Perfect love casts out all fear

June 12, 2016. My thirty-fifth birthday.

I woke up to a lovely, sunny day outside. And to the news of a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the deadliest mass shooting of its kind in our nation's history.

The air outside is heavy and charged. The rawness of unspeakable grief. The depths of despair. The fervor of righteous anger. The trembling of learning fear all over again. The cries of "how long, o Lord?" rising from the GLBTQ community. The misplaced prejudices that blame a religion, a nation, and a community of immigrants for the heinous deeds of one individual. The same arguments, debates, and head-butting over gun control and the second amendment to the Constitution. Political exploitation of a nation's grief and confusion.

Social media is overflowing with a generation's griefs, hopes, words of solidarity, and calls to action.

I keep seeing gentle sentiments that urge us to resist fear with the power of love and the power of hope. Sentiments that urge us to seek beauty. Words of quiet courage urging us not to fear.

Friends, I am not feeling gentle about this tragedy.

Love, hope, beauty, courage: these are all necessary at a time like this. But their impact comes not from their gentleness or quietness. Love, hope, beauty, courage: we forget that these virtues have teeth. These virtues are not complete in themselves, but are only fulfilled in our God-ordained pursuit of justice, in the relentless voice of rebellion against comfortable platitudes, in the courageous and self-sacrificial act of pursuing and securing God's promises of life, welfare, restoration, and reconciliation for all.

Friends, I am not feeling gentle today. I am feeling angry and frustrated. I am feeling hopeless. I am feeling trapped between a faith that promises a world made new and a world that continues to resist renewal. I am feeling disgust over societal and political rhetoric that wants to tell me that the proper response to this tragedy is to blame and ban Muslim sisters and brothers, rather than blaming and banning access to guns, especially to weapons as unnecessary to civilians as assault rifles. (They are called assault rifles, for goodness' sake!)

Once again, I find myself bumping up against values that align nicely with patriotism and democratic freedom, but values that yet run counter to the depth and calling of the Christian faith.

As a person of faith, my life is first normed and shaped by the good news of a God who made all things (and declared them good!), a God who saw the broken state of our world and chose to enter into the brokenness by taking on a human body in the person of Jesus, who embodied the power of forgiveness and the miracle of self-giving love - a love that walked to its death on the cross and then surprised the world with resurrected life three days later. And for what purpose? To promise all hope, healing, salvation, life, reconciliation, grace, mercy, and restoration to our world.

The good news and the calling of this faith must always outweigh any other allegiance to nation, government, economy, and even the democratic notion of personal freedoms and individual liberties. Which is not to say that faith is always at odds with such things, but that faith must always redefine the terms.

Faith makes it abundantly clear that freedom is never a matter of personal liberty; we were not made free for our own sake. Indeed, the gospel sets us free from the constraints of sin, death, and brokenness - and freedom from fear of these things. But our personal liberation is not the end goal of God's freedom. Our freedom is always for the sake of others and the world.

In Galatians, Paul writes, For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)

In other words, for people of faith, freedom is never about individual rights, but is rather about the building up of the community in love. America might say that individual liberties are the hallmark of democracy. Jesus, however, says that our greatest commandments are love of God and love of one another; that we have been liberated from sin and death not merely for our own sake, but as a part of God's salvation for the entire cosmos. Christian freedom always puts our ego in check and reminds us that our freedom in Christ is always for the sake of serving others.

Related to this is Paul's encouragement for Christians to exercise our freedom in acts of self-restraint and self-sacrificial love for the sake of building others up. In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

Paul says these words while advising the Corinthians about whether to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. Technically, it is lawful for them to do so. But Paul quickly debunks the misconception that "lawful" is a synonym for "good" or "beneficial" or "recommended" or "right." Paul explains that even lawful acts can be stumbling blocks or cause harm to others. For the sake of one another, Paul holds the Corinthians to a higher standard. Live not according to the base question, "Is it lawful?" but instead according to the higher question, "Is it beneficial?" Our conduct and our civil participation should be governed not by what is merely permissible, but by what does good.

This passage continues to ring in my ears whenever I hear arguments against gun control that try to tell me that restricting access to guns will hurt or punish responsible, safe, and good gun owners. For starters, my theological anthropology pushes back agains the idea that any one of us is so good, so responsible, or so incorruptible that we are completely immune from being pushed past our breaking point into acts of violence.

But more importantly, even if the right to own guns is lawful, is it beneficial? Does our faith not consistently call us to the path of self-sacrificial love, following in the way of Christ? Paul says, "Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other." Responsible gun owners, I respect the care and safety that you put into your ownership. But I also want to challenge you to think about whether there is a higher calling here, toward sacrifice for the sake of the whole; toward a self-limiting love that says, "my right to own a gun is less important than restricting access for the sake and safety of others."

Now, let me be clear. I know that gun control doesn't immediately take guns out of the hands of those who seek to do harm, whether those guns were obtained legally or illegally. I know that gun control measures will not make our nation safe overnight. They won't make our nation safe next week or next year, perhaps not even in this generation. But my faith calls me to remember that hope, restoration, and salvation are always pointing toward a future reality.

God's promises are here and now, even as we wait for their fulfillment in the future, even the farthest boundary of the future: the end of this world. I feel no patience for the argument that gun control won't fix the world overnight so there is no reason to do it. If taking tools of violence out of broken human hands will create a safer, more peaceful world for our children or our children's children, is it not worth it? Cosmic hope in the promised kingdom of God (the promised peaceable kingdom) is hope for today, tomorrow, and ages to come. Our faith empowers us to live into God's promised reality by trusting this promise enough to work for peace here and now, even if the fruits of our labor will not be known until a future time.

The biggest step that we can take toward this future vision of peace is learning to love one another and not to fear or to hate. Grating on my soul are arguments about how we should be blaming Islam for this latest episode rather than blaming the hatred, prejudice, and fear of this young man against the GLBTQ community. Grating on my soul are widespread calls to ban Muslims from our nation, a sentiment borne out of the same roots of hatred, prejudice, and fear of the other.

Hear these unbelievably powerful words from 1 John:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1 John 4:18-21)

Perfect love casts out fear. And what does this perfect love look like? It takes the form of recognizing the image of God in each and every human being that God places on this earth.

My gay and lesbian and transgender and queer and questioning brothers and sisters: you are created in the image of God.
My Muslim brothers and sisters:you are created in the image of God.
Those of you reading who agree with every word I say: you are created in the image of God.
Those of you who disagree with every word I say: you are created in the image of God.

Jesus teaches us that whenever we serve, love, and care for those in our midst who are most suffering, we are serving Christ himself. Today, my GLBTQ brothers and sisters are suffering. Today, the city of Orlando is suffering. Today, the families and friends of the 50 dead are suffering. Today, the Muslim community is suffering. Today, the family of the shooter is suffering. Can we, in love, see the face of Christ in these? Can we, in love, seek to serve the face of Christ in these? Can we, in love, be transformed for the work of peace by the face of Christ in these?

In one of the prayers of the church for Ash Wednesday - in the midst of our own confession, our own recognition that we are all sinners, all mortal, all created from the dust to which we will one day return, we hear this assurance: "Almighty God, you hate nothing that you have made." The God who created all things and declared them good, the God who created human beings in his image, is the God who, even in the midst of brokenness and separation and sin, chooses the way of love over the way of hate.

May God grant us all the wisdom, the faith, and the grace to do the same.

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