The word “love” has many meanings, and so it is no wonder that love (in word, feeling, or practice) often confuses and confounds us. We hear from the Gospel of John that love is a commandment. Admittedly, if we were talking about romantic love, or the preferential love for familiar things and people, then the notion that you can command love would be ridiculous. But we’re not talking about those kinds of love. The love of the reign of God is different.
The theologian Gene Outka has said that the love of the reign of God is “unconditional regard for the total well-being of another person” (both for ourselves and for other people). This kind of love can be commanded. But it requires us not to confuse unconditional love with any other kind; especially when the ones we need to love with unconditional love would rather have us love them with preferential love.
That said, preferential love is natural to us, and it can lead to wonderful things: like when we love people for their particular character; or perhaps for the way we are attracted to them; or even for the pleasure certain people bring to our lives. But we do have to be careful about preferential love. If for no other reason, preferential love comes with a bias. Preferential love can make us loyal to certain people, but it can also encourage blind loyalty, sometimes at the expense of doing what it is right in a given situation–even when doing “what’s right” means standing up to the people we otherwise love.
Many of us have been in such a situation: the friend who has gone “too far,” and really needs to reevaluate attitudes or behaviors. Or, it could be the case of trying to help someone who needs it (as when someone is literally destroying their life), but who can only see intervention as invasion. In these moments it is can be really tempting to indulge blind loyalty for the sake of not disturbing the status quo of our relationships.
What is more, preferential love can create false categories of “us and them” or “friend and foe.” Preferential love can be manipulated to make sure that we keep the “right” people on our side, and to assure ourselves that the “wrong” people are surely “over there” twirling their mustaches and hatching their evil plots.
Preferential love so grossly slanted feeds on self-righteousness and the demonization of others.
So instead of preferential love, the Gospel challenges us to love unconditionally–such that all we can see is the We of all humanity, creation, and the cosmos; so that all might be healed, renewed, and empowered.
That said, the love of the reign of God isn’t cheap or easy, nor does it “sugar coat.” As the apostle Paul once wrote, such love “does not rejoice in wrongdoings but delights in the truth.” To that end, it is possible to have “unconditional regard for the total well-being of another person” without at the same time liking what that person is saying or doing or plotting. And yet, the love of the reign of God also demands that we not allow our dislike of actions or dispositions to grow into hatred. That can be hard to do. Because if we’re honest, it can feel so good to indulge the appetite to vilify the ones who do us harm. In fact, entire communities are sometimes organized around hating that group “over there.” Sadly, think of how many churches have been formed on the basis of not being like another group. Think of how many social circles have formed over broken relationships, establishing litmus tests of loyalty by “not talking to him, or her, or them over there.” How many times have we heard: “Whose side are you on anyway?” And think of how many violent conflicts have taken place because of that rigid certainty that “we’re right, and they’re wrong.”
God have mercy.
And so we return to the cardinal command of the Gospel: to Love! The Christian theologian Soren Kierkegaard once asked the following questions about such love: Will you be taken advantage of if you love with the love of the reign of God? Will you be hurt? Will you be deceived? Yes. Yes. And yes. But when love is a commandment, and when that love is unconditional, we come to find out that loving with the love of God is never about getting anything in return. It’s about ever-embodying the love of God. It’s about healing the world. It’s about experiencing the incarnation of God in our human relationships. It’s about all these things, and everything else that enables living on earth as it is in heaven.
And if each one of us tried a little harder (or maybe, just once again); and we tried loving with that unconditional love, imagine what the corporate effect of that effort would be!
If Jesus is right, such an effort would bring healing to our world.