The Burden of the Gospels.
In Wendell Berry‘s book, The Way of Ignorance, there is an essay entitled: “The Burden of the Gospels.” Berry raises more questions than alleviates the ‘burden’: How do we live the ethic of the gospel, of the good Samarian? If we were to witness Jesus’ ministry, would we have followed him? How do I love my neighbor when my neighbor is my enemy?
I am vaguely remembering a quote from Karl Marx that goes something like: “Love that is unrequited, is meaningless.” It is terrible to give love and receive nothing. There is comfort, security, and certainty in the calculus of return. Oh, to manage love like money! If I can manage love, then I’ll be safe! Ode to the manageable and the perspectives of certainty – love is more.
I like Marx, I learn from him… I like Nietzsche and Jesus better, I live them. Nietzsche writes, ‘indispensable…to the lover is his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference’. Love is not a calculated economy of exchange. Love is built to endure absence, to illuminate shadow, to flow through torrents of oppression and hate. Love is given without condition; it is free. Jesus instructed us to love our neighbor. If our ‘neighbor’ was our friend this commandment would be the easiest task ever. It is easy to love our friends. The ‘neighbor’ Jesus was referring to was not the one’s we would choose, but those we would naturally reject – our enemies. This is the task before us, this is the ethic that reveals the, ‘burden of the gospels’. Wendell Berry references a provocative story addressing the paradox of living this ethic:
In 1569 in Holland, a Mennonite named Dirk Willems, under capital sentence as a heretic, was fleeing from arrest, pursued by a “thief-catcher.” As they ran across a frozen body of water, the thief-catcher broke through the ice. Without help, he would have drowned. What did Dirk Willems do then? Was the thief-catcher an enemy merely to be hated, or was he a neighbor to be loved as one loves oneself? Was he an enemy whom one must love in order to be a child of God? Was he “one of the least of these my brethren.” What Dirk Willems did was turn back, put out his hands to his pursuer and save his life. The thief-catcher, who then of course wanted to let his rescuer go, was forced to arrest him. Dirk Willems was brought to trial, sentenced and burned to death by a “lingering fire.”
The ‘burden’ at the center of the gospels is to love… to love despite the failure of others, despite the fear of loss, despite ones own life. This burden appears more like insanity to those versed in calculation, certainty, and fairness. Make no mistake, if Jesus were subjected to a ‘psychic’ evaluation in the present, he would stand mist those ‘clinically’ and ‘psychologically’ insane. He would probably be an alcoholic. There was no veil between His experience and the experience of Others. He literally became ‘One’ with the ‘Other/God/The Father’. And the likelihood that you would have witnessed his ministry and followed him would have been extremely marginal, almost nil.
Consciousness has evolved for the last 2,000 years since that first century in Palestine, and I believe that more and more people are training to fulfill the high calling of Love – to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. Perhaps grace is with us and we might ease ourselves into the pool of selfless service, integrating ourselves with the ‘least of these’ to heal, transform, and to become what we are becoming. I’m not sure. I think Jesus literally, leaped into the pool®. He represented an evolution of consciousness, the actualization of a latent potential living in all beings, as a living example for the multitude.
He endured unrequited love in the most profound way. Like Dirk, he gave his life for a principle rather than a personality – placing ‘principles before personalities.’ I witness people live this message daily in recovery. I have lived it. It is paradoxically the most powerful and the most vulnerable position we might experience – it is one experience in the life divine. It is an experience that both brings us closer to our humanity and to our latent divinity. I hope and pray for the recovery of our precious planet. My prayer is for the sick, the poor, the addicted, the lonely, the fearful – that they might see the light of God, that those of us willing, might practice love. And that when that love is unreturned, unrequited, that we should know, that in that moment, we shared in the life of Christ and in the life of Dirk.