As we enter into Advent, my daughters and I start looking forward to celebrating Jesus’ birthday. Yes, we look forward to presents, decorations, carols and all the other Christmas festivities. But in our family we definitely celebrate Jesus.
This year, as my friends and others try to process the results of an election that laid bare in new ways the truth about racism in this country and the hatred that is spewing so much more publicly and freely, I’m thinking about what Jesus meant when he instructed us to love each other as he has loved us.
I enjoy sharing with my children the stories about what the historical Jesus was reported to have said and done. I have always believed if we lived by Jesus’ example the world would be a better place. (To be clear, I don’t believe that Jesus’ example is the only right path.)
For the last few years I have been active in the Portland Friends Meeting ( Quaker) community. In Meeting for Worship each Sunday, we sit together in silence. In that silence, we are waiting. We wait for what we might call the Light Within, the Inward Teacher or Divine Wisdom. We have no creed, but we do believe there is God in all of us.
Finding inner peace and guidance through silent meditation is essential for my well-being. My spiritual life doesn’t center only on how serene I feel, though, but also on how I move in the world. How can I be of service? How can my spiritual connection move me to help make the world a better place? Historically, Quakers have put their faith into action, however imperfectly, which is part of why the Society of Friends movement appealed to me.
The November elections exposed underlying truths about racism, misogyny, and profiteering in our country. Many of my liberal and progressive peers hadn’t seen the brutality of the truth as clearly as they are starting to see it all now. As they discuss those new insights, I have seen many people talk about how we need to “love each other more.”
For reasons I couldn’t immediately understand, that advice made me flinch, or even cringe. It felt hollow, but I couldn’t figure out why.
After all, according to John 13:34, Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” How can anyone disagree with that? Why did “we should love each other more” feel so wrong to me?
Reading “ Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation” helped me understand. As the Rev. angel Kyodo williams describes, white people like me may experience love as an “air-like element, one they are certain of the need for, one that is sustained by and benefits from breathing in deeply, but that is an ultimately private affair expressed only on the interpersonal realm.” Of course I have felt deep, gut-wrenching love. I am a mother, after all. But the truth of williams’ description — love as a private affair — resonated.
I don’t believe Jesus was talking about this air-like kind of love. Jesus wasn’t talking about the other-worldly feeling that comes when we center into ourselves through prayer and meditation. He wasn’t talking about being generous or decent to friends or strangers. He wasn’t even talking about the profound emotional connections we have with family. Jesus was talking about a meatier love than that. Jesus was talking about justice and solidarity.
As the comedian John Fugelsang wrote, “ Jesus was a radical, nonviolent revolutionary.” It’s when I think of how Jesus let the woman of ill repute wash his feet, how he ate with tax collectors, or how he overturned the tables of the money changers (profit makers) in the temple that I know what Jesus meant when he talked about love. We should face difficult truths, have the courage to disrupt “business as usual” and work for justice in solidarity with all people.
The day to celebrate Jesus’ birthday is coming up. For me, the need to live his commandment, to love one another, is critical. Intuitively, I know I am following a spiritual path that will help me love in the way I believe Jesus did. The kind of love I want to live is described perfectly in “Radical Dharma” as “an earthy, grounding power to be wielded for justice, sometimes with attending fire that burns through whatever may obscure truth.”
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at email@example.com. Her columns appear monthly.