the shape of leadership

From Us to Them

Loving like Jesus in a divided world

Choco De Jesus on October 20, 2021

Jesus lived in a way that was remarkably approachable, vulnerable and appealing. But today, the mood of many Christians is shaped more by echo chambers than by the heart of God.

In recent years, people increasingly have gotten their “news” from social media. However, social media isn’t designed to communicate hard facts. Its goal is to grab attention for advertisers, and it seems nothing sells like fear and anger. Social media companies use sophisticated algorithms to track every click, predicting what people will “like” and providing videos and links that promise to keep them engaged.

In this environment, it’s much easier to label certain people as “them” and conclude that those who disagree with us are malevolent or foolish — or both. We come to believe they are enemies who threaten our values and our way of life. We don’t openly attack them, but we keep our distance and find ways to keep from engaging in any meaningful way.

We insulate ourselves for protection from crime, gangs, and drugs. We insulate ourselves for comfort to be with people who look like us, talk like us, believe like us, and even eat like us. It’s completely reasonable and it’s terribly narrow.

University of California, Berkeley, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild spent several summers in Louisiana researching the grievances of white, middle-class people. In her book Strangers in Their Own Land, she reports that both conservatives and liberals have their own “deep stories” — narratives about who they are and what’s valuable. These narratives don’t actually have to be true, but they feel true to those who subscribe to them.

Hochschild spent most of her time focusing on conservatives, whose deep story was rooted in the classic American dream: If you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll have a better life. Those she interviewed were angry and disillusioned because they thought others were cutting in line in front of them in pursuit of the American dream. They believed racial and ethnic minorities were getting special treatment and making more progress, and they concluded that wasn’t fair.

Many evangelical Christians share a sense of outrage that liberal court decisions and progressive laws are eroding their moral imperatives. This narrative combines political populism with spiritual resentment. The result is a siege mentality against the forces that seemingly oppose them.

I don’t believe this is the attitude we should have. We should be known for our love, not our anger, and for our compassion, not our fear. Love recognizes hard realities and chooses to move toward people with open hearts, open ears, and at least a temporarily closed mouth. We’ll have plenty of time to express our thoughts, but we can do so with more kindness and wisdom if we avoid speaking too soon.

I’m not saying we should silently accept things that bother us. I’m not saying we should let others erode our values while we shrug our shoulders as if there’s nothing we can do. What I’m saying is that Jesus didn’t hate people who disagreed with Him. He spoke the truth to them, was incredibly patient with them, and sacrificed His life for them. Even though they opposed Him, He loved them anyway.

In 2012, I accompanied Rick Warren and several other pastors to an HIV/AIDS conference in Washington, D.C. About 25,000 people attended, including doctors and nurses, social workers, community activists, and many from the LGBTQ community. In the foyer, vendors were selling condoms that glowed in the dark and all sorts of things I won’t mention.

We felt completely out of place. A gay man from Chicago heard I was at the conference. He tracked me down to invite me to lunch. As soon as we sat down, he looked at me with a sense of astonishment and asked, “Pastor, what in the world are you doing here?”

“I just want to be like Jesus and go to where the people are,” I replied. “I’m here to love you.”

He looked confused, so I continued: “Look, your lifestyle doesn’t frighten me. We don’t have to agree for me to love you, and you don’t have to change for me to love you.”

We talked for two hours, and we parted as friends who understood each other better than before. Today, I see him occasionally, and I’m glad to connect each time. He invariably gives me a big hug because we have a bond based on unconditional love. He knows I don’t support gay activism, but he also knows I care about him, even if he never changes his lifestyle or his convictions.

In defense of Christian values, some of us use unchristian methods and words. Jesus was amazingly patient with clueless and impulsive disciples, and if we learn to love like Him, we’ll be patient enough to be a bridge between competing factions. Our demeanor should welcome interaction, understanding and trust so we can find workable solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

A 2017 study by Pew Research Center showed the partisan divide over racial discrimination, immigration, welfare for the needy, and international diplomacy had risen rapidly over the previous 25 years. In fact, the gap on these issues was wider between people of different political persuasions than it was across other demographics, such as age, gender, race, education, and religious service attendance. The common term used to describe this polarization is tribalism. We’re intensely loyal to the tribe that believes and votes like us.

This loyalty often leads to the use of negative stereotypes and labels (hypocrites, selfish, cruel, stupid, etc.) to demean the other side. Sadly, many Christians engage in this behavior. They feel completely justified in their fury, which makes them determined to dominate and defeat people who disagree with them instead of listening, having meaningful conversations, finding common ground, and building true friendships. We won’t be able to bridge the divide if we stand back and condemn, or if we leave.

As our three children were growing up, a time came when we needed more space. The suburbs looked attractive — a bigger house at a lower cost, far less crime, a quieter environment, better schools, more convenient shopping, and great restaurants. A move to the suburbs sounded perfect.

But one night, I realized the convenience wasn’t worth the price. I couldn’t tell others to love like Jesus if we moved out of the neighborhood where we ministered. Jesus lived among the people and gave himself for others instead of looking for a place where He would be more comfortable.

I told my wife, Elizabeth, about my convictions, and she agreed. We bought a lot in Humboldt Park and built a house there. We wanted everyone to know we were committed to the people in our neighborhood. We wanted to show them they could trust God in Humboldt Park and thrive by loving Him, loving strangers, loving one another, and loving life.

