Romans 13:8-14 (CEB)
Don't be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, Don't commit adultery, don't murder, don't steal, don't desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love doesn't do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.
As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let's get rid of the actions that belong to darkness and put on the weapons of light. Let's behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don't plan to indulge your selfish desires.
We are now at the First Sunday in Advent. Advent has had a special place in my heart. I am reminded how when I was in Germany, we would often sing the song, which translates as "Fling Wide the Door." We would turn off all the lights and light candles as we sang this song.
I'm sure all of my friends in Germany are singing this song, especially on this First Sunday in Advent. The suggested text from the Lectionary gives me pause. This seems strange to me. Intellectually I can relate to this. I know that the highest command is to love and that the entire Scripture can be summed up in loving God and loving our neighbor. An adage of mine is this:
"Love God. Love others. The rest is just theology."
In my mind I agree with this 100%. When I put it into action, this becomes more difficult.
In 1997 as part of my Master of Arts degree, I needed to do a practicum overseas. I was studying missions and part of this was to do a practicum for 6 months in a foreign country. Since I could speak German, I was sent to Germany, specifically to Hamburg. The Salvation Army had a Missions Team, which main avenue of service was in St. Pauli, the poorest district of Hamburg with a high immigrant population and the notorious Red Light District.
I had never seen anything like that before. Prostitution is legal in Germany. Most businesses in St. Pauli seemed to either be something sex-related, a bar, or something else to lure in the tourists. This is an exaggeration, of course, but that's how it appeared to my eyes.
My first Saturday in Hamburg was to do a prayer walk. I was not up to the task. We walked in pairs and my companion, Tobias, tried to help me out. First, I was in a state of severe culture shock. Second, although I could speak German, praying in German was a totally different thing. Tobias told me that I could pray in English if I wanted to.
Then I realized what my problem was. I was disgusted. I looked at the humanity of people coming in and out of the bars, strip joints, sex shops, etc. There was even a street that you could not walk down unless you were over 18 years old. We had to pass through a line of prostitutes to get back to The Salvation Army.
So I prayed to God, "God, you have commanded us to love everyone. Does this mean the prostitute? Does this mean these lecherous men going into the strip bars?"
In 1999 while I was a cadet (seminary student) at The Salvation Army's College for Officer Training, I was sent for my summer assignment (practicum) to Albania and Kosova during the war. I helped out in several refugee camps. The main one that I helped out in was on the Adriatic near a small village, called Hamallaj. Just for clarification: Albanians, especially those in Kosova, are majority Muslim. Serbians are majority Christian. The Serbs were trying to expel all Albanians out of Kosova. It was perhaps ironic that The Salvation Army, a Christian organization, was helping Muslims out who were being exterminated and persecuted by Christians.
One day, we received about 200 men who were dropped off at the Albanian border by the Serbians. We discovered that these men were from Mitrovica, a town in northern Kosova. They had all been in prison, mostly because they were of fighting age. They came to us in a condition I had not yet seen. They were in an obvious state of shock. They were pale, as if they hadn't seen the sun in weeks. They were unshaven.
One of the things that sometimes perplexed my translators was that I liked to talk to the refugees, to get to know them. I learned a little bit of Albanian, but not enough to speak fluently with them. So, through my interpreter, I asked where the men were from and what they had experienced. I almost regretted asking. The men told me horror stories.
One man told me how he was taken outside of the prison and chained to a post. Serbian children were brought in to see him, the Albanian, and to beat him. The children were encouraged by the guards to beat the Kosovars up. To learn hate.
Another man told me how he was forced to watch his 14-year old sister be raped by Serbian soldiers. Afterwards, since she was a Muslim, the Serbian cut the figure of a cross into her breasts. My interpreter had a very difficult time translating this. I had a very difficult time listening.
The men cried. I was in shock.
"God, I'm supposed to love these Serbians? I'm supposed to love these Christians who kill in your name? Rape in your name?"
I slowly realized that hate was becoming an issue for me.
I could smell the alcohol on his breath. He reeked of alcohol and cigarette smoke. I offered to drive him home. I told him about the mistake he made. All of the sudden a switch flipped in him and he began to yell at me, "I'm going to fucking kill you! I'm going to beat you up!"
I got so scared that I dialed 9-1-1. As I talked to the operator and told him where I was, the other man told me to hang up the phone or he would beat me up. My eyes were wildly straining, trying to find a way out. I tried to walk to my car. He blocked my exit. He kept on telling me to hang up the phone. The 9-1-1 dispatcher told me that the police were almost there, but I wasn't certain if it would be soon enough.
The man grabbed me by my neck with his left arm and began to choke me. I could do nothing but scream. My glasses were bent. Somehow, I don't know how this thought came into my head, but the words of Christ entered into my head, "If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well" (Matthew 5:39 CEB). I didn't strike back. I tried to get loose, but there was no way I could.
Suddenly the man let go of my neck. I could breathe again. As I rubbed my neck, I stared dumbfounded as he calmly knelt on the ground with his fingers interlaced behind his neck and waited for the police to come arrest him.
God, are you kidding me? Are you seriously kidding me? I am supposed to love that man?! How? Why? What is gained by that?
When I was in Hamburg, Germany, I felt that God told me, "You can love the prostitute. You can love the people in St. Pauli when you first love Me." I remembered the highest command. The ultimate command. The law, the instruction that summarizes the whole Bible: "Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:5 CEB). I also realized that I was no better than any of the people who were in St. Pauli. I was no better than the prostitutes. I was no better than the men who went into the bars.
When I returned from Albania and Kosova and was able to process what I experienced, I realized that I was beginning to hate Serbians. This was illogical. Not all Serbians killed Kosovars.
Then it happened to me. Someone hurt me. Someone attacked me. God tells me to love him.
I am having a hard time loving him. It is very hard, probably the hardest thing I am doing right now. Why should I?
Allow me to flesh this out for a moment.
Albanians have a tradition of blood revenge. If someone murders another person, that person's family can kill someone in the murderer's family and it would be viewed as justice. Unfortunately, that justice ends up being a never-ending cycle of violence. There is a 500 year history of animosity between Serbs and Albanians. Until one side stops and begins to love, it will continue.
When I love God first, I am able to love others. I am able to see people as the creation of God. We have all messed up. We have hurt each other. We have killed each other, but it needs to stop. We need to love.
This is perhaps the most difficult command in all of the Bible to fulfill. It is easier to strike back. It is easier to hate. It is easier to stew with thoughts of revenge. If, however, I decide to love, will that change anything?
At the very least, but perhaps most importantly, it will change me. Isn't that what is most important? What if we all decided to love instead of hate or seek revenge? I need to decide to love others. It is not a feeling in this case. It is an action. I choose to see my fellow humans as God sees us.
I choose to love.