I was born in 1953. So I came of age during the 60s. A time of turbulence and upheaval, of questioning and throwing out old norms of behavior. A cultural revolution. There was a lot going on: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and protests against it, the assassinations of major public figures, including two Kennedys, one King, and a man who traded in the name he inherited from a slave-owner for an X. There was the Black Power Movement. There were riots in Watts, in Newark and Jersey City, in Harlem, in Chicago outside the Democratic National Convention; across the country as neighborhoods erupted in rage and frustration. Meanwhile, the sexual revolution challenged the institutions of monogamy and the nuclear family. And a new wave of feminism took up the struggle for greater participation in the workplace, with equal pay for equal work, and the breaking down of cultural expectations of women.
In the middle of this maelstrom of action and change, the summer of 1967 was proclaimed “the Summer of Love.” A popular song encouraged us, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair…. Summertime will be a Love-in there.”* There was a strong sense among the young that the institutions we had been raised to revere and uphold and go to war to defend–the government, the churches, the cultural norms–had, in a fundamental way, failed us. There was the feeling that perhaps life didn’t have to be so constrained, that relationships with others didn’t have to come under so many restrictions and regulations. Everything came into question. It was no longer enough to say, “This is the way it has always been.” The young were searching for a way of life that felt more real, less narrow. Why couldn’t everyone just love each other? The Beatles became part of the soundtrack:
“All you need is love, love; love is all you need.”
While all this upheaval was going on, I was being raised in the Southern Baptist Church, which culturally still had both feet firmly in the 50s. I wore crinolines and squirmed on church pews. I went to Sunday School, two worship services every Sunday, and Wednesday night prayer meeting every week. I joined the Girls’ Auxiliary (GAs) where I learned about missions, how to cross-stitch a map of the world on a table cloth–and how to recite the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians from memory:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.1 Corinthians 13: 1 (King James Version)
“Charity,” or Love, as I learned about it as a Southern girl in GAs, was about being good, being polite, respecting my elders, obeying the rules, being thoughtful and considerate of everyone. 1 Corinthians 13 told me that it was important to be kind (“Charity suffereth long, and is kind…”) and not to be proud (“…charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up”); to be well-behaved and unselfish (“Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own….”).
When you view these passages against the backdrop of the white Southern Baptist Church of the 50s and early 60s, you can see how they might be (read, were) used to reinforce society’s expectations of a Southern white girl.
It never occurred to me as I was growing up that Love might demand something else from me. Something counter-cultural. That is, until one night when buckshot ripped through the front window and walls of our home, narrowly missing the teenagers, black and white, who were there having a party.
Even then, I thought my response should be “loving,” as I had been taught to understand it; in other words, I could not show that I was angry. After all, charity “…is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil….” Clearly, to allow myself even to be angry, was to “think evil”–and that was not love. Love was being nice.
What’s curious to me now is how anyone could come away with that idea of “love” and have any knowledge whatsoever of the life of Jesus. True, in the courtyard before his crucifixion, Jesus doesn’t open his mouth or lift a finger to defend himself (Mark 14:16-20). But not long before this scene in the same Gospel, there is another where he is making whips out of cords, turning over tables, and running profiteers and dealers out of the Temple (Mark 11:15-17). Jesus was never spoiling for a fight. But he didn’t slink away either. When they brought him the woman whom the Law said should be stoned for sleeping with a man not her husband, Jesus’ response was: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Or when they tried to provoke him into a political debate about taxes, maybe hoping he’d say something treasonous (and actionable), he asked, “Whose image is on that coin? Give Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give God the things that are God’s.” Throwing the responsibility for discernment right back at them.
And, of course, there was also that time that he called them “whitewashed tombs, full of dead people’s bones and all corruption.” And I don’t guess he was speaking very gently, when he said, “You serpents, you brood of vipers, who told you you could escape damnation!?” Them’s fightin’ words.
So Jesus was no coward. But in the courtyard, after the sentence of crucifixion is handed down, he says nothing. Does nothing in his own defense. The soldiers whip and scourge him, they ridicule him and humiliate him, dressing him in royal purple and putting a crown of thorns on his head. They call out the whole regiment, so this humiliation will be public and devastating. And Jesus submits to it all. Finally after they get bored with torturing him, they strip the purple robe from him, dress him in his own clothes, and take him off to be executed. Between two thieves. The ridicule and humiliation continue, until finally he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And dies.
