Christianity is based on the principle that love is more powerful than fear or hate, or passion for power, or greed for money, or lust of sex, or pride of self.
Unfortunately, this view has never gained wide acceptance. Totalitarian governments hold their sway through human fear. Current terrorists thrive on hate. Friedrich Nietzsche exalted the will to power. According to Marxists, economic factors determine the course of events. Sigmund Freud found the sex drive at the deepest human level. And since the days of Epicurus not a few have argued that enlightened selfishness ought to be the highest motive that guides men’s actions.
Each can point to human history for verification of his thesis. In his insane thirst for power, Adolf Hitler reportedly murdered six million Jews and plunged a continent into the destructive agony of modern war. Bruno Hauptmann’s thirst for money led him to kidnap and murder an innocent child in cold blood. Seduced by the wiles of Cleopatra, Mark Antony sold his right to an empire for lust of sex. To assuage his hurt pride, Benedict Arnold betrayed his country. And in our own day, congressmen have thrown to the wind reputations for integrity they have labored many years to build.
In common parlance, we carelessly speak of love for power, love of money, love for revenge. But these lesser “loves” obviously fall far short of the self-giving, self-sacrificing commitment to another person that represents one essential of Christian love. And love is far more powerful than any of these misnamed substitutes that are merely disguised forms of selfishness. For love of Muslims of North Africa, Borden of Yale sacrificed first his wealth and finally his life. For the love of God’s law, Everett Koop jeopardized his medical reputation and almost forfeited the honor of appointment as surgeon general of the United States.
Love is the most powerful force in the world. Nothing can compare with a mother’s love for her child. For love a human will gladly forfeit power, money, sex, pride, and fife itself. For love humans have endured torture, ridicule, shame, and slavery. That is why self-forgetting love is not only the most powerful force in the world, but also the most dangerous. No other force is quite so constructive, but neither can any other be quite so devastating to human values as misdirected love.
As Christians, therefore, we cannot simply appeal to the purity and strength of our passion to determine what is right. But how then can we distinguish right love from wrong? Can love really serve as the guide for our actions?
A lawyer once asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus responded by quoting the Old Testament: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then he added the amazing statement: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The entire ethical system of the Bible is summed up in these two commandments of love. This biblical law of holy love works two ways. First, love is the motive that impels us to do good—loving God and our fellow humans.
In this God sets the pattern for us, for he is the original lover (“God is love”—1 John 4:16). He brought us into being as objects of his love that he might have fellowship with us and we with him, and that we might enjoy each other forever. God’s love is also the divine motive for our redemption (“For God so loved the world …,” John 3:16; “For the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross,” Heb. 12:2).
And the Christian, like his God, responds to the infinite love of God with his own finite love. The self-sacrificing divine love that does not count the cost of love, engenders in us through the New Birth an answering human love. First we love God, and then, as the necessary corollary of love to God, we love our fellow human beings. This divinely created love is the motivating force of the Christian life. It casts out all fear (1 John 4:18). More and more it pervades our experience and transforms our being until at last we reach the goal of perfect love—like that of God himself.
But an infinitely passionate love for others is not enough. The intensity of our love may measure the powder of love, but by itself, it does not measure its goodness. We can love an idol with infinite passion and be wholly evil. Even Adolf Hitler claimed to be motivated by a passionate love for the German state and a desire to serve it. But if we were to label it love, we would have to call it perverted and demonic love. Palestinian terrorists may well be motivated by an utterly selfless love for their own Arab nation. But love of country, though in itself admirable, can become excessive and turn patriotism into chauvinism. Even a mother’s love for her child can be perverted and become destructive. Utterly unselfish though it may be, it can warp the character of the mother and mold the child into a brat.
There is, therefore, also a second way in which Christian love is structured in a truly biblical ethic. The apostle Paul states it: “And my prayer is that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:9–10).
Not only is true biblical love impelled by passionate self-sacrificing commitment to others, it is also a love informed by knowledge that discerns between constructive holy loves and passionate but unholy loves that may ultimately destroy. Biblical love, therefore, consists in both motivating love and discerning love. Love as motivation gives it its power to drive through all obstacles to attain its goal. Love as a principle of discernment channels this passion toward a goal that is ultimately good. When an ethical act is wrong, it may either involve a passionate commitment to an unworthy object, to an idol, or to oneself, rather than to God and one’s neighbor. But it may also be an infinitely passionate and selfless commitment that fails to discern what the act of true love really demands; thereby, it becomes a corrupted love.
