Something for Maundy Thursday, on which Christians celebrate the Last Supper, the meal Jesus shared with his disciples on the evening before he died, or so the story tells us. We read of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and being an example of service. We read of Jesus instituting the communion service itself. Most importantly for me we read the “Mandatum” or command of Jesus to “Love one another.”
I am no longer a Christian. I let go of church attendance two years ago. The last time I went to a Catholic mass was three or four years ago for the Easter vigil service on Easter Saturday. On that occasion I got roped into joining the church choir even though it had never been my parish when I was Catholic. I had half an hour to learn all the psalm responses and various little chants and songs sung by the choir. It was quite an experience.
I’ve been thinking of that command of Jesus this morning and hoping my brain would come up with some kind of a plan for writing about it – perhaps in connection to the visit of Teresa May to a parent and toddler group here in Newcastle today and the love shown in policies that mean many Sure Start centres and services have had to be shut due to cuts imposed by the government Mrs. May leads. She’s the Right Honorable … yeah, right. I haven’t managed to write it yet so I thought of this musing on loving other people, written a couple of years ago. Like all of us, I still fall down repeatedly in matters of love and compassion. I often forget that I believe the mantra words in what follows.
Recently I attended a meeting of a not-church. I call it a not-church anyway. It’s a meeting for people who are “guided by the life and teachings of Jesus” and who meet “in the presence of a God whose love is freedom, whose touch is healing, whose voice is calm.”
The people at the meeting are good people, seeking their God and I find it less difficult than most meetings. It’s still hard though because every word in the little bit of the liturgy prepared for each meeting is phrased with theism in mind. It’s a language that takes theism as a presupposition of a shared belief in an interventionist deity. I don’t believe in that deity. I’m not sure that everyone there believes in the deity either. But the language, like the language of a church, is theistic.
It’s not exclusive though and it’s not evangelistic so usually I’ve been able to cope with it and just miss out what I couldn’t say at all and translate the rest into my own meaning. That day I couldn’t participate at all. Just as the meeting began my brain decided it could cope no more, autistic overload hit hard, and I spent the whole time wanting to walk out and sit in the sunshine. Perhaps that’s what I should have done. Afterwards I left very quickly and couldn’t speak even when grabbed for conversations.
The subject of the not-church this month was kindness. As always, the liturgy includes some quotations about the subject and after they are read there is an open group discussion – something that I can’t participate in at all vocally because I can’t deal with group discussions. My head just doesn’t know the rules and can’t process everything quickly enough. By the time it has something worthwhile to say the topic has moved on and even if I have something to say at what might be the right time I don’t know how to break into the group and say it. Never mind. That’s just how things are and they’re not likely to change. The diagnostic criteria for autism still mention a triad of impairments. My inability in group situations is part of one of those impairments. It truly isn’t my favourite part of my autism and it’s one in which this so-called very high functioning autistic person is pretty severely impaired.
One of the quotations struck me:
A part of kindness consists in loving people more than they deserve.
Joubert was a French moralist who died nearly 200 years ago. His Penseeswere published after his death. I haven’t read them – I hadn’t heard of Joubert at all. Then again I never managed to finish the Pensees of Blaise Pascal either. I guess I will probably never read Joubert. But I guessed I would never read a lot of things that I have since read.
One of the members of the not-church discussion really liked that Joubert quotation. She talked about it. I wasn’t able to speak and was rapidly sinking into a state in which it’s quite difficult to even get myself home. If I had been able to speak I might have talked about this quotation too. Because I didn’t like it. I still don’t like it.
Joubert says “loving people more than they deserve.”
I take issue with that and ask a question:
How much love does a person deserve?
I believe that every single person on this planet deserves more love than they give themselves. They deserve more love than other people give them.
Basically, whatever is happening, whatever the situation, whatever a person has or hasn’t done, a person deserves more love not less.
However they feel, however they dress. Whatever their gender or sexuality or race or height. Whether they are disabled or not disabled. Whatever their politics. Whatever their religion. They deserve more love not less.
Even if they treat us badly or treat others badly they deserve more love not less.
And for ourselves. We deserve more love not less. Always and at every moment.
