I have recently moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and my relocation to the "Bible Belt" has put me in regular contact with conservative Christians for the first time in my life. One thing I've noticed in a number of them is a strange combination of loving generosity toward both friends and strangers, and angry vengeance toward anyone who violates their moral code. Of course, this is actually not so strange at all: All of us display some version of this pattern, myself most certainly included. But as I've observed the conservative Christian version of it, I've realized that it is a kind of imitatio dei ("imitation of God") that reflects the nature of the God they believe in: Be both loving and vengeful because God is both loving and vengeful. As I witness this phenomenon, I find myself feeling very grateful for the radically different imitatio dei offered by both the Jesus of history and the Jesus of A Course in Miracles: Be only loving because God is only Love.
My encounter with conservative Christians has certainly been an eye-opener to me. I grew up in Oregon, which statistical surveys have shown again and again to be one of the most "unchurched" states in the nation. Then I moved to the New Age Mecca of Sedona, Arizona. There are, of course, conservative Christians in both places, but they are definitely a minority. Here in Atlanta, though, they seem to be everywhere I look. Though certainly there are many people here who are not conservative Christians, the atmosphere is soaked with that old time religion. The local cable provider has three religious channels listed in the first eleven. There is a huge church on seemingly every street corner, and it ain't Unitarian. "Where do you go to church?" is a common icebreaker when meeting someone new. (The question is telling; the possibility that you don't go to church at all doesn't seem to be an option.)
And as I've said, there is that strange combination. On the one hand, I've discovered that "Southern hospitality" is for real. Virtually everyone I meet is polite, friendly, and generous. Drivers wave when they encounter each other on a two-lane road. People will go out of their way to help you. Of course, there are kind and generous people everywhere, but it seems to be a way of life here, and I've been truly moved by the numerous kindnesses that have been shown to me since I've arrived. Even my being a Northerner hasn't stopped them; I think the South has finally gotten over the "damn Yankee carpetbagger" thing. A lot of Northerners live here now.
On the other hand, there is the angry vengeance toward those who violate their moral code. The religious media are constantly railing against abortion, gay marriage, and teaching evolution in schools. There's still a state law against selling alcohol on Sundays. (It's so silly: Everybody just stocks up on Saturday.) More than once I've heard some sweet lady turn sour and say "God will get them for that!" when hearing about another person's moral transgression. And watch out for the sermon that will come if you tell them you study A Course in Miracles.
Finally, my blood ran cold recently when I heard a conservative Christian woman I know, all sugar and spice up to that point, say with a snarl (and I quote): "If someone messed with my child, I would kill him myself, tear him limb from limb, and watch the maggots consume the pieces." Now, I can understand how someone might experience feelings like this if her child were actually harmed. It's an unfortunate but very human reaction to such an awful event. But what chilled me was that, at a time when she wasn't experiencing the immediate emotional reaction to her child actually being harmed, she seemed to think this unfettered bloodlust was a perfectly legitimate and moral response. And everyone in the room except me agreed.
But perhaps this shouldn't be surprising, for this strange combination of love and vengeance describes the conservative Christian God perfectly. You have the Old Testament God, who is sending manna one minute and plagues the next. He is generous, forgiving, and "slow to anger," but once that anger comes to a boil, watch out! This is a God who loves the world, yet once got so angry that he wiped out the entire world in a flood. As Bruce Banner, aka the Incredible Hulk, says, "You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."
Then you have Jesus, who of course is God in the conservative Christian view of things. On the one hand, he says to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give the shirt off your back, love your enemies, bless those who persecute you, and forgive "seventy times seven" times. He says that God sends His sun and rain to both the evil and the good, provides generously to all just as he feeds the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and answers everyone who asks, seeks, and knocks.