Of course, our sinful human understanding of love is severely limited. That is why God has given us not only the basic command to love, but subprinciples and sub-subprinciples and representative applications of love as only the omniscient God knows true love would dictate.
Augustine’s rule: “Love God and do as you please” is a helpful rule of thumb, but it is valid only so far as we love the right things. The Bible is God’s love book to instruct us in what are truly acts of love. With our limited sight and perverted inclinations we should otherwise inevitably wander far astray. But God loves us and gently guides us along a proper path to a better understanding of the life of love.
The truly good life, therefore, requires love as a principle of motivation and love as a principle of discernment. Without knowledge love is only passionate motivation. It can become dangerous and ultimately destructive. There is no fanatic in all the world quite so dangerous as a religious fanatic. The power of infinite passion misdirected can lead to unmitigated evil and irrevocable destruction. Love as the principle of discernment, on the other hand, is the only thing that protects us from such wrong loves that destroy us and others.
But it, too, is helpless when it stands alone, for with the apostle Paul, we can know the right but lack the motivating power of love to do the right. Biblical love to God and to our fellow humans is first a principle of discernment so that we may know what true love would do. Biblical love to God and to our fellow humans is also a principle of motivation to create in us an overpowering love so that we desire and will to do what is truly loving. On these two principles hang the Christian life.
Churches are being urged to take up the slack in the government’s welfare programs (see p. 42). It is undeniable that opportunities for good abound, equally undeniable that these confront Christians with a clear duty. At the same time we must, as Jesus counseled, count the cost before charging into ill-conceived projects. Where social ministries are concerned we are too often guilty of being long on challenges and short on facts.
Start with the big picture of which churches are a part: the overall charity scene. The Urban Institute estimates that federal budget and tax cuts could cost private charities $45 billion over the next four years. We readily grant the customary charges against the federal welfare programs. Billions of dollars could be saved if we eliminated the unworthy recipients of welfare—those who are not really in want, or who live in poverty by choice. Graft and corruption take their toll. Who has not heard of the well-heeled family that continued to receive and spend social security checks for years after their legal recipient died?
The Urban Institute also points out that charities already have so many financial problems of their own that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for them to lessen the impact on the poor from cuts in federal social service programs (see chart, p. 44). Just to stay even—not to mention demands for expanded services—Christians will have to increase substantially their levels of giving. Private giving to nonprofit organizations currently amounts to nearly $48 billion, of which $40 billion comes from individual donors, and the rest from foundations, corporations, and bequests. This shows that if the private sector is going to take over any significant portion of the real needs of welfare, the financial burden will be enormous.
Without arguing pro or con the feasibility of the federal government’s new economic game plan, it is plain that many people are going to be severely pressed to find the kind of help they have been receiving in the past. We think especially of the elderly, the ill, the disabled, expectant mothers, and dependent and neglected children.
Probably it will take some time before these people begin to look to sources of help other than federal welfare programs. Many of them have never experienced personal care from Christians—and Christians have been conditioned to assume that welfare takes care of these people.
Beyond the necessity of meeting their immediate physical needs, people conditioned to be dependent face long-range emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. Even if churches and charities can raise the necessary billions of dollars, they must go beyond the cash needs to lift the depressed spirits of millions of people who have never known any other kind of life than welfare dependency.
Church leaders should study and implement the recommendations on the chart on page 44. Church members who care must prepare to meet the costs in time and money. Whatever the demands, they must be met in the light of “pure” religion: taking care of orphans, widows—indeed, all who are neglected and deprived—in their affliction (James 1:27).
That america’s three presidential candidates in 1980 should have commended themselves as born-again Christians was a claim that baffled some of the country’s Western allies. British political leaders, for example, generally maintain a discreet reticence about their beliefs. Many would vary the words of a nineteenth-century prime minister to say: “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of public life.” Gone are the days when W. E. Gladstone could stentoriously refer in public to “the impregnable rock of Holy Scripture.”
