Jesus, Michael Brown, and the Love We Need Now
“I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love,” declares Martin Luther King, Jr., his voice echoing down through the decades. “I’m talking about a strong, demanding love.” That’s the kind of love we need now. As the country reels in the wake of the grand jury’s decision in St. Louis, we need strong, demanding love more than ever.
It’s precisely the love Jesus had in mind. When he famously said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he wasn’t quoting Hallmark. He was quoting ancient Jewish scripture: Leviticus 19:18, to be exact, which reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
No emotional bosh here. What Jesus had in mind was love for our neighbors in precisely those situations during which we might be tempted to take vengeance upon them, or bear a grudge against them. This is no domesticated love. This is wild, difficult, true love. Turmoil is its natural habitat, and so it must be strong and demanding and clear.
We will never know what happened in what the county prosecutor called the “altercation” alongside and inside Officer Darren Wilson’s police SUV. But we do know that Wilson decided to leave that vehicle, pursue Michael Brown, and use deadly force against an unarmed young man.
Stepping back from the storm of controversy around the disputed details of the case, one of the things that’s most heartbreaking is how awash our neighborhoods are in violence. Police officers risk their lives every day, and they deserve our continual thanks and respect. And yet, surely there are alternatives to lethal force in situations like these. Surely there are other options: staying in the vehicle; calling and waiting for backup; pursuing at a distance; withdrawing when a suspect turns to approach; firing warning shots; shooting to wound, not to kill; using a weapon other than a firearm; and so on.
The inner genius of Jesus’ call to love is that it is set directly in contrast to vengeance, to the raw impulse we feel in situations of stress and injury to avenge, to inflict injury in return for injury. In this sense, true love is a species of restraint, of forbearance, of practical wisdom under pressure. It is not easy. To act in this way is demanding, and requires great strength. We’ll never know exactly why Officer Wilson made the decisions he did, but Jesus’ teaching about the nonviolence of love is a lesson for us all.
And so his call goes out to each of us. Many feel anger about the grand jury’s decision, or about Officer Wilson’s actions, or about the actions of the crowds in Ferguson, or about the fact that our society seems to sanction deadly force against unarmed young men of color, or about the opinions expressed around us with which we sharply disagree. And as the anger smolders on every side, the temptations to avenge arise yet again.
But precisely in the midst of such temptations, Jesus calls each of us to a strong and demanding love, fierce enough to listen to those with different points of view than our own. Rigorous enough to speak the truth as we understand it, faithful enough to imagine new ways to respond to violence without escalating it, dedicated enough to continue the indispensable work of building relationships long after the tear gas and the headlines have faded away.
It’s a simple, gritty, challenging commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. ”And who is my neighbor?” someone asked from the crowd. Your neighbor is Michael Brown. Your neighbor is Darren Wilson. Your neighbor is that person on the other side of the political spectrum, on the other side of the color line, on the other side of town.
Pray for the neighborhood. Pray that the Holy Spirit might continue to work with us and through us and for us, turning us away from vengeance, away from grudges, away from violence, away from blood. And toward love. Only love. Strong, demanding love.
The kind of love, put simply, with which Jesus loves us.
A big SALT thank you to our very own Rev. Matthew Myer Boulton for these simple and gritty words. And, thanks to Rae Karim who helped us make a work of love in the form of a short film! Also, if anyone would like us to dropbox them a copy of this film for worship, Sunday School, or small group discussion, just drop us a line and we'll be happy to do it :)