“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
These are the words of Jesus. In them we touch upon the very center of his message and, therefore, upon the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. Everything that Jesus sought to communicate to his disciples in many months of teaching he gathered up in the new commandment that they love one another as he loved them. This love, which he likened to that of a self-sacrificing friend, is the one unique sign by which he wanted his disciples known in the world. Without exaggeration it can be said that the whole mission of Jesus was concentrated on one thing, the coming together of people who would love one another in this self-giving way.
We may speak of this as the mystery of the church, for the Christian church has no other purpose in this world than to extend the mission of Jesus by establishing communities of love.
Unfortunately, this deepest mystery of the church is often obscured in our time by certain stereotypes, widely held, but grossly misleading. One such stereotype connects the Christian church with a certain type of building. Another links it to worship assemblies involving a set pattern of hymns, prayers, rituals, and sermons. Still another stereotype associates the Christian church with a particular kind of clergy leader. The great majority of people, when they see these three things: a “churchy” building, people assembling there for Sunday morning worship and a clergyman leading them, automatically suppose this is a Christian church. It is almost as if Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, by your buildings, by your worship services, and by your clergy.”
But Jesus had little or nothing to say about any of these three prominent characteristics of the church in our time. He spoke instead of disciples loving one another.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
What will it mean for men and women, young and old, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, wise and foolish, families and single people to love one another in this way? What lifestyle will emerge? And especially, since the great majority of people in our time live in cities, what significance will this loving way have for the shape of our common life in the urban centers of our modern society?
It is impossible, of course, to answer fully such questions as these, and especially so in a brief pamphlet. We will only select four of the most critical ones, and try to illustrate in part what bearing “the way of love” has on each of them.
Love and Our Choice of a Place to Live
An urgent practical problem facing more and more people in our society, and especially those moving to our urban centers, is the determination of a place to live. That the command to love one another in a self-giving way might have some consequences for this choice, may sound at first glance like a strange proposition. Actually, it focuses on one of the most disturbing phenomena of our time: the thoughtless mobility and ethnic rootlessness of vast numbers of city dwellers.
Unlike the migrations of the past when larger families or religious fraternities often moved as groups from one place to another, the migrations of today, for the most part, ignore familial and fraternal ties. People move to the cities as individuals or small families. They come in quest of jobs. Once there they choose their domicile, very often without any deep consideration of the bearing their choice might have on relationships beyond the job or beyond their immediate small family of husband, wife and children. As a consequence, our cities are beginning more and more to resemble vast ant heaps, lacking within them the vital smaller communities that alone make a truly human life possible.
Christians no less than others are guilty at this point. A typical Christian congregation may find its members scattered far and wide, making it difficult for them to know and serve one another, should they even want to.
Many sociologists believe that this scattering process at work in our society and the resultant disintegration of primary communities is at the root of many of the social ills that afflict us. In our fellowships we want to fight against this, and feel it a natural expression of the call to love one another that we should take up this fight at the very simple and visible point of our choice of housing.
When possible, we want to live within easy walking distance of one another. Scattered as many of us are during the working days across the sprawling network of the city, we want to come home at evening time to one neighborhood where we are readily available to one another in times of need. We want to be able to meet daily if necessary without climbing into our cars and driving half a city away. We want our children to grow up experiencing more than the lonely crowd. We want them to know in their daily life the reality of a closely-knit circle of families and friends.
Love and Our Economic Life
Physical proximity alone, however, as we all know, is no guarantee of a loving community life. A more vital question has to do with the bearing of Christ-like love on our economic life, surely an issue whose importance for the life of men and women everywhere, especially in our cities, is paramount.
On this point it will be necessary to say some hard things. We do not apologize for this, for Jesus himself warned us that love’s way in economic life would be found exceedingly difficult, especially by people of wealth. “How hard,” he said to his disciples as they together watched a rich young man turn away from the invitation to discipleship, “How very hard it will be for those with riches to enter the kingdom of heaven… Harder than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle!”
Is it not ironic that what Jesus said would be hard has become so easy today! Is it not strange that the churches of our time often court the rich young rulers instead of confronting them with a difficult challenge?