More characteristic of our own times is the somewhat irreverent answer given by Winston Churchill on his seventy-fifth birthday when someone asked if he feared death. “I am ready to meet my Maker,” he replied. “Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
A biography of the present British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, says that her father was a Methodist lay preacher, the family were three-times-on-Sunday church goers, and that she was married in church. That is all; the whole volume has no other mention of religion. An American might well assume that religion played no role whatsoever in her adult life. But she is British, and such a negative conclusion would be ill-drawn.
Last year, however, the first lady in the Western world to hold such a high office did make a profession of faith of sorts. She condemned the “heresy” that man is perfectible. This doctrine, she declared, supposes that “if we get our social institutions right … we shall have exorcised the devil.” Her conclusion: “This as a Christian I am bound to shun.” Mrs. Thatcher does not make a practice of such utterances, but that seems all right for a start.
A new dimension even more strange to the American scene has recently appeared on the British political arena. In the United States, every president and most major office holders belong to some church—ordinarily a mainstream denomination. If they aren’t members before running for office, affiliating with a church is an early step in gearing up for the political race. The election of Michael Foot as leader of the Labour Opposition in the House of Commons points up differences between the British and their American counterparts. Though his father also was a Methodist lay preacher, Foot is on the advisory council of the British Humanist Association, and is a member of the National Secular Society. At 68, he would in the normal course of events be prime minister if the Labour Party wins the next general election, due to be held by early 1984.
Apart from dark allusions to the coming of age of Orwell’s Big Brother, many British Christians are profoundly uneasy about Foot’s elevation to high political office. Foot’s selection to head up his party was a triumph for Labour’s left wing against its moderates, one result of which general trend has been the defection of about a dozen Members of Parliament to form the new Social Democrat Party.
Foot himself has strong views on many subjects, notably on nuclear disarmament, hereditary royalty, an established church, and God.
Previous prime ministers have had agnostic views, but have dutifully gone along with all the religious ceremonial that is inseparable from Britain’s close church-state relationship. How an avowed atheist could cope with it makes for speculation at once dismal and intriguing.
Mr. Foot so far has kept prudent silence on the issue. Will he keep the nonfaith against the temptations of lukewarm Christianity? Or will the voters spare him the intolerable choice? They may, if they agree with Prime Minister Disraeli, a Jew, who once told an Anglican bishop: “Man is a being born to believe.”
“Ethically repugnant to the point of warranting expulsion from the United States Senate.” Those are strong words for one United States senator to use toward another. Yet those are the words used by Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, after the committee looked at the facts regarding Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.), who had been tried and convicted in the Abscam affair. Based on those facts, the ethics committee unanimously urged the full Senate to expel Williams, who was convicted on all nine counts on which he was indicted. Those counts include bribery, conspiracy, receipt of an unlawful gratuity, accepting outside compensation for the performance of official duties, and interstate travel in aid of a racketeering enterprise.
As you may recall, Abscam was the code name for the FBI’s political corruption probe in which undercover agents posed as wealthy businessmen and Arabs in an effort to catch public officials committing criminal acts. Williams was the only senator caught in the net, and all six congressmen entangled in it have been convicted.
Williams maintains his innocence, and plans to appeal his conviction. He did not resign his seat, and thus the ethics committee’s vote to expel him. We applaud the committee’s action, for it does much to restore public confidence in the country’s highest body of elected public officials. Just a few years ago, it would not have been certain that the ethics of a senator as powerful as Williams, who is eighth in seniority, would have been brought under close scrutiny by his peers. The unanimous nature of the ethics committee’s vote erases any suspicion that the majority Republicans were acting politically against Williams, a Democrat.
In its investigation of Williams, the committee was not deciding on his legal guilt or innocence. That has been decided in court, and will be reviewed during Williams’s appeal. The committee was concerned whether he had committed “improper conduct which may reflect upon the Senate.” That establishes a higher standard than guilt or innocence before the law. It is proper that the Senate should set that standard for itself, and we applaud the committee for upholding it during its investigation of Williams.
Big headlines recently reported another shocking increase in crime. Violent crimes are up 11 percent, more homicides in Washington, D.C., than in Sweden and Denmark combined.
The experts are baffled; the public demands something be done. But the first question that must be answered is, Why is there so much crime in America? How can this be happening in what purports to be the most civilized society in the world?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer; understanding human behavior is a complicated business. But two recent well-publicized events, plus a fascinating book I’ve just read, may provide some insight into an underlying cause.