We should be known
for our love, not our
anger, and for our
compassion, not our fear.

Heart Transplant

I’ve seen a lot of people give in to bitterness and divisions, take sides, and despise people on the other side. I’ve also known a few people who, seeing the damage inflicted by fear and hate, tried to be kind. Their efforts were noble, but the effect seldom lasted long. We need more than determination; we need a heart transplant.

What is the sign of someone who has been given a new heart and is empowered by the Holy Spirit? It’s that he or she follows God’s laws. What laws? To love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. A heart of stone is hard, angry and demanding, but a new heart is filled with God’s compassion for every person we encounter — including those who are far from Christ. Jesus didn’t distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving. He loved them all.

When your heart is filled with compassion, you will learn to love like Jesus loves. People will notice, and they’ll marvel at the greatness of God. Today, far too many people see Christians as angry conservatives who are more interested in winning political arguments than loving people. But when God gives you a new heart, people will be amazed.

In every interaction you have, God’s reputation is at stake, and your heart and actions display His character or not. God spoke through the prophet:

I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Sovereign LORD, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes (Ezekiel 36:23).

We sometimes have the wrong understanding of holiness. It’s not rigid adherence to strict rules. It’s far more than that! Holiness is the essence underlying all of God’s characteristics; it makes each part of His nature perfect and immeasurable. His love, wisdom, power, presence and judgment are far beyond anything we can imagine. Harsh, condemning attitudes and language profane the name of God, but when we have new hearts, people get a glimpse of God’s greatness and mercy.

When God’s people display hearts of stone, people can’t see His true nature. Our tender hearts, our positive attitudes, our gracious behavior, our love, our fight for justice for the oppressed — these are the things that make people thirsty for the God we follow.

Even Them?

The currency of the kingdom of God isn’t prayer, Bible study, missions or service; it’s love. All the disciplines are means to put us in touch with the love of God so it overflows into the lives of those around us. Whom does God want us to love? Everyone. Our love should know no bounds.

In Jesus’ most famous sermon, He corrected the teaching of the religious leaders about people who opposed them (Matthew 5:43–48.)

The Old Testament doesn’t tell people to hate their enemies. In fact, what Jesus identified as the second greatest commandment tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31). But in Jesus’ day, the religious leaders had added to the teaching of Scripture. That’s why Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said” (Matthew 5:43) instead of, “It is written.”

Does it seem radical, unwise and maybe insane to love our enemies? We need to remember we were once God’s enemies (Romans 5:10), but God loved us so much that He sent Jesus to die the death we deserved so we could receive the honor He deserved. That’s the measure of God’s love! When we love like that, we’re following the example of our Father in heaven. Jesus explained that God’s love knows no limits. He loves the just and the unjust. God blesses those who love Him and those who ignore Him or despise Him.

The love we experience and extend to our enemies isn’t remotely like the usual way people talk about love. Most people love only those who love them. What’s radical about that? Nothing. Even pagans love that way. But we’re supposed to love even those who annoy us, ignore us, ridicule us, and wish to harm us.

Emotional conflict occurs not only in relationships with people across the political and economic divide but also in the family of God. Far too often, Christians harbor resentment toward other Christians. Instead of forgiving and loving, we gossip, withdraw or openly criticize others.

On the night Jesus was betrayed, He told His disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34–35).

Was loving other believers a new concept? No, but it was new to love them “as I have loved you.” I’m sure the disciples gulped as they looked around at one another. Only hours before, they had argued about who would take the prime positions of power when Jesus was crowned king. They were jealous and competitive. Now Jesus was telling them to pour out the same compassion, attention and care on one another that He had lavished on them.

Today, Jesus wants us to love the people in our churches with that same lavish love — tenderly, strongly, actively and sacrificially. And again, Jesus reminds us that everybody is watching when He says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” If you criticize, condemn and nitpick believers around you, everyone will know you aren’t one of His disciples.

Are you thinking of someone right now? (Perhaps you’re hoping no one is thinking about you!) In many ways, Christians are no different from people outside the family of God. Most of us are just as self-absorbed, just as distracted, and just as fearful and angry as those who never come to church. We’re not the salt of the earth that makes people thirsty for Jesus, and we’re not the light of the world that reveals the wonder of God’s love and forgiveness.

The divide is very real in our culture today. But God’s love is still here, under the surface, and it’s the love that heals wounds, builds bridges, and connects hearts. Division has become so common that love can feel weird and wrong at times. Some say we are against this and opposed to that; they say we want to control people and dominate the country. They say we do a lot more judging than loving.

We haven’t done a good job of representing the Father who blesses the just and the unjust, who loves every person, and who is amazingly patient with those in disagreement with Him. We need to change the impression people have of Christians and our Christ. We can do better. We must do better. And it begins with us admitting our part in creating and extending the divide.

Can you imagine what difference we’d make if we all left church on Sunday so full of Jesus that we radiate His love to everyone we meet at work, at school, over the backyard fence, on the field, and in the stores?

Try to imagine it, and then start with the one person you’re responsible for: yourself.

Adapted from Love Them Anyway by Choco De Jesús. Copyright ©2021. Used by permission of Charisma House. All rights reserved.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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