Love first

Love first

Love demands justice; it can't simply be an emergency strategy when everything has gone wrong.


Five days after Hurricane Katrina, President Bush toured some of the devastation in the Gulf Coast and said this was a time for people to love their neighbors as themselves. His comment suggests a view of love as a gesture of kindly help when the situation has become horrendously dire. Such a view of love is not sufficient. Maybe in the end love will save us all, but it has a lot better chance at the beginning.

Loving our neighbor implicates us in loving the whole network of life. Science has given us photographs of Earth from space. We can see we are one blue globe, wreathed with clouds. Even the rocks are part of a complex flow of elements that fold down into a molten core and rise again. We dwell in our cities and towns on a living, breathing planet molded by transforming fire, flowing waters, the exhalations of trees, and the inbreathing of animals. This interconnectedness of all things calls for wisdom and reverence. We cannot trample this landscape of life as ignorant fools and expect to be safe. We cannot turn from our bonds and obligations for and with one another and expect everyone to be okay. We cannot love after the fact and expect love to be able to save life.

We need to love from the start—not as an emergency strategy when everything has gone wrong. We need to love our neighbors as ourselves through economic systems that pay a living wage for labor instead of indulging in policies that allow the rich to get richer and the poor to be left behind when the storm comes. We need to love the world through reverence that fosters observant attention to the intricate relationality of life.

It is not sufficient to relegate love to a few moments of sentiment or to celebrate it in effusive accolades about the compassion of the American people. It is not sufficient to expect love to be the domestic help that will wipe the tears from the eyes of the children living in the house of a cruel master. It is not enough to address injustice in the moment. The whole pathway—the whole road from Jerusalem to Jericho, as Martin Luther King Jr. said in a 1968 speech—must be just. If we can learn to love first, not last, then love may save us.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, one of our nation’s great civil rights leaders, was interviewed on CNN in Katrina’s aftermath. The young announcer asked the old activist, “Do you think the tragedy we are seeing in New Orleans is the result of racism?” Lowery paused for a moment. “You cannot reduce an event of this complexity to one thing,” he answered. “Part of the problem is just plain incompetence. But yes, of course, what we are seeing is racism. It is also classism and environmental irresponsibility. We cannot go on treating each other and the earth this way. We must learn again to live with reverence.”

We must learn again to live with reverence. Reverence is a form of love. It is a response to life that falls on its knees before the rising sun and bows down before the mountains. It puts its palms together in the presence of the night sky and the myriad galaxies and recognizes, as poet Langston Hughes tells us, “beautiful are the stars, beautiful too are the faces of my people.” Reverence greets all humanity as sacred. It genuflects before the splendor of the grass and the magnificence of the trees. It respects the complexity, beauty, and magnitude of creation and does not presume to undo its intricate miracles. Instead, it gives life reverent attention, seeking to know, understand, and cooperate with life’s ways.

Reverence for life has to be learned. It is not just a feeling; it is a way of life that is manifested in more than an isolated moment of appreciation for nature or awe before its destructive or creative power. Reverence involves full-fledged devotion enacted in deeds of care and responsibility. It involves knowledge, study, and attention.

Holy regard for advances in knowledge is at the heart of our religious faith. A few years ago, when I visited my congregation’s partner church in Oklánd, Transylvania, the Rev. Levente Keleman took me into the sanctuary to see the ceiling of the four-hundred-year-old Unitarian Church in his village. In typical Transylvanian style, the church has a wooden ceiling, crisscrossed with beams creating a lattice of deep squares, which are painted with folk art depicting flowers and plants. Near the center of the sanctuary, the ceiling harbors a surprising image, a golden sun surrounded by circling planets in a star-spangled indigo sky. It is a diagram of the Copernican solar system. At a time when religion was opposing science, our ancestors in the remote mountains and valleys of Transylvania built sanctuaries that affirmed the discoveries of science.

Holy regard matters now more than ever. In 1514, when Copernicus reimagined the nature of the solar system, it was the result of a lifetime of careful study. This is the kind of intelligent, persistent care that enables revolutionary new understanding, and it is the lack of this kind of love that is harming our nation now.

Our task now is to do what we can to advance reverence for life and deepen the promise of love. Let us dedicate ourselves to the thinking, researching, practice, and learning that will bring more love into the world. Let us be a witness for the new science that tells us how connected all life is and let us work for social policies that embody our responsibility for one another and for the earth. Let us give reverent attention in our worship life and our educational work to knowing and serving the beauty and goodness of life. Let us be a shelter for truths that the dominant culture would rule out. Let us make love the first—not the last—resort.

Adapted from Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now by Rebecca Ann Parker, edited by Robert Hardies (Skinner House, 2006). Reprinted with permission.

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