But on the other hand, the Jesus of the gospels, like the God of the Old Testament, has his dark side. He pronounces God's harsh judgment on the sins of this "wicked generation," calls down woes along with his beatitudes, consigns people to the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and curses fig trees that don't produce fruit, even when they aren't in season. Then you have the Jesus of the Book of Revelation, who lays waste to the entire world, sending the vast majority of the human race to fry in a lake of burning sulfur for eternity.
With Biblical role models like this, it isn't difficult to see why conservative Christians see no contradiction in being both loving and vengeful. Yet at least when it comes to Jesus, modern historians are coming to a different understanding. Based on historical analysis of the gospels, virtually every mainline scholar agrees that much of what was attributed to Jesus was actually the handiwork of the later Christian tradition. This begs the question: What teachings in the gospels, then, really do go back to Jesus himself?
Opinions vary, but a growing number of scholars believe that the core that can most reliably be traced back to him is not the vengeance material but the loving material: the radical teachings that became Matthew's Sermon on the Mount and Luke's Sermon on the Plain, the loving teachings I summarized in the last paragraph. The emerging picture is of a Jesus who taught that God is only pure, unstintingly generous love, and therefore we too must give only love, "so that you may be children of your father in heaven" (Matt. 5:45). Some Biblical scholars summarize Jesus' own imitatio dei using the words attributed to him in Luke: "Be compassionate in the way your Father is compassionate" (Luke 6:36, Scholar's Version).
Strikingly, this new vision of the historical Jesus dovetails perfectly with the Jesus of the Course. The Course Jesus too offers us a God of pure, unadulterated, generous Love — a God for whom "giving Himself is all He knows" (T-14.IV.3:2), a God for whom it is impossible that "His Love could harbor just a hint of hate, His gentleness turn sometimes to attack, and His eternal patience sometimes fail" (T-29.I.1:5). The Course Jesus says of his earthly life two thousand years ago, "I gave only love to the Kingdom because I believed that was what I was" (T-7.I.5:1). The message of his crucifixion, the ultimate expression of both God's love for humanity and His vengeance against sin in the conservative Christian view, is transformed in the Course to "Teach only love, for that is what you are" (T-6.I.13:2) — no matter how much the world tries to "crucify" you, your only justified response is love. God's justice, the usual rationale for the vengeful side of God in the conservative Christian view, is said by the Course to be inseparable from love: Because no one has truly sinned, justice requires that everyone be treated not with vengeance, but with love.
You can see a pattern in many of these lines from the Course: We are to be only loving toward everyone not simply because it is the right and good thing to do, but because love is what we are. Love is our very nature, so love is the only thing we are truly suited to give. We give it not as a sacrifice to please God, but because giving it is the only way we can be truly happy. And giving only love is not simply an imitation of God, but an expression of the fact that we are an extension of God's very nature; as a well-known Workbook practice puts it, "God is but Love, and therefore so am I" (W-pI.rV.In.4:3). We are to extend love not that we may be children of our Father in Heaven, but because we are children of our Father in Heaven. Thus the Course's own imitatio dei might be put this way: Teach only love because God is only Love, and therefore so are you. Like Father, like Son.
What a beautiful idea! And what a blessed relief to be free of the constant tension between love and vengeance. For let's face it, we all feel that tension. I've been focusing on conservative Christians of the South in this piece, but only to illustrate a pattern that exists in some form in every one of us. However we may express it and however much we may deny it, we all live in a way that says some people deserve love while others deserve vengeance. (And, we believe, even the people we love deserve vengeance sometimes.) We express this way of life every time our love turns to anger when our spouse doesn't take out the trash, the guy cuts us off in traffic, or the conservative Christian is too judgmental in our eyes.
What would our lives be like if we really took the message of Jesus to heart and let in the idea that God is only Love? How would we live differently if we took seriously the idea that we too are only Love, being extensions of God's nature? How would our lives be transformed if we gave only Love to every person we met? I for one would love to find the answer to these questions. Let me remember to practice this imitatio dei today, and take one more step toward the God Who is only Love.