How Does Jesus See Love?

This was the question addressed in Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s November 10, 2019, sermon at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church and in his reflections on his gathering four days earlier with  15 other U.S. and Cuban clergy and lay leaders on a rooftop in Havana.[1]

As previously noted in this blog, Westminster has had partnerships with the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba for nearly 19 years,[2] and the purpose of the recent gathering in Havana was to meet with the leaders of the Seminario de Evangelico de Teologia (SET) and learn about their vision for establishing a facility in Havana to supplement the offerings at its main facilities in the city of Matanzas on the north coast of the island east of Havana.[3]

According to Rev. Hart-Andersen, “It’s an exciting time for the church in Cuba, full of possibility. There’s a great awakening of spiritual hunger on the island as it emerges from decades of atheism and isolation. With its unique circumstances, Cuba offers the Church a living laboratory for spreading the faith.”

“Younger Cubans have virtually no experience of Christianity. They were raised in a system that rejected religion. As a result, for our Presbyterian sisters and brothers and other Christians on the island, it’s if they were starting the church all over.”

“Differing versions of the faith are rushing in to try to fill the void. Some cling to a traditional, conservative Roman Catholicism. Others mix African-traditions with Christianity. Some proclaim an imported, privatized, prosperity gospel designed to meet individual need. And others – including our Seminary partners – pursue a gospel that seeks justice and works to transform individuals and systems.”

“We have our own competing versions of Christianity . . . [in the U.S.] There’s little consensus among us in our land about what it means to be faithful. In our country today, religion is as divided as politics – and sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the two.”

“Whether in Cuba or . . . [the U.S.], those seeking to live as God’s people are struggling with how to do that in our time. The old ways are not working; we need a refresher course in following Jesus. What do we do?”

The response to this question for us [in the U.S.] and for the church in Cuba comes from Jesus when He answered  the question, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ answer: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[4]

How does Jesus see love? It has more than one dimension, and it moves in multiple directions. It starts with each individual human being, created in the image of God, each one of us a living expression of the love of God – and then moves outward, in visible ways to those near us and into our communities, and in invisible ways, to God who joins us in loving the world. It’s a trinity of love: God, neighbor, self. In choosing to follow Jesus, you and I wrestle with finding the right balance among the three – and oftentimes we find ourselves tilting in the direction of self. And we get into trouble when we do that.”

These thoughts occurred to Rev. Hart-Andersen as he and the others on a Havana rooftop sang this hymn:

“Open our eyes, Lord. Help us to see your face.

Open our eyes, Lord. Help us to see.

Open our ears, Lord. Help us to hear your voice.

Open our ears, Lord. Help us to hear.”

Said Rev. Hart-Andersen, “We looked out at the city [of Havana]  and saw its many-hued people, beginning to meet the challenges of another day in a difficult time and place. Help us to see.” We heard “the sounds of children and babies crying and car horns honking, laughter and shouts rose from the streets below to accompany our song. Help us to hear.”

“Our rooftop singing [of this song] placed the worship of God right where worship should be: in the midst of the world. We were no longer hidden and quiet behind walls. It was love of God meets love of neighbor.”

“The practice of Christianity requires a context as close to the real world as possible, and that was the real world. Love needs someone to love. A “neighbor” is not theoretical. We can’t love by staying inside these walls [of our church in Minneapolis or Havana]. . . . Loving our neighbor requires that we encounter our neighbor.”

From the Havana rooftop, “we looked into a city teeming with life, yet impoverished materially and spiritually. And as we looked, we caught a glimpse of the makings of the Beloved Community—people working together, hoping for a better future, refusing to be overwhelmed by their circumstance, wanting to be loved by one another.”

“That’s how Jesus sees love—as a community of people reconciled to God and reconciled to one another, eager to worship and ready to serve.” (Emphasis in original.)

 State Department’s Contrary Opinion of Cuban Religious Freedom[5]

This sermon also implicitly contradicts the U.S. State Department’s December 20th addition of Cuba to the Department’s  Special Watch List of countries engaging in or tolerating “severe violations of religious freedom” while not meeting all of the criteria for the worse status of Countries of Particular Concern.

The Department did not provide any purported factual basis for this action regarding Cuba even though only six  months earlier, on June 21, 2019,  the Department’s latest annual report on this subject for every country in the world had harsh, and unjustified, criticism of Cuba, but did not designate the island as a member of the “Special Watch List” or as a “Country of Particular Concern.’ [6]

Conclusion

Jesus’ reminder that we all are commanded to love God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourself should remind us that each of us and everyone else (and every country) often fail to meet these obligations and, therefore, need forgiveness. We need to be humble.

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[1] Westminster Presbyterian Church, Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, Sermon: How Does Jesus See Love? (Nov. 10, 2019).

