As a young Jew, Jesus would have grown up saying the Shema twice a day, the reminder from the book of Deuteronomy that “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). As a younger adult, a scribe recites the Shema to Jesus and then Jesus adds these words from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19). Love of God and love of neighbor are not optional equipment for Christian living; they are at the heart of who we are and how you and I are to live.
In the Hebrew Bible, the word for heart is “lev.” In Hebrew, that is not so much a body part, an organ, as it is the source of how we feel AND how we think. In the Greek “new” testament, the word for heart is “kardia,” from which we get such medical terms as cardiac, cardiovascular, cardiologist. Kardia never refers simply to the organ that pumps blood through the body. Our “kardia” is the source of our spiritual, emotional, and intellectual life. We are to love God and neighbor with lev and kardia.
I suspect if I were to ask for a show of hands of all in favor of loving God and loving neighbor with all our heart, every hand would shoot up, as well they should! So, if that is the case, why are Christians so silent when God’s children, our neighbors, are threatened by authorities, denied employment opportunities, refused housing simply on the basis of the color of their skin?
I grew up attending a public elementary school in Newport News, Virginia, that was for whites only and I thought nothing of it because that was the way of the world. The so-called “colored” children in town had their own separate but equal elementary school. Not once in my childhood did I hear a pastor denounce from the pulpit the lie of “separate but equal.” And, yet, that same pastor and every member in my childhood church would have sincerely said, “We love God and neighbor.”
Soon after the murder of George Floyd, my friend, Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, wrote these words: “If white Christians were to ask me, a black Christian, what they should do in response to the spiral of racially sparked violence into which we are rapidly and inevitably descending, I have pondered the response I would give. Strange, since no one has asked, that I nonetheless feel compelled to answer.
“I feel compelled because I am afraid,” writes Brian. “I am afraid because I fear that my voice is too insignificant to matter. I am afraid because I fear that while what I say bears insufficient weight to make a difference, it carries just enough potency to get me in trouble. I am afraid because I fear bringing trouble on myself when my people are writhing in a perpetual abyss of systemic injustice. I am afraid because I fear that one day, long after I have died, my son and daughter will still weep at news about a black individual murdered while sitting in her home, running in his community, walking home from his corner store, driving in her car, standing in his front yard, exploring in his park, worshiping in her church, lying helpless on an American street, the full weight of a cavalier, almost casual, curiously disinterested, white anger crushing his throat beneath its self-righteous, imperious knee. I am afraid because I fear a reckoning on the streets if we cannot find justice in the courts, redress in our politics, realignment of our institutional policies, and reconsideration of our racial values. I am afraid because I fear that when I am called to my own final reckoning the record will show that I didn’t do my part. I didn’t witness. Not enough.
White Christians are not witnessing. Not enough.”
Love God AND love neighbor.
In the draft of a sermon he was writing in 1962, the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that loving God and neighbor with one heart, mind, soul, strength requires that we learn to ask hard questions and learn to ask them differently. King writes, “We so often ask, ‘what will happen to my job, my prestige or my status if I take a stand on this issue? If I take a stand for justice and truth, will my home be bombed, will my life be threatened or will I be jailed? What will happen to me?’ The good man [person] always reverses the question. Albert Schweitzer did not ask ‘what will happen to my prestige and security as a university Professor and my status as a Bach Organist if go to work with the people of Africa, but what will happen to these millions of people who have been wounded by the forces of injustice if I do not go to them?’ Abraham Lincoln did not ask, ‘what will happen to me if I issue the Emancipation Proclamation and bring an end to chattel slavery, but what will happen to the union and millions of Negro people if I fail to do it?’”
Friends in Christ, how can we wrestle the demon of racism to the ground if we do not question lessons many of us need to un-learn, lessons many of us have learned since childhood? How can you and I embrace each other as “neighbor” if we pretend that racism is a relic of the past? How can we love each other with one heart if we are not willing to engage in hard conversations with one another?
Notice what Jesus says to the scribe who says all the right words about loving God? Jesus tells the scribe that he is “not far from the reign of God.” That, my friends, is really a compliment. It is like the DMV instructor telling the young applicant who has passed the written but failed the driving test, “You are not far from being able to drive.” Jesus wants the scribe not simply to recite words of faith but to live into them, to speak out when he would rather not, to act when he would rather pull back, to demand when he would rather meekly request.
A few years ago, a group of church members from Cove and First Baptist of Covesville started a group called, “One Heart.” Little did they know how they must have made Jesus smile when they recognized that being Christian is loving God and loving neighbor with “one heart,” and that kind of love can never be simply recited. It has to be lived. It requires commitment, time, hard conversations, forgiveness, compassion, and a refusal to accept the way things are.
Brian ends his article with these words: “The evil of enduring American racism is not just a Christian problem. But for a people who claim to follow a Jesus who died on a cross for all people, and whom we claim reigns in heaven interceding with God for all people, it is an evil we must especially engage. We cannot claim to witness to this risen Christ and simultaneously allow our country’s descent into this racial abyss.”
Is one “One Heart” group meeting frequently on-line or in the Cove parlor enough for us to say that we love God and love neighbor with all our heart? Hardly. Is it a spark of inspiration for each of us to love God and love neighbor?
So, I say, let’s get on with it!