My belief is not an original idea. I’ve inherited from others, most especially from a spiritual teacher who has been known to use “more love not less” as a kind of mantra and as part of a liturgy. It’s pretty powerful to look at a person we don’t like and tell ourselves that they deserve more love not less. It’s even more powerful to look at ourselves when we unfairly criticise ourselves and say “I deserve more love, not less.”
More love, not less. In fact I would say that we deserve total love. All of us. Total love. Constantly.
Joubert said “loving people more than they deserve” and I sit here typing about it two-hundred years later. And I type this: Joubert’s thought was nonsensical.
You cannot love any person more than they deserve.
You just can’t. It’s impossible.
What we need to aim to do is to love each person as much as they deserve. Total love. Always. If anyone lived according to that aim it was Jesus, a teacher of the way of love.
Unpacking that is hard. It raises many questions of how to love people as much as they deserve. It raises questions for what to do when we fail to love people that much. It raises questions of how best to love ourselves, and how to keep loving ourselves when we fall short of the aim of a life of total love. I am not even going to begin to attempt grappling with those questions in this post.
I think Joubert is not to blame for getting it wrong. He was living in a society with a Christian based morality. Even those Frenchmen who killed priests in various revolutions were really only removing a Christian establishment and morality and replacing it with what, beyond story, was just another Christian establishment and morality.
The Catholics of Joubert’s day believed in original sin. They believed that God loved them but that loving them was in itself an act of mercy because they didn’t really deserve the love of God, let alone to have God as a friend. The Church taught that each person deserves to go to Hell and suffer for eternity, separated from God in fire and torment and damnation. That’s what humans deserve. Anything about that is mercy. It’s true that the mercy story was rich – the loving, merciful God finding a “just” way to rescue the fallen, sinful humans from hell if they followed him and his son. But it’s also true that the Church had a very negative view of human beings. Gee, thanks Augustine for developing that doctrine so well.
Every now and again you might have heard that we’re all fearfully and wonderfully made or heard about the dignity of human beings. But the Catholic liturgy was based on the idea that we need to repent – and that one sin of the wrong type leads to Hell without that repentance and reliance on mercy. The Protestants of the day weren’t much better and sometimes were much worse. Thanks Calvin, for outdoing Augustine – the very first point Calvinism makes is that every single one of us is totally depraved. It’s not a good starting point for developing a healthy, loving view of the human race.
I confess that I used to go along with all this. Original sin. The fallen nature of human beings thanks to Adam and Eve eating some fruit. There was a time I even believed in the literal truth of that story, that there really were two people wandering around a pretty garden being tempted by a wily serpent. I believed that we were fully reliant on God for salvation, hope and anything that might be nice. I believed in a literal Hell once. And in literal human souls burning for eternity. I believed that the Bible taught it so it must be true. The preachers in my churches taught it too, straight from Scripture and you wouldn’t want to go against what God wrote in his book, would you? Yeah, I believed people were fundamentally sinful. I believed I was fundamentally very sinful. I was a worm – as Scripture puts it. I was a wretch – as John Newton said in the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
I don’t believe any of that now. It’s been a long journey to get from there to where I am now, which is a much more free place. And I don’t like that hymn any more because I am not a wretch. I was not a wretch. I just believed in my own wretchedness and acted accordingly.
Now I believe that humans are fundamentally good. It’s a statement of faith. It would be easy to look at newspaper headlines and see the suffering we inflict on each other and to despair, to see the obvious faults – and let’s face it, the way humans act is sometimes particularly awful and the way I act falls short of the way of love. But we’re fundamentally good. And we’re fundamentally deserving of more love not less. Yes, even those of us we see as monsters. To prove Godwin’s law because it’s fun to prove Godwin’s law: Even Hitler!
Human beings deserve total love.
So. A rewrite of Joubert’s thought is in order, removing all the nonsensical stuff about deserving or not deserving love.
“A part of kindness consists in loving people.”
But hey, that’s not right either.
I want to rewrite it again:
“A part of loving people is showing kindness.”
Yeah, that’s better.
Love people. And in that love, show kindness.
Here endeth the lesson!
Those final words could have come from Jesus who said to “love one another.” He didn’t say anything about deserve did he? Just “love one another.”
Sometimes it’s good to be like the people at not-church. And as an ex-Christian I can say this too: Sometimes it’s good to be “guided by the life and teachings of Jesus.”