“What did you do on your summer vacation?”
Even now students may be answering that question in essays at the start of this new school year. Maybe you wrote such a paper years ago. No matter what you did or where you went this past summer, it was almost impossible to escape the heaviness of the headlines. #BringBackOurGirls has become a distant refrain, almost forgotten beneath the crush of summer tragedies:
Thousands of children traveled alone from Central American countries to enter the U.S. as refugees. Ebola deaths spread to more West African nations killing hundreds including many health workers. The forces of ISIS, intent on carving out an Islamic caliphate, took over major Iraqi cities and beheaded a U.S. journalist in Syria. Russia usurped Crimea and threatened the rest of Ukraine. The U.N. refugee agency announced in late August that “the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World War II era, exceeded 50 million people.” Gaza has been reduced to rubble while Hamas rockets still fly toward Israeli cities. Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old African American man who might have started college this week, was shot and killed by a white police officer in the waning days of August.
After such a summer, how can we do anything but scoff at Paul’s words from Romans? “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Really, Paul? “Owe no one anything except to love one another.”
Several years ago, Krister Stendahl told a group of pastors, “Never preach about love unless it’s in the text.” I guess he had heard too many sermons that claimed love as the answer to everything that’s wrong with the world.
Of course, the word love is in this Romans text—five times in just three verses. Paul began this chapter telling people to obey the government authorities: “…for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13: 1)
It’s not hard to see why that verse was a favorite of the Afrikaner government during the days of apartheid in South Africa. How would that verse sound now to the people of Ferguson? Suddenly Paul changes the subject to talk about love—he had never heard Professor Stendahl!—and says that all laws can be summed up in one simple sentence: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Did Paul suddenly realize that obedience to government needed a corrective? What happens when the government tramples neighbor-love into the ground? Whatever Paul’s reason for the shift in subjects, he probably knew what we know: loving our neighbors is not simple—not between Sunnis and Shiites, not between Palestinians and Israelis, not between white police officers and young black men. Maybe it was easier for Paul to write about love to believers in Rome because he hadn’t visited them yet!
Was Paul totally out of touch with reality? Should we set aside Paul’s words as totally naïve and unrealistic given the summer headlines? In all these tragedies, mistrust and hatred of neighbors fanned deadly conflicts in Iraq and Gaza, Syria and Ferguson.
We may scoff not only at Paul’s letter to the Romans but at the Interfaith Tour featured in this week’s ON Scripture video. That project began when someone said, “Stop talking about the other and start talking to the other.” But what difference will it make if five young Europeans from different faith backgrounds explore interfaith models in 50 countries? Seeds of Peace is another group that has been committed to face-to-face encounters across difference. This organization has brought together young people living in situations of conflict such as Israel and Palestine. These teenagers spend three weeks together at a camp in Maine, often the first time most of them have spoken to those counted as “the enemy.” Does it matter? A research team from the University of Chicago followed up with campers a year after re-entry into their home cultures. One of their findings was that “…the campers who were able to form just one close relationship with someone from the other group were the ones who developed the most positive attitudes toward the other group.”
Why are we so quick to name some ideas as naïve?
“Get real!” Is that what you’re saying? I was saying it, too, as I read about these summer camps. It’s easy to dismiss Seeds of Peace and the interfaith tour as drops in an ocean of conflict. But why are we so quick to dismiss these efforts as “naïve” while calling other options “smart” and “realistic?” After a trillion dollars and thousands of deaths, the U.S. war against Iraq has left a country divided along sectarian lines and vulnerable to the violent forces of extremism unleashed this summer. Do we dare to say it was naïve and unrealistic to wage war against Iraq, a country that had no role in attacking the U.S.? Is the Israeli government naïve to believe crushing 11,000 homes in Gaza will make Israeli cities safe from rocket attacks? After the tragedies of 9/11 it seemed realistic—even required—for us to attack Afghanistan in revenge for what had been done to us.
What would have happened if the billions we spent on waging war had been used to build schools and train teachers in that country? What if the U.S. government funded thousands of exchange visits between Americans and Afghanis? “Totally naïve!” Perhaps. But would the situation in Afghanistan be worse if we had chosen those options instead of going to war?
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” Paul was surprised to discover in his own life that love of neighbor was at the very heart of the Gospel. Perhaps this call to love one another sounds naïve and foolish after this past summer. But might remember what Paul wrote in an earlier letter to believers in Corinth: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (I Cor. 1:25)
Our traumatized world needs a lot more people who dare to love one another across differences in spite of the risks. Paul invites us try a little holy foolishness, even if people laugh at us. Such foolishness may be the only thing that can change the world.
Barbara K. Lundblad served as the Joe R. Engle professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City until 2014. She is ordained in the ELCA and received a B.A. in English from Augustana College, an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, and a D.D. from Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.