Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why God's Love Matters

I'm cross-posting this from Facebook, because I think the question's important.


Last night, my friend Chris Coake, motivated by his intense dislike of Pat Robertson, posted some quotations from Jillette's new book about atheism. You can find that post, and responses to it, here.

My rather forceful dislike of these quotations (which imply that Christians are pathetic losers who need imaginary friends because they don't have real ones) resulted in a conversation in which Chris posed this question: "Why, exactly, is the love of Christ/God so valuable to people of faith, and not to atheists?"

There are all kinds of answers to that question, and other people have addressed it more thoroughly than I can, and my own answers change according to my mood and circumstances. But for me, right now, the answer can be summed up in two words: social justice.

Look around. There are a lot of people in the world who aren't loved by other people: prisoners, addicts, mental patients, the poor. Look at all the hatred that gets spewed on Facebook itself, not to mention a whole lot of other places. The kind of Christian faith I admire and try to practice -- because there are many versions I don't -- is predicated on the core belief that God loves everybody, and therefore we're called to love everybody, too. Even people we don't like. Even people we'd rather hate. Even people who hate us. Even -- oh, honestly, you can't mean it? -- Pat Robertson. (Insert gagging sound here.)

Jesus loved everybody, and made a particular point of loving the people the rest of his culture hated. Lepers. People with despised ethnic/tribal identities, like Samaritans. Women. The unclean, the untouchable, the stigmatized, the scapegoated. Jillette's quotations suggest that if we have the love of our family and friends, we don't need God; Jesus spoke out quite forcefully about the fact that people who remain within the cozy cocoon of their families and friends are barricading themselves against the broken, hurting world we're all called to help heal. Sure, we're called to love our families and friends, but we're also called to love "the least of these," the people who make us really uncomfortable, the people we've been told to have nothing to do with, the people we'd rather ignore. We're called to love everybody, like Jesus did. That's the whole point.

It's worth noting that even he didn't get there right away. It was a process. My favorite character in the Bible is the Samaritan woman -- despised both for her gender and her ethnicity -- who asks Jesus for healing for her daughter and, when he declines (because she's not the Right Kind of People), stands up for herself, very cleverly, and gets the blessing after all. She's the only person in the Gospels who argues with Jesus and wins, and she's a stigmatized minority. You go, girl!

The Christian story reminds us that radical love isn't easy, and that it will get you killed in, oh, three years or so if you really practice it. (MLK Jr. and Oscar Romero are more recent reminders of that fact.)

Now, to try to address some inevitable objections: can the non-faithful love this way? Sure. People who do this work as part of faith communities often have a lower burnout rate, though. And are there people who call themselves Christians who don't love this way? (Hi, Pat Robertson!) You betcha. But they aren't the only Christians out there, even if they want to make you think they are. (As a person on the left, I believe that the Christian Right is the Christian Wrong, even though I know the Christian Right considers the Christian Left the Christian Left Behind.)

As for God's love not mattering to atheists, well, I personally believe it's what sustains all of us even if we aren't aware of it. You're free to disagree.

And those lonely, pathetic people who need to believe that God loves them because nobody else does? Are you going to make fun of them? Really?

Let me tell you a story.

Many people reading this know that I volunteer as a lay ER chaplain (and if you're reading this on the blog, rather than on FB, you've probably already heard the story). One evening many years ago, I knocked on the door of a room and heard a soft, "Come in." Inside, an emaciated man hooked up to IVs lay on a gurney. When I told him I was the volunteer chaplain, he started to cry.

"No, I visit everybody here," I told him. "My being here doesn't mean you're dying. Don't be scared!"

"That's not why I'm crying," he said. "I am dying. I'm dying of AIDS, and fifteen minutes ago I was praying for God to send me a sign that he still loved me, and then you walked through the door. You're a sign from God."

He needed God's love precisely because other people had stigmatized and isolated him, but what reassured him of that love was a flesh-and-blood person, not an imaginary teddy bear. My friends who work with prisoners have lots of similar stories. God calls us to love everybody; surprisingly often, that's simply a matter of showing up.

Okay, I'll stop now. I'm sure I haven't persuaded anyone who didn't already agree with me, but well, Chris, you asked. For evidence that other people are on this side of the issue, rather than Pat Robertson's, check out The Christian Left and Seminary of the Street.


  1. Anonymous12:51 PM

    Beautiful, Susan. You go, girl!

  2. Amen! Thank you.

  3. Anonymous9:29 AM

    I'm an agnostic, but I loved reading this. I wish Christians like you were grabbing the headlines instead of the haters on the Right.

    Jeff P.

  4. Um...whether or not it would be nice to have an all-loving God that cares about us or not is irrelevant to whether or not one does exist. I mean, it would be nice if there was a Santa Claus who flew all around the world delivering presents, but that's no reason to believe that there really is one.

  5. Libby: Whether or not God exists wasn't the point of the post, or even of the anti-faith diatribe that prompted it. I can't prove She does exist and you can't prove She doesn't; we're left with our individual beliefs on the subject. The question I was addressing was why, IF one believes in God, it matters for that God to be loving.


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