The United States is the divided states. The tight presidential election confirmed this if we didn’t already know. Some are blue. Others are red. And often, political differences lead to political divisions and those divisions sow seeds of hatred across the chasm, creating enemies. Does it have to be that way? So bitter, so hateful?
I believe there’s another way, though it’s not easy nor cheap. But it is the one thing we owe each other as human beings. And yes, we have a lot of debt. I’m not talking about our national debt which is in the trillions. Nor am I speaking about credit card debt due to high spending and high interest rates that you just can’t seem to pay it off. Nor am I speaking of college loans. I’m talking about another kind of debt that we owe.
We owe each other love. This is not a new idea. Writing two thousand years ago the Apostle Paul tells the church in Rome, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” This is not a sentimental feeling. I’m not referring to erotic love (eros) or friendship love (philia) but God’s love (agape), unconditional, unmerited, and to some, rationally incomprehensible love. Gospel artist, Kirk Franklin says it this way when he sings, “Love, a word that comes and goes but few people really know what it means to really love somebody.”
Let me be clear. Love is a noun, agape, but it is also a verb. It isn’t a feeling. It is an ethic. It is action. As philosopher Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That means love is active and more than saying, ‘I love you.’ Love “does no wrong to a neighbor.” It’s not an idea only to discuss, but something to embody, to live, to enact in community.
This ethic of love (agape), includes loving your enemies, even those you consider political enemies. This is tough. But again, ancient wisdom, this time from a sermon of Jesus, says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
This difficult calling has been echoed closer to our time by the theologian Howard Thurman, a spiritual mentor for many of the civil rights leaders. Thurman wrote in the early twentieth century during a time of seething racism and segregation between whites and Blacks, the privileged and the underprivileged. He saw and experienced the great chasm between human beings as one on the underside of society. Even in this context, he wrote in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited: “The religion of Jesus says to the disinherited: ‘Love your enemy. Take the initiative in seeking ways by which you can have the experience of a common sharing of mutual worth and value. It may be hazardous. But you must do it.’”
In articulating this command to love, Thurman emphasized the importance of the “reverence of personality” in which every person, even the oppressor, even an enemy, is viewed as a human being created in the image of God. Of course, this isn’t easy but he knows that “hatred is death to the spirit and disintegration of ethical and moral values.”
When we lose sight of the personality of others and act as if we own everything and owe nothing, we turn from love to hate and violence. Any type of violence—albeit physical, verbal, emotional, psychological—is proof of the moral and spiritual hole in the heart of humanity. Violence is a denial of otherness and vicious opposition to the love of God.
Bitterness and hate not only does damage to the hated but to the hater. It divides but love binds. It is what we owe each other now and every day, rooted in the fact that we are all human beings of value and worth. We can make lots of noise against each other but why can’t we be for each other even across our differences? Differences don’t have to create divisions and make humans into demons.
We’ve cast our votes already for a presidential candidate but I hope post-election, you will still cast your vote for and charge your life with love. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love is for the other. It isn’t defined according to what it is against. It is defined by what it is for and it is for you, me, all of humanity. To play off the words of Thurman, love is a crown placed over our heads which for the rest of our lives we should keep trying to grow tall enough to wear. It is the power we need in the days ahead.
Love one another. We owe it to each other.
Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is the Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.
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