Let me backtrack for a minute. Because the thing that got me thinking about all this is the phrase at the end of a prayer from A New Zealand Prayer Book, based on the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, it is a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer.
One day as I was praying this prayer, the last line leaped off the page at me: “For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever. Amen.”
The power that is Love. Now I’ve often thought of Love as standing up to power; for example, standing against injustice, standing for the rights of human beings. But to think of Love itself as power? A lot of questions sprang up in me: What is meant by “the power that is Love”? Is Love power? And if so, how is Love powerful? Is Love’s power its willingness to be seen as vulnerable and weak?
Or is there a power in Love–a power that is Love–that, even when it appears weak, is still power?
Perhaps “the power that is Love” works on a deeper level, where it’s often unseen and goes unacknowledged as power. But if Love’s power can’t be seen, how do we know it exists and isn’t just wishful thinking?
And these questions brought me to that scene in the courtyard, where the last word one might use to describe Jesus is powerful. He is beaten, ridiculed, humiliated–but powerful?
Is Love power? And is “the power that is Love” present even there?
I believe that it is. I believe that the power that is Love is present in Jesus, even in that moment. If you think about what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13: Without Love, Jesus could be crucified a thousand times, and it would mean nothing. Without Love, he would’ve been just another poor pitiful victim of the Roman Empire.
But he did have Love. A very specific kind of Love: the power that is Love.
Even at his weakest point, Jesus possessed a power that had nothing to do with domination. Which was the kind of power the soldiers, for example, and Pilate, and the religious authorities, were exercising over him. And yet, it was there, though invisible. The visible evidence was that he was defeated. He had lost whatever game he had been playing–at least, that’s how it appeared from the outside.
But inside! There was a power of connection to the Divine, a power rooted and grounded in Love. I daresay that the soldiers felt it. And in fact, it may have enraged them even more, fed the flood of insults and hatred that they rained down on him. It may have aroused their fear, because they were dealing with a power they could neither understand nor destroy.
What I am proposing here is that the thing that made Jesus’ submission powerful rather than weak, an act of power rather than weakness, was the Love that he embodied.
But what a difficult power to hold! Because in our world, power is seen as the survival of the fittest. I have power if I can fool you, beat you or cheat you, or get one over on you; cut you off in traffic and get a few car lengths ahead of you! I have power if I can come up with the perfect comeback (read, putdown) to your obviously deluded political opinion on Facebook or Twitter! In our world, I have power only if I have power over you and can either make you do what I want, or get from you what I want.
But the power that is Love doesn’t think that way.
I’m reminded of the women and men who taught and practiced nonviolent resistance in the civil rights movement. Some of my friends who have been trained in nonviolent resistance have said that part of the technique is to picture your assailant as the small child they once were; holding that image of them in compassion for them. That’s the power that is Love.
Bernard Lafayette, one of the lions of the civil rights movement, tells a story about the night Medgar Evers was murdered; actually, the plan was that three of the civil rights leaders would be murdered at the same time. And Lafayette was one of the three. His assailant tricked him into helping him “fix” something on his truck and then hit him with a lead pipe. Lafayette says that he had been taught always to get back up and look your attacker in the eye. So he did that. Repeatedly. The blood streaming into his eyes, wiping them clear so he could see the eyes of the man who was trying to murder him. Meanwhile, his neighbor Red had grabbed his shotgun. Needless to say, Red had zero commitment to nonviolent resistance. And Lafayette found himself in the peculiar position of yelling at his friend, “No! Don’t shoot!” while the blows kept raining down on him, and he continued to place himself between Red’s shotgun and the man attacking him. Apparently the whole thing became so confusing for his assailant, that he finally jumped in his truck and took off. That’s the power that is Love.
I may speak in human tongues or the tongues of angels, but if I am without love, I am a sounding gong, a cracked bell, a clanging cymbal. I may have the gift of prophecy, and know every hidden truth; I may have faith strong enough to move mountains; but if I have no love, I am nothing. I may give everything I possess to help the poor, the unfortunate, the oppressed, or even give my body to be burned, sacrificing myself, but if I have no love, it means nothing.
I don’t know how to end this post. Maybe by simply saying, “To be continued….”
Or perhaps I can borrow the words of the apostle Paul:
Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part, but then I will know even as I myself am known. And now, these three things abide, these three things last forever: Faith, Hope, Love. But the greatest of these is Love.
*”San Francisco,” by Scott McKenzie