The Hermeneutic of Love

Author’s Note: This is part of an essay I wrote for an ethics class last semester on political theology and love. I wrote it at the height of the presidential election, and it seemed appropriate at the time. In the wake of yesterday’s events with Jason Collins being the first major professional athlete to come out as a homosexual, and to see the dismal response from many right-wing Christians, I felt that it was once again appropriate.

Rarely can complex issues such as abortion (including the nature of personhood and when a fetus becomes a person), homosexual marriage, war, racial injustice and economic woes be condensed to bumper sticker slogans. Unfortunately, most political discourse is terribly reductionistic and deals only in short, quotable platitudes. Everything must be tweetable and sound-bite worthy.

Christians on both the right and the left have largely given in to the culture’s idea of what politics should be. Rather than standing above the fray and retaining our own unique voice, we’ve become just another voice in the mob making noise. In response to this, Ross Douthat says, “For all its piety and fervor, today’s United States needs to be recognized for what it really is: not a Christian country, but a nation of heretics.”[1]

What seems to be infecting the church is a hermeneutic of fear and suspicion. Nothing is what it seems, the other is always against us, and anyone who disagrees with us is automatically our enemy.  The heart of the problem with American Christianity in regards to it’s political engagement is that we have bought into the lie that we must demonize our enemies. In so doing, we strip them of their personhood and their God-image. We enact violence on the other rather than show them love.  We have bought in to the us vs. them mentality that has come to dominate much political discourse in the last few decades. There also seems to be a move away from the Church as an inherently political institution. Politics have become either an-ecclesial or anti-ecclesial rather than realizing that there is no such thing as an a-political theology.

The counter to this is to embrace a hermeneutic of love, a hermeneutic that sees all of reality through the radical, self-giving love of Christ. We need to be driven by the absurd love demonstrated in Christ. As Glen Stassen and David Gushee say, “Jesus taught that participation in God’s reign requires the disciplined practices of a Christ-following counter-cultural community that obeys God by publicly engaging in working for justice and refusing to trust in the world’s power and authorities.”[2] The hermeneutic of love drives us not necessarily to do social justice in order to do evangelism, but to do social justice because we have a sincere love for the other and want what is best for them.

A hermeneutic of love begins with silence seeking understanding. Christians should be knowledgeable about the myriad complexities of any political issue before engaging. Graham Ward says, “The world is changing. And we have to understand how even if we get lost in the thickets when we try to sort out the complexities of why.”[3] If Christians are to be fair to their opponents, we must first understand what our opponents are saying and why they are saying it. To misrepresent an opponent’s position is to enact violence on that person and to sin against them by bearing false witness.[4]

The hermeneutic of love is also defined by an engagement with the Real against the Ideological. Christians are obligated to sort through the spin, the lies and the partisanship to pierce into the truth of things. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “Without God, all seeing and perceiving of things and laws become abstraction.”[5] The Ideological engagement with politics consists of dealing in abstractions rather than loving real people. It is this dealing with abstractions that leads Christians to forget that at the other end of their scathing remarks and actions are real people created in the image of God with real problems and pains that need to be addressed. The hermeneutic of love always remembers that our decisions and rhetoric impact real people who need to know that they are loved.

The way forward for Christians consists of demonstrating the hermeneutic of love through the humility of repentance for our past wrongs. We must repent for not speaking out for the oppressed. We must repent for forgetting that on the other end of our chicken sandwiches and protests and tweets are real people who deserve to be loved and who possess the image of God. We must repent for forgetting that the woman who is seeking an abortion is in desperate need of love, not condemnation. We must repent for selling the gospel to our partisan (Republican or Democrat, Right or Left) political ideals.

The hermeneutic of love understands that we have been made free through the death and resurrection of Christ, but it understands that this freedom is not a freedom-for-ourselves but rather a freedom-for-the-other.[6] We are made free to be in loving relationship with the other in whom we encounter God. We do not seek our own good in the political process, but the good of the other. This has nothing to do with Utilitarian ideals, but with a concrete love for the other. It drives justice and humility for the Christian. Just as God has bound himself to us through the creation and the atonement, so the other is bound to us by our Christ-likeness.[7] We are free to give ourselves entirely to the other and to seek their well-being above our own.

