You were called to freedom, my siblings; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Galatians 5:13)
I was speaking with a woman a few months ago who had been at a large conference. She observed to me that, as a certain bishop spoke against gay marriage, she was struck by the vindictive hatred which distorted his face.
Later she realized that, however ‘correct’ his arguments seemed, the hatred with which he spoke undermined everything he said. For if God is love, and if following Jesus means overflowing with love for our neighbour and even enemy, then vindictive hatred has no part in us. Further, those who speak or act in ways which diminish the lives of others are neither following Jesus nor showing us the way to go.
I remembered this conversation as I reflected on last week’s US Supreme Court ruling which struck down Roe vs Wade. Now, I don’t want to sink into the morass of abortion debate beyond saying that anyone who describes themselves as pro-life better be campaigning tirelessly to slash military spending and divert the billions towards free universal health care, paid parental leave, safe affordable housing, affordable tertiary education, clean green livable cities, extensive reforestation, an end to fossil fuel extraction, sweeping bans on private ownership of any gun beyond a hunting rifle, and investment in regenerative farming: in other words, working towards things which actually bring life to people, including babies and their households.
The reality is that women require and seek abortion care, and the only question for a society is, Will safe, legal abortion be available to everyone, or will it only be available to the wealthy? In the US, it seems, the Supreme Court has effectively decided for the latter: for abortion will, for the most part, now be available only in select states and to those who can afford to travel and pay for the service. Further, in his concurring opinion Justice Clarence Thomas named three other due process rulings which might now be revisited: the right for gay people to marry and to have consensual sex, and the right for women to access contraceptive care.
Given that Justice Thomas speaks publicly of his faith, two things strike me. The first is the absence of love. The conservative justices have been appointed by a party which is powerfully shaped by conservative so-called Christians. But as Paul sets out above, for anyone who claims to follow Christ, love is the most important thing, and is the litmus test for everything. Christians must show love in all their words, actions and rulings; if they don’t, then, like the woman who questioned the bishop, we must ask whether they are truly being guided by the spirit of Christ.
Seeking to limit the health, rights, freedoms, loves, and joys of much of the population doesn’t even begin to approach love, and shows complete ignorance, even contempt, for the way of Jesus Christ. For Jesus consistently went out of his way to seek and serve the most marginalized of his time, and to build his new community of love with such people at the centre: which these days might mean young incest victims, poor women, and women of colour, all of whom will be disproportionately affected by this ruling.
The second thing which strikes me is this. There’s another Supreme Court ruling which falls under the scope of due process, and that is interracial marriage. Justice Thomas’s wife is White; he is Black; and their marriage is legally recognized because, in the case of Loving vs Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court ruled to protect the right to interracial marriage. Since Justice Thomas claims to be Christian, I hear Paul’s words ringing in my ears: ‘You are called to freedom, my brother; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.’ The self-indulgence which seizes rights for oneself but denies them to another; which uses one’s own power to diminish and oppress others; which causes strife, anger, envy, quarrels, and dissension in a society: such self-indulgence is a complete failure of Christian freedom.
Many will try to regulate how we live, and will use the name of Christ to do so. It was a problem in Galatia in the first century, and it’s a problem here and now. Thanks to Paul, however, we know how to respond to such attempts, and whether you’re listening to a bishop or a justice or a friend, the approach is the same. That is, when you are trying to work out the truth of a matter, whether it’s a theological argument or a Supreme Court ruling or a discussion over the dinner table, seek only the truth that is Jesus. Don’t be befuddled by clever arguments, whether theological or legal or rational; and don’t look for absolutes, either. Instead, look only for love: genuine engagement and down-to-earth love grounded in the here and now.
In other words, if someone’s words and actions do not show love, then they do not know Christ, whatever they claim. But if they decrease suffering and limit violence; if they extend justice, fairness, and equality of opportunity to all people; if they curb their own privilege to build a world all can share; if they radiate generosity and tenderness, then the spirit of Christ is indeed at work in them and we can trust their words and deeds.
Near the end of his letter, Paul urges, ‘whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all…’ (Gal. 6:10). In other words, use your power to raise up others; share the privileges and sorrows and joys of life. And in all things, love your neighbour in strong, self-giving, practical ways. For this, and only this, is the way of Jesus Christ.
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