Jared Witt l April 27, 2018
The epistle of First John is deceptive. It lulls you into a false sense of security with some very beige sentences. If you're not paying attention, it might even lead you to believe that he is just talking about the same stodgy old platitudes that you would expect of, say, an aging Evangelical tv preacher or one of those self-styled, pan-denominational aunts, who never seem to tire of generic moralisms and conservative protestant party lines.
Example A: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him.”
(K, great. But how do you define sin and how do we know when we’ve been born of God? What happens if I'm born of God, and it takes for a bit, but then I sin a couple times?)
B: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.”
(Really? Now you tell us, Don't love? Anything in the world? This sentence seems really far reaching and unqualified.)
And my favorite,
C: “Whoever practices righteousness is righteous as he is righteous.”
(Man this guy can say a lot without saying anything. First rule of defining things, never use a word in its own definition, man! This just begs the question, what is righteousness?)
Sounds like so much Christian fluff at first glance, yeah? Kind of like telling someone “You be good now” when they’ve just asked you “Should I give my child up for adoption?” Or like saying, “With God, all things are possible” when the question was, “Should we go frack that tribal land?”
But a word of caution before you toss this out as a little book of vaguely Christian platitudes and no real teeth. Like, anything in scripture, let's make sure we're understanding it, before we toss it.
For instance, with regard to A and C: Whether you’re the type to perk up with grave attentiveness when you hear the word “sin,” because it refers, for you, to the serious business of right and wrong in the world, or you’re the type who tends to tune it out, because it conjures outmoded and poorly thought out moral dogmas, a good question is always, What does the author understand by it.
First, he says, someone who is not born of God “does not practice righteousness," which is to say, “One who does not love his brother (or sister).”
Now, suddenly you have a definition of sin with which no one disagrees. Not everyone may call it that. You can say it's sinful not to love your brother or sister, or if that word feels too dated, you can say something trendier like it’s not cool to not love, or it has no chill, or it’s Club Vibe 2.0.
Get as relevant and up to date as you want with it. The point is that no one disagrees that it's right to love your brother or sister and it’s wrong not to, unless they’re trying to prove a point by counterintuitively disagreeing with the thing that everyone agrees with, which actually just further proves the rule that everyone agrees with it.
But it’s not enough to say that we should read our Bibles because it tells us what everyone already thinks. First John needs to go a couple steps further. So he says, Nay, not only is it good to love your brother or sister and sinful or, if you prefer, Club Vibe 2.0 not to, but everyone who hates a brother (or sister), is a murderer.
Yowza. A murderer? Seriously?
“If anyone says, ‘I love God’, and hates his brother, he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
Think of what that means for the definition of born again Christian in our world.
Born again racist? Nope. That’s an oxymoron.
Born again homophobe? Nope. Not possible.
Born again nationalist? Definitely not.
I sometimes hear critics of Christianity point out that Christians decide against loving humans, whose existence they can prove, in the name of loving God, whose existence they can’t.
Yes exactly. But this isn’t so much a critique of Christianity as it is a critique of humans. Or better yet, this is the same critique of bad Christianity that good Christianity has been making over and over again for centuries. Or better still, this is the critique of bad religion that good Christianity is at it’s very core. We are in fact founded on the story of a man who was killed for making this very critique of bad religion.
I’ve met people who perk up and listen when they hear talk of righteousness and sin and I’ve met people who shut down. But I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t honestly believe in the ethical ideal of loving other people. John is just taking that one or a dozen steps further, equating the slightest negative regard for somebody with homicide.
Say First John is unrealistic. Say he’s an ethical zealot. Say he’s impractical. But you can’t honestly say that he’s just spouting off softball Christian platitudes and micro-moral peccadilloes at this point.
(Now someone might argue that perhaps First John limits who counts as a brother or a sister, and that this doesn’t include people of other religions, races, classes, nationalities or whatever, but that person’s soul is a whitewashed tomb, and I’m not going to waste my time arguing with him or her. I take it for granted that First John would be mortified if he thought we were drawing a smaller circle around who counts as a person worthy of our love than the one Jesus draws in the parable of the Good Samaritan).
…And then he takes it another step further. We’re not just talking about “love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
A variation of the earlier critique is when non-Christians point out that the love is false and hypocritical because it so often means loving in the abstract or in theory while despising what’s real in flesh and blood.
Agreed. Point taken. We’ve been making that critique of ourselves since before it was Club Vibe 2.0 (I might be confusing my super hip terms at this point).
If anything, First John is precisely this word of caution for anyone who prances around telling everyone else how they’re born again. Oh, really? So you don’t hate anyone? Neither in word, nor in deed, nor in the fallout of blind systems of socio-economic injustice in which we all participate?
And that last one is especially difficult. If we’re not just talking about love in “word” and “talk” but also in “deed” and “truth,” then all those who say "I don't hate anyone" are just being superficial. You don’t have to hold a single ounce of animosity in your heart in order to hate someone, insofar as the practical result of your actions has negative consequences for them (that is, hate in deed and in truth if not in feeling or intention).
I can gleefully take out a loan that wasn’t offered to an equally qualified applicant of another race, burn carbon into the atmosphere killing off fisheries that generations have depended on for their income around the world, and see my retirement accounts benefit from the rising stocks of companies guilty of egregious labor practices overseas, all the while holding nothing but positive regard for people in my ever so kindly heart.
And that brings us to our statement B above: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” Whatever that means, it can’t just mean don’t love creation or the people and things within creation. First John has just gotten done expanding the ethic of love to the largest possible scale as the gold standard of righteousness for living in this creation. Besides, the Gospel of John (which many think was written by the same author as this epistle) has already told us that “God so loved the world.” So there must be some imprecision of terms in what we’re calling “the world" (the kosmos, in Greek) here.
Given everything else said, he must surely be preaching something closer to the spirituality of detachment. Naturally, it’s going to be much easer to love your Bangladeshi brother and sister, who are depending on their fish hatchery, if you’re less attached to the material things whose production and transportation is releasing the carbon that is destroying their generational livelihoods.
Seriously? Detachment? That ever so trendy eastern concept? That’s where we’ve wound up after all that? We got from a dusty old epistle in the Bible to a fashionable Hollywood cocktail party talking about detachment?
Weird how the same thing can sound stiff and cobwebby when your aunt’s Bible says it but cool and profound when your Yoga instructor says it.
Cultural familiarity can sometimes breed contempt with such things.
Never mind. Doesn’t matter who says it.
Truth is Truth. And to know the truth is to “know him who is true.”
Cheers and Peace,
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.