Ultimately, the hermeneutic of love should be the driving force behind all that we do. There is no room for selfish political battles or for a culture war that leaves a trail of wounded people behind the righteous soldiers. The hermeneutic of love drives us beyond our books and institutions, beyond our gated communities and private schools, and beyond our selfish ambition to care for the neighbor, to seek justice for the oppressed, to love the outsider, and to heal the wounds caused by the dominating hermeneutic of fear.

[1] Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012), 6.

[2] Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003), 468.

[3] Graham Ward, The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 23.

[4] See Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 47-62.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 49.

[6] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3, ed. John W. De Gruchy, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 63.

[7] Ibid.


Violence demands a response, and those who must respond hastily assume that the proper response to violence is more violence. But as followers of the Crucified One we respond to violence by nonviolently pointing to the One who bore the ultimate consequence of the wretchedness of humanity. We testify in word and deed to a radical nonviolence that is to be the new ethos of the created order.

In Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer asserts that the “retribution” Jesus speaks about in Matthew 5:28-32 is a “just retribution” that takes place “only in not resisting it.”[1]  Leviticus 24:20, the Old Testament law behind this teaching, assumes a divine retaliation, not a human one.[2]  As human agents we react to injustice against us not by assuming that it is our responsibility to right wrongs but God’s. “For the community of disciples, which makes no national or legal claims for itself, retribution means patiently bearing the blow, so that evil is not added to evil.”[3]  Nonviolent reaction to evil committed serves to show the ultimate allegiance of the church to Christ: “Our voluntary renunciation of counterviolence confirms and proclaims our unconditional allegiance to Jesus and his followers, our freedom, our detachment from our own egos.”[4]  The ethic of the church is Jesus.  This is not a rejection of cultural and political contexts but a grasping of Christ.  The church is not running away from politics but running toward Christ.  This is what the church is and must be to the world.

Bonhoeffer’s thesis is strengthened when considered in relation to Miroslav Volf’s work on memory. For Volf, the heart of the Christian faith lies not in the insistence that wrongs committed always deserve a response but in embracing the “risky territory marked by the commitment to love one’s enemies.”[5]  This happens not through remembering wrongdoing or forgetting about wrongdoing but remembering correctly with a desire that is fueled neither by hate or disregard but by love for the wrongdoer. This is not wishful thinking or neglect of justice; rather, “the obligation to remember is an extension of the obligation to attend to the wrongs committed.”[6]  Remembering rightly the wrong suffered by loving the wrongdoer and letting God be the one who enacts retribution is the Christian way of justice.

The ultimate act of violence has already been committed at the cross; Christians can remember correctly the wrongdoing of the other because God has made peace through violence.[7]  The gruesome killing of the Son of God is the epitome of violence, for it was against both God and man.  And the very fact that Christ was resurrected from the dead and vindicated by God means that violence is defeated because life is the new reality of the cosmos.  Violence became something that God did, once and for all.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. Dietrich Bonheoffer Works. Vol. 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 132-33.  Bonhoeffer is not rejecting political and national ties here as such.  The bowing of the church in Germany to the Third Reich confused the religious and political allegiances of much of Germany.  Bonhoeffer is careful to not tie the church to any particular nation or culture but to Christ alone.

[4] Ibid., 133.

[5] Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

[6] Ibid., 204.

[7] Hauerwas, War and the American Difference, xi.

Embracing the guilt of the neighbor

What responsibility do I have to my neighbor?  How am I to act toward them? With love. That is what the Bible tells me. That is what I believe. But I have been struggling through this question a lot in the last few years, lacking the necessary words to convey my thoughts. What must the church, the believer, be in its relation to the other? Even more, how do we, when wronged, love the one who wronged us?

How am I to forgive and love the man who slammed his 60,000 lb. cement truck into our family van, killing two girls under the age of 5 in the car behind us? How am I to be a Christ to the one whose actions drove my mother into alcoholism and caused me to be diagnosed with depression? How am I to love him? I profess Christ.  I have experienced the reality of grace. How do I, how does the church, love the other, especially when they are guilty?