Consider, as the first example, the Scarsdale Diet doctor murder case. Apparently Dr. Herman Tarnower felt that his wealth and celebrity status freed him from the need to be committed in relationships with women. He carried on many affairs with various women, promising to marry them and then dropping them when he tired of them, buying them off with money, jewelry, and even the drugs to which his profession gave him easy access.
One of his mistresses was Jean Harris. On the surface Jean Harris seemed to have achieved everything our society has to offer; she was a professional success, headmistress of a posh girl’s school near Washington, D.C. Her job gave her entry into an elite capital social circle, where she was highly regarded as smart, witty, and charming, and of course free to carry on with the glamorous diet doctor. What more could a modern woman want?
As the lengthy trial revealed in excruciating detail, Jean Harris could and did want a lot more—especially the commitment the doctor wasn’t prepared to offer. When he finally tried to discard her, as he had others, for a younger woman, the offers of money and drugs didn’t work. Nearly insane with jealousy, grief, pride, and drug dependency, Jean Harris ended up shooting the doctor four times. Now, after her protracted courtroom ordeal, she is beginning a long jail term, utterly alone, her career shattered, her lover dead.
Consider next the case of John and Rita Jenrette. While a South Carolina congressman, John Jenrette fell into the net of the FBI’s Abscam investigation. He was convicted of taking a bribe, defeated for reelection, and now he faces a prison sentence. To make matters worse, his wife Rita has filed for divorce, charging him with numerous adulteries, drunken binges, and related shenanigans.
Rita Jenrette, however, didn’t act much like a wronged woman. Apparently determined to retain the glamorous life to which she became accustomed as a congressional wife, Rita rushed into the klieg lights, to pose in the buff for Playboy. A generation ago such a performance would have been regarded as shameful except in seamy strip joints, but now, in 1981, the international media danced to her tune. Press conferences were packed, fancy luncheons held in her honor in New York’s poshest clubs, a fat book contract signed—instant stardom. For weeks she seemed to get more press than the President.
When asked on a TV interview whether she felt any responsibility to her embattled husband, or the constituents they had served, she sighed, managed a coy smile, and said, “I’ve paid my dues.”
When do we ever pay our dues for commitment, once revered as sacred? She threw off her marriage as easily as she threw off her undergarments for the photographers.… And then we made her a genuine celebrity, to the lustful cheers of millions of males and the applause of some feminists who admired her courage.
While watching these tawdry soap operas unfold across my TV screen, I was finishing a gripping book, The Executioner’s Song. While author Norman Mailer is no model of morality (at last report he was working on his fifth marriage), the book is a masterful retelling of a chilling and important story, the life and death of Gary Gilmore. Despite its frequently vulgar prose, it is must reading for those who deal with prisoners.
Mailer describes in detail the months after Gilmore’s release from prison, when he was jumping in and out of bed with girls who had been doing the same thing since they were 11 years old. The hedonistic joy ride, complete with drugs, sixpacks, and eroticism proved utterly senseless and ended up with two equally senseless killings for which Gilmore was convicted and executed. All the while, Gilmore was obviously seeking to know God, and tragically failing. His empty consolation was to become a media event.
The toll of these three cases has been high: Gilmore’s two victims, their killer, and the diet doctor all dead; two other people facing long prison sentences; a marriage destroyed and a wife left in the dubious custody of our society’s flesh peddlers. They are very different cases in many ways, but from them emerges a common thread and two lessons, which, incidentally, tell us more about ourselves than the celebrated principals.
To the eyes of the believer, these cases first demonstrate the futility of fife without Christ. Mailer’s book is, unintentionally I am sure, a powerful Christian witness. For Dr. Tarnower, and for Gary Gilmore and his two innocent victims, the race is over. For the others, and for the rest of us who form their national audience, the lesson is still there for the learning, and the grace of God for the taking.
Second, these cases, and the public response to their popularization, demonstrate once again the truth of what Augustine wrote so long ago: “The punishment of sin is sin.” In our society sins are often reported in full detail, then glamorized and finally made highly profitable. Our society continues to reject biblical virtues and to exalt, even reward, sin. Is it really so hard to understand then, why crime, a most visible manifestation of sin, flourishes in our land?
CHARLES COLSONReprinted by permission from Jubilee, newsletter of Prison Fellowship (issue of April 1981), of which Mr. Colson is president.
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