There is only one explanation for this: The churches of today have failed miserably in asserting the primacy of love over the economic life of their members.
What would happen should they do otherwise? At least this much seems clear: a beginning would have to be made at the point of our strong feeling for private possessions. Not only the very rich, but almost all of us in our society are simply too attached to our wealth. We are too possessive. A strong sense of private possessions, prevalent in many societies, has been cultivated among us Americans into a national virtue.
When our children grab from one another and pout, “This is mine,” we teach them to share. But when these same children grow up and earn their tens of thousands of dollars, grabbing it to themselves and saying in effect, “This is mine,” we admire them for being true enterprising Americans. It is this unchallenged possessiveness which has led to the gross injustices which everywhere accompany and corrupt Western capitalism.
The new commandment to love one another seeks to liberate us from this slavish attachment to what is “mine” so that we can begin sharing. Jesus said to the crowds that accompanied him, “Unless you renounce all that you have, you cannot be my disciples.” This he said not because he wanted them to live without possessions like so many wandering beggars, but because he wanted them to share. “Go, distribute to the poor,” he told the rich young ruler, after challenging him to sell all of his great possessions. When Jesus visited the home of Zacchaeus, and he cried out, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Jesus replied, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
After Pentecost the early Christians were inspired by this same revolutionary attitude when they stopped calling their possessions their own and began sharing freely with each other.
We feel an urgency that people find this same loving way in economic life today. We want to make a beginning in our Fellowship by asking all our members to cultivate that inner detachment from things which will make a just and equitable sharing of goods possible. To facilitate this, we have adopted the old Christian practice of a common treasury to which we bring our economic assets and earnings. From this treasury the members receive a basic living allowance as well as support for other necessities such as housing and medical expenses. Fellowship funds in excess of what is needed for the support of its various members and guests are then distributed elsewhere.
Love and our Personal Relationships
Again it must be said, however, that people may live close together physically and still have little genuine love for one another. We need only think of the many marriages where husband and wife live in one house, operate from one bank account, but whose life is cold. More important, therefore, than either of the two issues we have already discussed, is the bearing of Christ-like love on our personal relationships.
Here it may be helpful to introduce a word that has come to have special significance in our Fellowship: the word “openness.” Jesus once characterized the Devil as a liar and the father of lies. The essence of the demonic, these words imply, is to distort reality. When this demonic activity penetrates into human relationships, it closes people off from one another. This is the “darkness” that poets and prophets speak of when they write of the Devil and his works. The alternative to this is “openness,” the honest giving of our lives to God and to one another in truth. This is the “light” in which apostles and saints constantly encourage us to walk.
There are two areas of human experience where honesty often breaks down, and the lie gains foothold, wreaking havoc. One is at the point of guilt; another is at the point of judgmental attitudes.
When we violate our conscience, we experience an internal reaction not unlike pain. It is the sign that we are moral beings and alive to the reality of God and our fellow brothers and sisters. This painful realization of sin is guilt. At the point of feeling guilty, we are very susceptible to the lie, for our instinct at that point is to hide. In the old story of Adam and Eve, we are told that they sought to hide themselves after they had eaten the forbidden fruit. Very often this hiding takes the form of wearing one face to the world and another to ourselves. We may experience ourselves to be anxious and depressed because of our sin, but to our friends we wear another face, perhaps one that is lighthearted.
“No man,” said Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Scarlet Letter, “can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
Right here is the source of many an emotional and social disturbance, and there is no answer to it other than the restoration of integrity. The guilt-ridden person must acknowledge what she most deeply knows to be true. She must stop hiding and make a new start with others in genuine honesty.
Just as troublesome as guilt in breeding deception are those judgmental attitudes we often carry around against others. Guilt has to do with our sins. Judgmental attitudes have to do with another’s sins. This other person disturbs us with their failures and mistakes. Yet all too often we cannot bring ourselves to speak to them. We maintain instead a lofty distance, perhaps commending ourselves for our capacity for tolerance. We are not opposed, of course, to mentioning the faults to others than the one involved. With the person, though, we go on as usual as though nothing had come between us. This all-too-common form of dishonesty poisons the atmosphere of human relationships.