I think this is a live question. It must be the church, the bride of Christ who, in her imperfection, witnesses to the perfection of her Bridegroom. In our brokenness, we love the neighbor because Christ has done the same thing with regard to humanity.

What I want to do in this post is to briefly place Luther and Bonhoeffer along side one another on the place of the neighbor in the life of the Christian. I don’t pretend to be an authority on either thinker or to have fully thought out every possible implication these extended quotations have for this or that particular issue. This post is at once a meditation on the necessity of the neighbor and a challenge to those who read this think through the shape and intensity of your external love toward the other.

In The Freedom of the Christian (1520), Luther writes the following,

“Everyone should ‘put on’ the neighbor and act toward him or her as if we were in the neighbor’s place. The good that flowed from Christ flows into us. Christ has ‘put on’ us and acted for us as if he had been what we are. The good we received from Christ flows from us toward those who have need of it. As a result, I should lay before God my faith and righteousness so that they may cover and intercede for the sins of my neighbor. I take these sins upon myself, and labor and serve in them, as if they were my very own. This is exactly what Christ did for us. This is true and sincere love and the rule of a Christian life.” [1]

Divine mercy has been dispensed to the church through faith in the event of Christ. In his assumption of human nature he has taken human reality up in to the divine life. Because of this reality (one that is simultaneously past, present, and future) I am to put on the neighbor. The church as it witnesses to the reality of Christ is the conduit of divine mercy.  The love of God flows through me to my neighbor. Instead of hindering it or quietly seeking to discern whether my neighbor is worthy of love, I love freely, for Christ loved freely. My love for the neighbor means bearing all that the neighbor is in love. For Luther, this meant even taking their sin and treating it as if they were my very own. To bear the other is stand in loving solidarity. The church has tasted the divine, and its witness to the world to come and taste this flowing fountain works itself out in bearing the weight of your neighbor’s very existence.

Like Luther, Bonhoeffer places the ethical action of the human agent squarely within the reality of what Christ has done,

“Jesus does not want to be considered the only perfect one at the expense of human beings, nor, as the only guiltless one, to look down on humanity perishing under its guilt. He does not want some idea of a new human being to triumph over the wreckage of a humanity defeated by its guilt. He does not want to acquit himself of the guilt by which human beings die. A love that would abandon human beings to their guilt would not be a love for real human beings. As one who acts responsibly within the historical existence of human beings, Jesus becomes guilty. It is his love alone, mind you, that leads him to become guilty. Out of his selfless love, out of his sinlessness, Jesus enters into human guilt, taking it upon himself.” [2]

Christ embraced the guilt of the world in assuming humanity. His love was such that he did not value his intrinsic righteousness while the world perished under the weight of sin and guilt. In assuming this alien guilt, Jesus acted responsibly. Our parents teach us that true responsibility is owning up to our obligations. Here, however, responsibility is radically redefined in light of the Christ event. The sin and guilt of all humanity, a byproduct of idolatry, pride, and rebellion, is taken into the divine life in the God-man Jesus Christ. In so doing, a rubric for truly responsible action is supplied to us,

“Because Jesus took the guilt of all human beings upon himself, everyone who acts responsibly becomes guilty. Those who, in acting responsibly, seek to avoid becoming guilty divorce themselves from the ultimate reality of human existence; but in so doing they also divorce themselves from the redeeming mystery of the sinless bearing of guilt by Jesus Christ, and have no part in the divine justification that attends this event.” [3]

With Christ as my example, when I freely assume my neighbor’s guilt I become guilty. True responsibility means embracing the guilt of the world in love. Indeed, this is the requirement of all those justified by Christ. Those who seek to avoid the guilt associated with putting on the neighbor show themselves to be outside the bounds of the justified sphere in which Christ has acted. It is only in this engagement with the world that I found myself fully in the scope of God’s redeeming purposes, for in doing so I mirror Christ.

* Author’s Note – For a thorough treatment of Bonhoeffer’s understanding of accepting guilt, see Christine Schliesser’s Everyone Who Acts Responsibly Becomes Guilty: Bonhoeffer’s Concept of Accepting Guilt

[1] Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 3rd ed, 423
[2] Ethics, 275
[3] Ibid., 275-76