An article this week in the New York Times describes a tragic piece of religious history in the United States that has repercussions today. Hearing about the long, difficult effects of slavery isn’t new. Even the role of church people—and the ways in which they defended that evil institution by misusing their biblical tradition—is heartbreakingly a common story. What is shocking and new to most readers, though, is that a venerable, respected Jesuit Catholic institution, Georgetown University, sold 272 slaves in 1838 to help pay off the school’s debt. The sale brought in an amount that would equal about 3.3 million dollars in today’s economy.
According to the article, there was dissension at the time. Some worried that the slaves, who were to be shipped south, would no longer be able to practice their Catholic faith, would be maltreated, and families would be split. The college president gave assurances that none of these imagined results would occur and that the funds would not be used toward the school’s debt relief, yet all of these eventualities came to pass.
A working group at the school, along with student protesters, is bringing this shameful past to light in the present. One alumnus has raised funds to help find the descendants of the 272. Discussions have begun regarding what kind of apologies and reparations could be offered to those descendants, even though all are aware that no action today can make up for the damage done nearly 180 years ago. But the way forward begins by digging into the past, bringing the painful truth to the surface, and working together.
Demonstrating repentance and love has always been complicated. It was even so when Jesus said to the disciples: Love one another, as I have loved you. This is how people will know you belong to me. [John 13]
When Jesus makes this statement in John’s gospel, it is right after Judas has been exposed and left. In the gathering darkness, Jesus tells them to love one another.
I don’t think he means “be nice to each other.” Though certainly they ought to be nice to each other. That is just too “surface” for what is about to happen. Jesus encourages them to dig deeply to see what kind of love he’s talking about.
Over the next hours and days, they will see him arrested and they will run scared. Over the next years they will fight with each other over just how open and inclusive they ought to be. They will struggle with theology and practice. They will be persecuted and threatened from outside. They will experience the same life struggles that every generation faces—wayward children, sickness, unemployment, loss of faith. They will have petty arguments and huge blow-ups that will threaten the life of the group and the expansion of its ideals.
Yet some of his last words to them before his crucifixion were: Love each other. Because this is how people will know you’re my disciples.
Love has its challenges. We’re imperfect people loving imperfect people. And we and others have real needs—psychological needs, physical needs, needs to give and receive forgiveness.
We can try to stay on the surface and accomplish the easier tasks of love, but truly, if you want to show that disciple kind of love, eventually you have to go deep.
We live in a culture that is often at war with this commandment. A world that honors deviousness and greed, a world in which student athletes are told they must hate their opponents in order to win games, a world in which people walk into the workplace and start shooting, a world in which any kind of self-sacrifice for another is considered wimpy and silly. A world in which the remnants of slavery still haunt.
It takes deep digging to make a difference in this kind of world. How will we respond to injustice, to evil, to violence? How will we show the love of Jesus?
Jesus love picks up in the reality of living and moves us toward the ideal. Love is moving beyond the surface and tunneling in to where the real needs and the real pain are. That’s where real love can take root.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2016