We could go on for days and days laying out the benefits and the beauties of community. We could proclaim that, in Jesus, we have the answer to real peace on earth together as one people of God. We could sing John Lennon’s entire library from front to back (with the possible exclusion of “I am the walrus”, which remains indecipherable to anyone not currently high on LSD), holding hands and enjoying the birth of real and lasting community.
In the end, one of us would go nuts and start losing his mind. Somebody would inevitably ruin a great peace-loving party and pull a John Belushi, right? We tend to get on each others’ nerves even if we happen to be on the same side of the fence. Have you ever been to a ballgame and found yourself fighting the urge to punch out a guy with the same shirt and hat as you had on? The folks we find ourselves in community with can be really obnoxious. It seems like Jesus lives among some really flawed characters.
This last week has seen a horrific shooting take place in Tucson, Arizona. A federal judge was murdered in cold blood, along with 9-year-old Christina Taylor Greene and four others. At the same time a state politician, along with a few bystanders, were severely wounded. Once again, the nation is shocked by this senseless violence that shocks the conscience. We rack our brains to even comprehend a man opening fire thirty-one times into a crowd of people. We have such a difficult times wrapping our minds around this hatred for and calloused indifference toward human life.
But what is perhaps even more shocking and outrageous to the Christian community has been the reappearance of a painfully misguided spin-off known as Westboro Baptist Church. These renegades have been doing severe damage to their fellow man in the name of Jesus for the past decade or so, hurling hateful comments toward practicing homosexuals, mothers of slain soldiers, and anybody whose actions might speak against the law of God.
The so-called Westboro Baptist Church, which consists of an extended family whose gross misunderstanding of God has resulted in so much shameful hatred of their neighbor, had organized a demonstration around the funerals of the murdered. At the last minute, Tucson officials were able to block their appearance only by the state legislature’s ruling that it would be illegal to protest the event. This close call could not undo the further damage that the “church” has caused to the name, message and people of Jesus by refusing to listen to God’s second-greatest commandment. While calling themselves the people of God they have hated the very people they were called to love.
Thankfully, the general population in our nation has recognized that this is an oddball sect and many Christian leaders have correctly identified their actions as contrary to the message of Jesus. Most people see them for what they clearly are, a misled group of people.
How do we respond to them as the community of Jesus? How are we to respond to the folks who are always getting it wrong? Maybe we can cast this group aside and brand them as heretical (which most certainly would be a fair charge). Maybe we could ignore their statements and dismiss them as wrong-headed, as well as wrong-hearted responses to their fellow man.
And once again it has become clear that our experience tells us what our hearts were afraid to admit. Our neighbor (whether Christian or not) is broken. Our neighbor is so often thoughtless. Our neighbor can be cruel. Our neighbor can do a world of damage even in the midst of the best of intentions.
It may be difficult to admit, but once again, our experience confirms the word of God. There is indeed a right and a wrong. Sometimes we ourselves are in the wrong. Sometimes it is our neighbor who is in the wrong. Usually we are both off base.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we own some really hurtful history in the church. The saints who have gone before us have left a colorful, and at many places, embarrassing legacy behind them and it is no different today. As awful as the Holy Wars and Crusades were in our past, there are still many God-fearing believers who have a hard time seeing a Muslim without fear and anger growing inside of them. As sad as slavery and the civil rights movement is to look back on, we must admit that racism is still alive and well in the Church today.
Have we imagined that the past sexual abuse by the clergy is a unique Catholic problem? Are we bold enough to say that the Westboro folks are the only ones simultaneously claiming Jesus and hating their fellow man because of his sexual brokenness? King Solomon was right so many years ago. We must admit that there is nothing new under the sun.
We know down deep that we will always have a difficult time getting along with the people of God. The idea of community seems peaceful and serene enough until we spend time with these other characters Jesus has identified with all along.
If we want to know how to love these and other oddballs, we need to look at Jesus himself. How was it that Jesus loved us, a collection of people so often in the wrong? In simple terms (which are the only terms that really change our hearts), Jesus abandoned his high seat as Judge to take on the guilt of the world. He actually traded sinlessness for love. He took on the guilt of the ones he loved.
Bonhoeffer wrote: real innocence shows itself precisely in a man’s entering into the fellowship of guilt for the sake of other men.
If we believe that Jesus loves us by trading his innocence, and entering our fellowship of guilt, how can we expect to love even our enemies without incrimination?
But it would be far too easy to stop at contemplating our response to the Westboro folks, most of whom nobody reading this will ever meet. We know we are called to hate the sin and love the sinner on this level, right? We know that we ought to pray not only for the victims but also for the perpetrators of these acts of hatred. In this sense it is easy to picture our obedience alike to that of Jesus.
The real difficulty comes in our daily interactions with these clowns around us. Can we truly trade our reputation in to love those who cannot seem to get it right? Can we love our boss by working quietly, as unto the Lord? Can we love our roommates and pray for them even if they are unwilling to take out the trash? Can we love our wives or husbands, praying for them and being patient with them even when we know they are in the wrong?
In the end the question we are faced with is whether we are more interested in avoiding sin or loving our neighbor. One is a negative response that will cripple us with an unattainable laundry list of rules while the other will free us to depend on God. Avoiding sin will begin a countdown to relapse, hatred, and bitterness. Loving our neighbor for Jesus’ sake will free us to really live.
 Ethics, 241.