoughtfully ethical person I've ever met, always taking time out to evaluate her decisions. For her, the means are at least as important as the end.

I don't think that those are just two freak exceptions. Being Christian or otherwise doesn't seem to have much to do with being loving or truthful or anything else. I've met Christians and Mormons and Buddhists and atheists who are all very moral people. And I've met people from all of those groups who aren't.

It may seem funny that I started talking about love and then jumped straight into ethics, but I really believe that they are one in the same. Love is about much more than a fuzzy feeling inside—it is about giving people the respect and compassion they deserve. So, when Christians tried to claim love as their own private property, they were grabbing at all the other moral virtues as well.

To be honest, I think Christians missed. When they tried to steal love away from everyone else, all they ended up doing was creating a sad counterfeit. Love is not about telling people they are sinners. It is not about serving them in the name of your own agenda. It is not about manipulating others to achieve the ends you believe are right.

Everyone loves because God first loved all of us. God gave his creations the gift of love, so we're all capable of showing love—regardless of where we place our faith.

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