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Revolutionary Love, Part I
by Olivia Sonell
‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
~John 15: 12-13
Growing up in a White Christian household in the US South, I heard a lot about “God’s Love.” He loved us so much He sent his son Jesus to die for us and save us from Adam and Eve’s sin that separated humanity from God. Jesus was the most loving of all because he chose to die for us and reconcile a broken humanity to a wrathful God. At least, that’s how this was taught in the church communities I was raised in. (And in that story God was always a “He”)
Eventually when I came out as trans, I was forced to look around and question what God’s love actually meant. The family I came from thought God’s love was manifest in their desire to change me, to prevent my living as my true gender. I looked outside my family and saw that LGBTQ+ and Disabled people were being tortured in the name of “God’s love”. Furthermore, the country I had been taught was founded to be a beacon of love and light was brutalising black and brown people, and locking God’s children in cages. Clearly this was not love, not the love that died to “set the captives free.” But if this was not love, what was?
According to John 15, the greatest love is to lay down one’s life. But why? And for whom? I decided that to get the answer I needed to return to the Christian exemplar of this love, Jesus the Christ.
The Love of Christ
Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Mary, grew up in Palestine during an extremely turbulent period. The province of Judea was annexed by the Roman Republic in 63 BCE and the rest of Palestine followed shortly after. Nearly one hundred years later, during the 60s CE, the region had broken out into revolutionary war. During this period the Jewish leadership were politically divided, and many were directly appointed by Roman authorities and their political loyalties therefore lay with Rome and Rome alone rather than the masses of Jewish peoples.
During this time resistance against Rome’s imperial ambitions often took the form of rebellions and attempted revolts, as people eagerly awaited the coming of God’s Messiah. Their targets were unjust economic taxation, military repression, and attempts by Roman governors to install the symbols of their imperial religion in the Jerusalem Temple. One of these leaders was none other than Jesus, whom today Christians and Muslims call the Christ.
It is in this volatile context that Jesus “laid down his life for his friends”. Now we could do what many have done over the years and look at what Jesus’ execution tells us about love and sacrifice, but I think there is something more radical and earthy about his life than his death. Could he have been laying his life down for his friends during his everyday life?
The canonical Gospels tell of a Jesus who was raised in a working class family in Palestine, worked as a carpenter, recruited his followers from amongst the oppressed, and was homeless for many years. This Jesus tells us that one must be willing to give up the life they had planned, take up their cross, and prioritise the work of liberation.
The Greatest Love
Not all of us today are leaders of working class movements, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn from the Gospel picture of Jesus. Most workers today can identify with feeling like their work is a “heavy burden”, something they must take up in order for themselves and their families to live. This burden can be so overwhelming that it can be hard to imagine that there is relief available.
Looking at the drudgery of work as a form of sacrifice, as “laying your life down”, could be seen as arguing that the daily sacrifice of the working class is somehow noble. Certainly many have argued that “hard work builds character”, but it seems to me that hard work doesn’t have to be the whole of the story. Jesus says that the burden we take when following him is light in comparison to the burden the world puts on us. Does this mean that following Jesus will somehow magically make our work less difficult, back-breaking, and mind-numbing? I don’t think so.
What I am saying is that the Greatest Love is manifest in the sacrifices we make for our loved ones and communities. We don’t put in 60+ hours a week at jobs we dislike to build character, we do it out of love and necessity. The system of capitalism takes advantage of our love and forces us to choose between putting in hours at jobs we dislike and access to that which we need to live.
Through Jesus’ life and ministry we’re offered a different choice and sacrifice and love are given different meanings. Instead of literally sacrificing our life, we’re being invited to sacrifice the ideals of the capitalist world, the “Dream” that somehow all the hard work will one day pay off and we’ll have “made it”. And love leads us to respond to Jesus’ invitation to take up the cross, the “easy yoke and light burden” of building a new world, with a resounding yes.
Because capitalism is all around us, and the system is rigged against individual and communal fulfillment, this understanding of love isn’t always easy to begin living into. Capitalism wants us to believe it is easier to just do the work it demands of us, than it would be to build, organise, and fight for the world we want to live in.
Yet, in the long run it seems to me that the Cross of Christ is the lighter burden to bear, because even if I don’t live to see God’s “Kindom Come” I would much rather organise with other Christian disciples towards that goal, than sacrifice my life to the cruel dream of Capitalism.
Questions for Reflection:
What kind of concerns might people be trying to address with the traditional attitudes of sacrificial love as “love unto death”?
How has the traditional idea laying down one’s life affected you or your loved ones?
What plans and expectations in your life might prevent your “taking up the cross”?
What might “taking up the cross” look like in your life and the life of your communities?