January 31st 2021
Years ago, my friend and long-time Camden priest, Father Michael Doyle, asked me a question I’ve not forgotten.
"What’s the greatest compliment Jesus gave humanity?"
I confess I was stumped—never pondering the thought. Jesus shared amazing parables and taught with wise, pithy truisms...healed the sick ....performed some incredible miracles...but compliments?
"I'm stumped Father," I deflected, trying to disguise my biblical ignorance.
The aging Irish priest looked at me with his deep penetrating eyes and then responded with his mirthful chuckle, "Love your enemies!"
"That’s not a compliment," I countered with a hint of vindication, thinking this Baptist boy had just outsmarted a veteran Catholic priest. "Sounds more like a command to me.”
After all, who would interpret ‘love your enemy’ as a compliment? A near impossible command, maybe. A radical counter-cultural teaching, absolutely. But a compliment? I was feeling pretty good about my reply.
"It was a compliment," assured my friend with unwavering gentleness. "You see, Jesus believed humans could do something incredibly extraordinary and difficult. And that’s a great compliment.”
Father Doyle had a point. After an undergraduate degree in theology and a few years in seminary, never had I viewed "love thy enemy" as a compliment. It was one of those verses you’d rather erase from the Bible, pretending it was never written—an inconvenient truth. But reflecting more deeply, it made sense.
Jesus is always calling us to a higher place, seeing greater capacity and potential in ourselves than we can even begin to imagine.
And that’s an aspirational truth we need these days. The current gravitational force of our culture seems to be pulling us toward our lowest selves and base instincts—not a higher vision of what it means to be fully human and made in God’s image. Social media baits us, feeding our insatiable appetite for reasons to distrust those outside our camps and tribes. Jesus believes we have the capacity to do better.
You’ve probably noticed a little word getting the limelight this past week. Unity. It’s found its way into speeches, songs, poems, talk shows. When shared it’s often associated with acts of healing, putting aside differences, starting fresh. All sounds great, but ask 100 people what unity means—you’ll get 100 different answers. Ask 300 million people the same question...you guessed it. Unity is complicated. Easy to speak about, much harder to implement. So what can we do?
This past week I asked our leadership team what unity means to them—especially in the wake of a very contentious, highly partisan, low-trust, violent, and divisive moment in our nation’s history. Some shared Bible verses, others more theoretical definitions. One shared a personal story.
“There’s a former staff worker who’s been posting a lot on Facebook recently,” began my colleague. “I vehemently disagree with his views. My first inclination was to join the group opposing his positions, pointing out why he is so wrong. But I decided to not pile on the criticism.”
He continued: “Instead I sent a personal email, telling him I missed him and loved him. I thought it might be a way to preserve the relationship, opening a door to one day have a deeper conversation.” Preserving a relationship rather than trying to win an argument....is that unity?
Some might say my colleague’s response was a cop out. The duty to speak his true convictions was neglected. Yet if we’re honest, building unity with political foes using terse Facebook postings is a low probability proposition. Behavioral data agrees, suggesting “conversion” rates through arguing with adversaries seldom happens. True unity ultimately needs relational roots.
Community might be a more accurate description of what our country needs.
Community calls us to work out differences within the context of geographical and social arrangements—neighborhoods, churches, workplaces and civic organizations. Derived from the Latin ‘communitas’ (fellowship), the prefix “com” signifies “with, together, in conjunction.” So true unity is built in conjunction with others—not in the anonymity of cyberspace.
I wish this stuff was easy. It’s not. Difficult days are still ahead. But I’m hopeful. For the past 35 years I’ve had a front row seat watching an eclectic group of God’s people unify across political, theological, racial, economic and social differences to create UrbanPromise—a community where Christ’s love and hope is shared and lived each day. It’s possible. We just need to believe the compliment.
Founder and President