“They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.” I sang that song frequently in my early discovery of the life-changing transformation of Christian faith. Simple but profound lyrics remind us of Christian unity, the joy of walking and working side by side. A song full of hope. Sadly, hope rarely realized in the larger Christian world, the one place above all where it should be seen.
The world pounds us with nastiness. Public and private horrors confront us at every turn. Obviously public horrors include genocides, murderers, and tyrants with no accountability for their mistreatment of fellow human beings. Less obvious public horrors are financial decisions that profit a few and leave hordes in soul-destroying debt; power plays in home and work intended to benefit the one at the expense of the many, the repeating of gossip and spreading untrue rumors, and actions motivated by envy rather than a spirit of charity.
Then there are the private horrors: destructive addictions, child and spousal abuse, out-of-control tempers, homes filled with tension and anger, all hidden by masks of niceness, comfort and often expensive exteriors.
Oh yes, this is a difficult and broken world. Into this, Jesus comes, offers a different way, and says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
This is the way of Jesus, a way only a few Christians have taken to heart. It is not necessarily a way of right belief—Jesus seemed extraordinarily uninterested in such things and had particularly harsh words for those of his day who insisted on right belief. Instead, it is a way of right action motivated for the right reasons. What are the right reasons? That God’s forgiving grace has been extended to all and everyone who receives it has an obligation to pass it onto others. What are the right actions? Simply, treating all those around us as special and very much loved children of God.
Yet in the Christian world, much more seems to hang on right belief rather than right action. This insistence in right belief—whoever gets to define it—turns Christians into some of the most hateful people around. No longer, “they will know us by our love,” but “they will know us by our interminable arguments about who is really saved and who is not, who gets grace and who is denied it.” Such words hide the beauty and rhythm not only of the song but also the Gospel itself.
I spent much of my Christian life in the world that says, “Believe correctly or else.” There were also promises set out: “Believe this way and your life will turn out OK.” I was told that as a woman, I had no place in Christian leadership. The call that I knew I was hearing from God must be a lie because God could not possibly call a woman to pastoral leadership.
Then I discovered Jesus. Jesus: the way and the truth and the life. Jesus shows the way to die for one’s enemies, to embrace total betrayal of one’s friends and then offer them forgiveness, to lay down one’s life for those who really don’t deserve it and then to find the resurrection on the other side of that death. Jesus shows us the way to lose our lives so that we may indeed gain them. Jesus shows us the way to find graceful truth that gives life, rather than ungraceful truth that says, “believe as I tell you or you will perish forever.”
At the very lowest point of my life, when I too had experienced spectacular betrayal by those who call themselves Christian, one of my sons asked me, “Mom, how can you stay being a Christian after this?” My answer: “I’m not a Christian because of those who call themselves Christian but must destroy those who disagree with them. I’m a Christian because of Jesus.”
Oh, that they would indeed know us by our love.