Again, the only solution is one that begins with genuine openness. One of the instructions of Jesus bearing directly on life among sisters and brothers in the fellowship of the church is his word: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” (Matthew 18: 15 NEB)
Where my sin is involved, the only escape from deception is confession and forgiveness. Where my brother’s or sister’s sin is involved, the only honest way is loving admonition in a spirit of genuine humility, “looking to yourself,” as Paul the Apostle said,“lest you too be tempted.”
Both of these we seek to practice in our fellowships. We want to cultivate an atmosphere in which people can speak the truth to one another in love. We sense especially the need for authentic personal relationships where the guilt ridden and the judgmental can freely relate to one another those things which are most deeply troubling them and so find one another in the truth.
Love and Decision Making
The deepest personal relations, however, are built neither on a foundation of confession nor admonition. The struggle against sin and weakness and the fight for integrity in human relations is only the prelude to a deeper personal involvement, the involvement of people with one another in search for God’s will. The call of Jesus is a call to search for a new communal order encompassing all dimensions of our life, “Seek first God’s kingdom and its righteousness,” he said, “and everything else will be added unto you.”
Where people affirm this call and unite to seek this kingdom, profound consequences follow for the processes by which they make decisions. Here as in other spheres the way of love challenges some of the evolving patterns in urban society.
Along with the personal isolation of many city dwellers, about which we have already written, have come some subtle but far-reaching changes in the way they make decisions. The crucial point is that the individual or the individual family, once nurtured in a larger stable family or community, is now making more and more decisions alone, unsupported and unchallenged by anyone else. There is no one else. Small wonder that urban life has had to spawn a network of institutional counseling services unknown before. This, we believe, is an unnatural development. The individual family was never meant to carry the load it is now trying to carry. The small family of mother, father, and children needs a larger supportive context. It thrives best in the give and take of a closely-knit community of families. Where this is not present and husband and wife try to face all the questions and problems of human existence by themselves, they either become more and more frustrated or simply ride with the tide of an ever-changing mass opinion. This, in part, accounts for the breakdown of marriages in our cities, as many sociologists have pointed out.
Jesus, in his call to love, suggests another way. On one occasion while he was seated in the midst of the company of his disciples, his mother and brothers came seeking him, wanting to take him home with them. Jesus responded by saying, “Who are my brothers and mother?” And then, looking around at the circle of his disciples, he said, “They who do the will of God, they are my mother and my brothers.” In this statement he characterized his disciples as a family, bound together by their common allegiance to the will of God. In another memorable saying (Matthew 18:20), he pointed to the company of those who gather in his name as the place on earth where he would be present to give guidance.
In our Fellowship we want to unite in this way. We want to support one another in the decisions we are facing. We want to take counsel together in the spirit of a common search for God’s will. We do this in many ways, but this side of our life finds special emphasis among us at the time of our members’ meetings. To this meeting we bring those individual and group decisions that are confronting us. Is someone facing a difficult moral question in connection with his/her work? Is another out of a job and looking for a new one? Has a neighbor come to us with a difficult request for help? How can we take our stand against war and other forms of violence in our land? These and many other questions like them are spread out before God and one another and sought through to an answer. Very often we become aware that the solution arrived at is far superior to that which any single one of us could have found alone.
In closing we want to emphasize again that these few comments in no sense are meant as a full or final interpretation of the meaning of the way of love. We have not mentioned for example the profound bearing that the teachings of Jesus have on our attitudes toward conflict and prejudice. In other writings we have sought to express the conviction that the way of love is a way of non-retaliation and active good will even toward those who present themselves as our personal or political enemies. In this pamphlet we simply wanted to concentrate on some of the more pressing communal problems facing us as we try to live together as Christians in our day. We send these few thoughts on these matters forth for whatever challenge or stimulation they might offer to others seeking in these troubled times a more promising future for themselves and their children.
Revision (October 2000) of a pamphlet written for Reba Place Fellowship by John W. Miller in the early 1960’s.