By Rowan Williams
“If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.”
Time and again the Christian life demands that we ask ourselves what it is that we really love. When Jesus meets Peter again beside the Sea of Galilee after his resurrection, he asks him three times, “Do you love me?” And the challenge of the risen Jesus is always to ask us this: is it me that you love, he wants to know, or something else, perhaps something masquerading as me?
St. Augustine said that a community becomes a community when it is united in love of the same thing. But that love of the same thing can be lifegiving or death-dealing, depending on what it is that is loved. We can find ourselves agreeing in the love of something that eats away at the very roots of our humanity while we ignorantly suppose that it is good and godly.
At times in the past, Christians have reinforced their sense of unity by cultivating a collective contempt or fear or hatred for others — Jews and Muslims in particular. They have reinforced the unity of their brand of Christianity by agreeing to despise other Christians. And when this happens, whether for one Christian denomination or for the Christian world as a whole, we have to ask, “Is it the love of Christ that unites us? Or do we really love something quite different?”
Perhaps what we love is our security. We want to be utterly safe, safe from strangers, safe from surprise. So we organize ourselves in such a way that no one can break through our boundaries and no one ever is allowed to challenge what we do. What this usually means is also that we speak as if all that was corrupting and threatening came from outside, so that the stranger, the other, was always evil. Literally or metaphorically, we fight over territory. We are so interested in defending the boundaries that we forget how to live day by day on our own soil, the soil we are so eager to protect.
And this relates to another great danger. Perhaps we are in love with our suffering. It sounds like a shocking idea, but we need to think hard about it. We have a history of oppression, displacement, cruelty from the hands of others, and our whole sense of who we are becomes bound up with this. We know who we are because we all join to tell the same story of how inhumanly we have been treated.
It may be a true story, a terrible story: the world does indeed run with innocent blood and the history of any community will be shot through with the stuff of nightmares. Reading Christian history should tell us as clearly as we could wish that there is hardly any church that has not been responsible at some point for another church’s suffering.
It is so hard to come to the point where we are free to say, “I must make something from my suffering that will build bridges into the suffering of another.” How much easier to say, “My suffering is greater than yours; my needs must override yours.” And so we never come to a place where justice for everyone can be worked out because we want first of all to have the justice that is ours alone, whatever the expense to anyone else.
And this means in turn that we can even be in love with our weakness. We are so used to being victims that we cannot get used to acting for ourselves. We react, we fail to plan and to create; and so we never have to take real responsibility for what happens, because someone else always has the initiative. We can take refuge in the dignity of not having to risk decision and change.
And in all this, can we hear Christ saying, “Do you love me?” Because all of these different kinds of love are ways of shutting him out. We believe that he and he alone is the one who can reconcile all things and people, precisely because he delivers us from the traps and prisons we have just been considering.
He tells us that he is our security. When we know that he accepts us as we are and that he will never let go of us in the long work of transforming us into his likeness, we have a security that goes deeper than any external defense. We are able at last to recognize that evil is not somewhere out there in the stranger, the enemy, but in our own hearts, in their fear and narrowness. We learn for the first time that we must live on our soil, turning over what one of the Syrian saints called “the earth of the heart” and not pour out our energy on keeping the stranger at bay.
It isn’t that this guarantees safety in itself. It is still the longest and most painful task imaginable to learn how to talk to the stranger, the enemy, and find very slowly and cautiously how it might be possible to share one world. And part of what makes that just a little more possible is that Christ frees us from imprisonment in the memory of our suffering.
He doesn’t take it away; but he helps us see how our suffering is like that of others — even our enemy’s — and so gives us a language to speak with each other. And as he does this, he also frees us from the weakness we love; he gives us strength to take decisions, to think about the future. We readily forget that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is intelligence, the capacity to see our situation truthfully and act out of that vision, the capacity also to see what God is asking and to do it, even if it is a tiny step of faithfulness or love.
So we can indeed talk of a new creation in Christ. He confronts our confused and enslaving loves and asks us to look harder and deeper. Do we love him? Do we love the promise that we might be freed from the kind of love that corrupts and destroys us, and that keeps us at enmity with each other?
In the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, all believers examine themselves to see how they are kept from each other by the love of security, the love of the sufferings of the past, the love of weakness. Christians have begun to learn in recent years how to celebrate the martyrs of each other’s traditions, not only their own — a great testimony to the way that Christ makes us live both in the heart of our own territory, our own tradition, while taking away the fear of others.
He gives us a ministry of reconciliation, says St. Paul. And this surely means that Christians who have learned from Christ how to grow beyond the slavery of security and suffering and weakness have a unique role in the world. They can ask the communities in which they find themselves, “What do you love? Are you held together by things that corrupt your life together and guarantee only that you will never grow out of fear?”
But if they are to ask them with effectiveness and integrity, they must first sit patiently and quietly themselves before God and ask about their own loves and their own failures in love. How do we bear this — because it shows us all that we hate and fear in ourselves? Only because he has promised that he and his Father will make their home with us as we strive to open our lives to him; in this knowledge is our peace, peace such as the world cannot give.
The Most Rev. Rowan Williams was the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.