[2]  As its website says, SET is an ecumenical seminary that “was founded on October 1, 1946,” and that now “is governed by a Board of Directors, with representative, legislative, consultative and executive functions; composed of ten members of the Cuban founding Churches: Episcopal Church of Cuba (4), Presbyterian-Reformed in Cuba (4); and by a representative of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches of Cuba (1) and of the Los Amigos Church “Quakers” (1).” SET works “in the academic, ecumenical, ethical, moral and spiritual formation of those who feel called by God to exercise the ordained ministry, and other ministries in the Church, as well as in the training of the faithful who wish to serve in the work of the Lord through the broadest universal ministry of International believers, through regular and special courses, in permanent residence or through meetings, among others. We are also engaged in the development of an ethical, theological and biblical culture and, for this purpose, we are open to people who do not intend to enter the Christian ministry in any of its forms.”

[3] Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Connections with Cuba, dwkcommentareis.com (Jan.13, 2015); Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church Celebrates U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation, (Jan. 4, 2015) dwkcommentaries. com (Jan. 4, 2015).

[4] Matthew 22: 34-40Mark 12: 28-31Luke 10: 25-28. This answer from Jesus quoted from the Hebrew Bible that would have been well known to the individuals asking this question: Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.

[5]  State Dep’t, Press Statement: United States Takes Action Against Violators of Religious Freedom (Dec. 20, 2019).

[6] See State Dep’t, 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom (June 21, 2019); U.S. State Department Unfairly Criticizes Cuban Religious Freedom, dwkcommentaries.com (July 18, 2019); U.S. State Department’s Positive Assessment of Cuban Religious Freedom,  dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 19, 2017).

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. State Department’s Report on International Religious Freedom in 2013

USDeptStateseal

On July 28, 2014, the U.S. State Department released its annual report on religious freedom around the world.[1]

 Secretary of State Kerry’s Comments

Announcing the release of the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said although the U.S. was “obviously far from perfect,” it was important for the U.S. to treasure freedom of religion as “a universal value. . . . The freedom to profess and practice one’s faith is the birthright of every human being . . . [and] are properly recognized under international law. The promotion of international religious freedom is a priority for President Obama and it is a priority for me as Secretary of State.” In short, “religious freedom remains an integral part of our global diplomatic engagement.”

Executive Summary of the Report

The world had the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs. Out of fear or by force, entire neighborhoods are emptying of residents. Communities are disappearing from their traditional and historic homes and dispersing across the geographic map.” In conflict zones (Syria, Central African Republic and Burma), this mass displacement has become a pernicious norm.

All around the world, individuals were subjected to discrimination, violence and abuse, perpetrated and sanctioned violence for simply exercising their faith, identifying with a certain religion, or choosing not to believe in a higher deity at all. Countries where this was a significant problem were Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Eritrea. Throughout Europe, the historical stain of anti-Semitism continued to be a fact of life.

Governments repressed religious freedom. Governments from all regions subjected members of religious groups to repressive policies, discriminatory laws, disenfranchisement, and discriminatory application of laws. These governmental actions not only infringed on freedom of religion themselves, but they also often created a permissive environment for broader human rights abuses. Restrictive policies included laws criminalizing religious activities and expression, prohibitions on conversion or proselytizing, blasphemy laws, and stringent registration requirements or discriminatory application of registration requirements for religious organizations. This was especially true in North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Burma, Russia and Bahrain.

Governments engaged in discrimination, impunity and displacement of religious minorities. When governments choose not to combat discrimination on the basis of religion and intolerance, it breeds an environment in which intolerant and violent groups are emboldened, even to the point of physically attacking individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Governments in these countries failed to protect vulnerable communities and many religious minority communities were disproportionately affected, resulting in a large number of refugees and internally displaced persons. This was especially true in Syria, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Nigeria. Rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in the following countries of Europe demonstrated that intolerance is not limited to countries in active conflict:Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and United Kingdom.

Religious minority communities were disproportionately affected by violence, discrimination and harassment. In many regions of the world, religious intolerance was linked to civil and economic strife and resulted in mass migration of members of religious minority communities throughout the year. In some of these areas, the outward migration of certain communities has the potential to permanently change the demographics of entire regions.

“Countries of Particular Concern”

Pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the Secretary of State designated the following countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC): Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Such countries “engage in or tolerate particularly severe violations of religious freedom” or “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including torture, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges, abduction or clandestine detention of persons, or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of persons based on religion.”

Turkmenistan, which is new to this State Department list, is the only one of eight countries recommended for such designation by the latest report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The others so recommended by the Commission are Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.

Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom

Simultaneously with this report’s release, the Obama administration announced the nomination of Rabbi David Saperstein as the next ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. Rabbi Saperstein, a reform rabbi and lawyer known for his work in Washington to advance religious freedom, would be the first non-Christian to lead the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, if confirmed by the Senate.

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[1] This post is based upon the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 (July 28, 2014); Secretary Kerry, Remarks at Rollout of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Assistant Secretary Malinowski, Remarks on the Release of the 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014); Department of State, Fact Sheet: 2013 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 28, 2014). Earlier posts covered the international law regarding religious freedom and the State Department’s reports on the subject for 2011 and 2012.