Read Love First
When he was in high school, my eldest son was assigned Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He was to compare it with a sermon of his own choosing—one his deeply Calvinist teacher might expect him to find wanting in light of the classic. Being both an Anglican and a difficult sort of parent, I directed him to read Hugh Latimer’s “On Christian Love” as his second sermon. I felt that the Anglican reformer’s words on the overpowering love of God would provide a bit of a balance. My son, after reading both sermons and having begun his response, emerged from his room with a morose expression. When I asked how his work was going, he answered, “Mom, I think I’ve made a terrible mistake. I read Latimer first.” For him, everything else paled in comparison to Latimer’s meditation on divine love.
For many, theology seems distant and cold, an angry god waiting eagerly to condemn us to the darkest corners of hell, while maybe capriciously saving one or two lucky souls. It is unfortunate that this prejudice, which has so long colored the western Christian mind, will surely pop out at destructive opportunities, most notoriously today on social media. Of course, most internet commenters have never read Edwards, and I am sure the Great Awakening homilist himself would claim no share in the online shenanigans of many modern Christians. Nonetheless, one need not read Edwards to think we understand his message: God will destroy sinners, of which you, my faceless internet interlocutor, are surely one.
I am repeatedly saddened to log onto social media and see the pro-life cause at the root of so much internet vitriol. Beloved friends and mentors often drift unbidden across my computer screen, casually condemning to hell anyone who votes differently from the way they do. One may be against abortion but also speak for life by seeking protection for immigrants, women, minorities, victims of abuse and trafficking (all of whom are easy prey for the abortion industry but who tend to benefit from policies often championed by the so-called pro-choice political wing). Yet these faithful people are marginalized within the pro-life community, often in favor of voices that strike the rest of the world as harsh, angry, and cruel. These, to outside ears, become the self-appointed angry gods of the pro-life movement.
Such voices do not change hearts. Instead of being the winsome ambassadors for Christ that we are called to be, our harsh words often alienate those who most need to hear His words. My liberal friends will readily claim that we are “not pro-life but pro-birth,” even going so far as to say that we do not care about what happens to babies after they are born. I know this not to be true; I see that the same people who champion the unborn are adoptive parents, hotline workers, ministers to the homeless, and more. It does not matter to those outside the pro-life movement; words sometimes do speak louder than actions. If their first impression of us is as social media trolls—reactionaries condemning our political opponents as hell-bound traitors—they will never get close enough to see the food pantries and shelters, the tears shed and the hands held.
Latimer, in that should-be famous sermon, described love as a livery, the colors you wear so that people who see you only at a distance can know which lord you serve. “So Christ makes love His cognizance, His badge, His livery. Like as every lord commonly gives a certain livery to his servants, whereby they may be known that they pertain unto him; and so we say, yonder is this lord’s servants, because they wear his livery: so our Savior, who is the Lord above all lords, would have His servants known by their liveries and badge, which badge is love alone.”1
It grieves me that the pro-life movement, one which should be so clothed in love as to be unmistakable, has so readily put on the livery of an angry god in recent years. Perhaps the cause is fear, which normally emerges as our government makes its regularly scheduled transfer of authority from one group of elected officials to another. Or maybe we are simply weary in a long hard season, and we are letting our frailty show. Whatever the cause, our livery no longer displays the colors of love.
Love, says St. Paul, is “patient and kind.” It does not shout and condemn the vulnerable. “Love does not envy or boast, it is not arrogant or rude.” Love does not insult its opponents. Love grieves with the vulnerable and the exploited. “Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing.” Love does not weaponize prayer; make demands without offering up the sacrifice of relationship; or alienate its enemies. “Love rejoices in truth.”2 It does not abuse others with it.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”3 These are the colors of our livery.
I hope St. Paul will forgive me my additions and pontifications, but I am afraid we are becoming noisy gongs and clanging cymbals in our public discourse. These are hard words to write. But what I see in the public square every day breaks my heart. The livery of an angry god will not save the unborn; it simply damages us all.
It is time we all made my son’s “terrible mistake.” It is time to read love first.4
1. Latimer, Hugh. On Christian Love. Found at: https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/6328 accessed 2.19.21
2. 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 ESV
3. 1 Corinthians 13:7 ESV
4. My apologies, of course, to Mr. Edwards