Commanded to Love?

Commanded to Love?

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

May 2, 2010

Scripture: Revelation 21:1-6; John 13: 31-35

“I give you a new commandment: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ You must love one another exactly as I have loved you. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples; because there is love among you.” — John 13:34-35

A few days ago I saw yet another one of those movies about a police search for a serial killer in NYC. I watched chiefly because two heavyweight actors who are favorites of mine, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, were together playing the leading roles. One of the serial killer’s victims was a Roman Catholic priest, whom the killer shot to death in the confessional box. Later he confesses roughly as follows, “I was only a little boy when he put me on his lap and told me he loved me… He deserved to die for what he did to me.” So we are abruptly face to face with an enormous, crippling crime committed by the disciples of Jesus in the name of love, and in the showcase branch of the church, the Roman Catholic denomination.

I can hardly speak out loud the dismay I feel at the persuasive and ever growing evidence that the single largest organized body of Jesus’ followers is being shown, against it own will or willingness, to be and have been for generations a massive sexual predation of little children. It sickens me to see the craven defensiveness of these men who continue to put the interest of an institution ahead of their purported Master’s love for people young and old. Any decent person who witnessed Cardinal Levada’s oily prevarications on the PBS Newshour last week must conclude that these princes of the church and their episcopal accomplices are embarrassments to anyone who still wishes to be called a Christian, and unworthy to lead us.

In my opinion, the only approach to the beginning of a remedy for this infestation is for the whole hierarchy of the Catholic church from the rotten head to the feet of clay to resign en masse and exile themselves to the loneliest and most punitive outposts of their monastic properties, where they might repent at leisure until they face the judgment of God. If they refuse to imprison themselves in this way they should be hauled off to civil prisons under indeterminate sentence. I include the Pope and Cardinal Levada in this purview, but I know this is an impossible dream. “Who made you a judge in this case?” you ask. “I made myself,” I answer, “because Jesus is my Lord too, and furthermore I believe any decent human being would agree with me.”

At a time when violence is erupting from fissures in all the religions, when Islam is planning to nuke the world if the rest of us don’t put our women in purdah and prostrate ourselves five times a day in prayer, when Sikhs and Hindus and Muslims are murdering each other wholesale across India and Pakistan, and Buddhists have just completed a slaughter of Tamils in Sri Lanka, Christianity’s showcase institution is unveiled as a perpetrator of violence against children, not as an occasional aberration but as a systemic activity, as an institutionalized violence against its most vulnerable charges and against the poor parents who entrusted them. You may judge this view of mine to be extreme, but when this activity continues for generations over wide geographical areas and those institutionally responsible for stopping it cover it up, putting the reputation of the institution ahead of the health of those it supposedly serves, that is clearly institutionalized violence and common crime, and my position is in fact only modestly just. And more than violence and crime this institutional behavior is a travesty of faith, a mockery of hope, and a betrayal of love.

I believe that a wrong understanding of the nature of the Church and a faulty image of the nature of the ministerial office in the church are two salient causes of this institutionalized sexual violence. They are not the only causes but they are close to the heart of the cluster of causes that pushes this cart of catastrophe. I cannot address those issues here but I am willing to put my claims to debate at any time in the appropriate forum.

Let me, therefore, cut away to our text and ask what it has for us today. In the light of what I have been saying my attention falls first on the statement that love is what describes the spirit of the community of Jesus’ disciples. “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples; because there is love among you.” That is surely a definition of the church, the community where love is present.

Then I ask, “What is love?” and the text tells me that it is to imitate Jesus. Twice Jesus tells us: “You must love one another exactly as I have loved you.” In this context the Jesus to imitate is the Lord who kneels before his subjects, the teacher who washes his students’ feet (A teacher who tried that today would be thrown into prison immediately, because the civil sphere is at the other extreme from the Catholic Church in these matters. Touch a child, even in humble love, and it’s the state prison for you!). In our world students are expected to honor their teachers and subjects serve their rulers, but here in the world of our text, the world of Jesus it is different: “And so if I your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet you should wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example so that what I have done you should do too (vs. 14-15).”

When the Lord humbles himself before the serfs, they in turn are obliged by that example to humble themselves before each other, and thus the escalating competitiveness of rivals stops. Escalating rivalry is the essential nature of human groups clustered around a figure of power and prestige. The followers vie for greater and greater shares of the prestige of the leader. In the White House I believe the symbol of this power is called “face time” with the President, and is placarded by the proximity of your office to the Oval Office. In the corporate world it is the “corner office” that counts, and in show business the Star on the dressing room door. Not so in the world of Jesus. There, if there is a movement driven by desire it is driven downward, to your knees, to serve.

Jesus stops this escalation of rivalry not by commandment but by example; thus not only the content but also the form and the dynamics of commandment as such is changed. The “new commandment” is new in every way; no longer a sheer assertion of authority, but now the setting of an example and the communicating of a vision and an inspiration. The situation is like the good military officer who leads by doing and demonstrating. It is the heart of leadership, that elusive quality that makes us want to follow a leader and even anticipate his needs and wants before he has to ask or command.

The Pope, therefore, should lead by example and thus inspire his accomplices in this institutional crime to cease from evasion and prevarication. He should open the archives and show the world all the shameful truth. We will all then be able to forgive, and we shall, all of us forgive, because as Marilyn Albright once said of the USA, the Roman Church is an “indispensable institution,” especially in our exiguous times. The contamination of this indispensable spiritual resource has brought on us yet more dread of apocalypse than is already abroad. I myself feel something like spiritual panic and there runs through my mind that question of Jesus. “When the Son of Man comes, shall he find faith on earth (Luke 18:8)?”

This has been a sermon driven by circumstances, while trying to be true to the timeless Word of God. The commandment to love in close context has been the example of Jesus on his knees washing the disciples’ feet, but that has been only the image of an image. In the total context the example (and of course much more than an example) of love, is Jesus on the Cross, washing the feet of the world in his own divine blood. That is what Jesus points to when he says to Peter who tries to prevent him from washing his feet, “At present you do not understand what I am doing, but after what is about to happen, you will understand (John13: 7);” and what is about to happen is the slow torture to death on a cross of this lovely man who never did anyone any harm, but only good, humbly and truly. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends (John 15: 13).” And even more telling, “…for his enemies (Romans 5: 10).”