Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
“and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” – Mark 12:33
In November 1845, abolitionist Frederick Douglass embarked on a lecture tour in Ireland. Douglass was championing the cause of anti-slavery in Europe, promoting his recently released autobiography A Narrative Life, and literally on the run as a fugitive slave from a Maryland plantation.
Douglass arrived in Ireland just in time to witness the onslaught of the great potato blight. In the 1840’s two-thirds of Ireland’s population depended on the potato crop for subsistence. Beginning in 1845 a fungus overtook the potato. Famine emerged. Within a few years over a million Irish died from hunger and disease. Mass emigration ensued. Another two million Irish would emigrate to the United States and Canada. And to add insult to injury, the policies of the British intentionally exacerbated rather than ameliorated Irish suffering.
In Ireland, the injustices of the world collided for Douglass. He smelled the stench of religious hypocrisy from both sides of the Atlantic. The tragedy of human depravity demonstrated an enduring truth — man’s mistreatment of man knows no race, no religion, and no particular region.
Leaders in England chalked up the potato famine to “God’s providence.” They mitigated the distribution of food to the poor in the name of “free markets.” Officials incentivized the eviction of peasant farmers. They quickly consolidated and sold the land for commercial use. And local newspapers in England conspired with [i]politicians and Protestant clergy. They peddled pernicious anti-Irish prejudice in both Europe and North America.
The Times of London described migrants fleeing certain death as immoral agents of cultural infestation. Anglican clergyman Charles Kingsley described the Irish as white chimpanzees only different from the Negro in skin color.[ii] And this level of anti-immigrant sentiment festered throughout the 19th century into the 20th century. Speaking to a political rally full of Ku Klux Klansmen in 1925, then Georgia state governor Clifford Walker declared, “I would build a wall of steel—a wall as High as Heaven against the admission of a single one of those southern Europeans who never thought the thoughts or spoke the language of democracy in their lives.”[iii]
Though Frederick Douglass did not like to equate the condition of slavery in America with the potato famine in Ireland, he did point out the hypocrisy of the Protestant elite. “Too many self-styled philanthropists,” he wrote in 1846, “care no more about Irishmen…than they care about the…slave.”[iv] It seems that British officials preferred death and eviction over the auction block for these “white chimpanzees.” And the British media underscored an important point about humanity. Those who can make us believe absurdities can make us commit atrocities.
But when it comes to the history of mass suffering in our world—when it comes to dark periods of slavery, apartheid, and genocide—the narrative appears to be consistent. It is one of a minority who commit atrocities, while the majority remain indifferent. Injustice seems to favor willful ignorance over constructive engagement, social apathy over social involvement. For it is not that human beings are inherently wicked. But as Albert Einstein once put it, The world is such a dangerous place, not because of those who commit evil,“but because of those who look and do nothing.” For what we allow, we encourage.
This is why when asked the question, “what is the greatest commandment?,” Jesus appeals to the greatest ethical teachings of the Jewish tradition. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and strength.Then you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus’s words are simple, yet far from simplistic. They are easy to repeat but much harder to practice. Love God. And then love God’s creation, yourself and your neighbor.
“But wait, Jesus. I attend church every Sunday and pray every night.” “That’s all well and good,” I can hear Jesus saying. “But love the Lord with your whole being means that you then direct that love toward the most vulnerable around you.”
“Um, sure, okay, Jesus. But you know I contribute financially to the church, attend coffee hour each week, and I even know the opening hymn by heart.”
“That’s great,” Jesus might reply. “But how can we say that we love a God that we have never seen, and ignore the adversity, affliction, and anguish of those who inhabit this planet with us?”
“Jesus, I read scripture every day. I listen to only gospel music and anthems at work. I even get down on my knees and pray multiple times per day.”
And I hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Lips that sing and pray cannot replace hands that serve and heal.”
Love God. Love God’s creation. This is more important than all of your burnt offerings and ritual sacrifices.
Jesus is warning us. We can’t let our demonstrations of faith become an excuse for our inactivity. We can’t let our piety become an escape from our moral obligations. We can’t let our religion become a way to justify our failure to intervene on behalf of the most vulnerable.
You and I should not become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.
Might this be the reason that so many young people feel an aversion toward the church?
Might this be the reason that so many agree that religion is simply a Marxist opiate of the masses? We come to get high off the contact smoke of prayer and praise while the world is left with a hangover. We gather and debate over doctrine and argue over orthodoxy while paying little attention to the pains, problems, perils, and perplexities that engulf our world. We wax eloquently about sin. We profess, “Jesus will save you.” Yet we ignore Jesus’s explicit command. “Take care of one another!” If you say you love God, then there is no longer “I,” but it is “you and me.” There is no “them” or “they,” but it is “us” and “we.” That is what love looks like. Not tyrannical unity, but concern. Not bland homogeneity, but shared humanity. It’s not about being selfless, but learning how to think of one’s self-less.
Jesus is teaching us something about faith that many of us have learned in different arenas. Life is a team sport. The more we learn to give ourselves to a cause greater than ourselves; the more we learn to improve the lot of those around us; the more likely we will experience lives of joy and purpose. Life in God’s kingdom is not a spectator sport. Nor is it about individual accomplishment. Our success is bound up with the success of others.
Last month, many of us witnessed basketball player Lebron James teach this to his young Lakers teammates. Playing on the road against the Portland Trailblazers, his teammate Kyle Kuzma hit the deck. Lebron walked over to him pulled him up and called all of his teammates together. He told them, “Anytime you hit the floor, stay down. Your brother will come and pick you up.”
Maybe this is what Jesus is trying to teach us this morning. This is what love looks like. When life knocks us down. We can trust that others will be there to pick us up. Just as when we see another down, it is our responsibility to stretch out an ethical hand of uplift. This is what love looks like. We will either rise up and win together as brothers and sisters. Or we will lay down and lose like fools.
[i] See Tim Pat Coogan, The Famine Plot: England’s Role in Ireland’s Greatest Tragedy, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
[ii] Ibid, 219.
[iii] Quoted in Jon Meacham, The Soul Of America: The Battle for our Better Angels, New York: Random House, 2018, pg. 119.
[iv] David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet Of Freedom, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018