Can We Make People Love Each Other?
When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s in the Chicago area, every year my parents would take my brothers and me back to Georgia for a family vacation. My parents grew up in rural Georgia during the Depression, and all my aunts, uncles, and cousins were from that part of the country.
The 1950’s and 1960’s were the prime years of the Civil Rights Movement, and my parents and their brothers and sisters had pretty heated discussions about the federal government and whether it should intervene to protect African Americans against white violence and discrimination.
My father and mother thought the government should intervene. The Klan threatened my father’s life several times when he went back south to preach or lecture. He was in favor of equal treatment for blacks, and, in those days, many whites, if they shared that opinion at all, kept it to themselves. My father’s father—my grandfather—pastored an African American congregation in north Georgia, and the Klan burned a cross on his lawn when my father was growing up.
But my father and my grandfather got off easy. Many blacks in the South in the early 20th century were murdered for their views or just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and many more were prevented from getting good schooling and access to jobs and a return for hard work.
One of the points of contention in our family discussions about civil rights was whether morality could be legislated. I remember hearing about that a number of times.
“You can’t legislate morality,” one of my relatives would say.
“You can’t pass a law that will make people treat each other right.”
“You can’t pass a law that will make people love each other.”
That may be true, my parents would reply, but it’s beside the point.
You can pass a law against murder.
You can insist that it be enforced.
You can stop people from killing each other.
Law Is a Good Thing, But It Has Limits
When people believe that justice will be administered fairly—that the real perpetrator of a crime will be swiftly arrested and tried and subjected to punishment appropriate to the crime—then most people will find other ways of pursuing their conflicts than killing each other.
Most people do not want to spend time in prison or lose their lives because they took somebody else’s life.
A law against murder that is enforced and known to be enforced does help people to walk down the streets without fear of violence.
The rule of law and the administration of justice are good things and ought to be supported.
The law against murder has been part of every code of law in most every part of the world from before the Ten Commandments down to today.
But it is true that no law against murder or any other law will make people love each other.
Laws can create the conditions in which people can more easily love each other.
Laws can create an environment in which it is more likely rather than less likely that people will love each other. After all, it’s very hard to love someone you suspect might kill you or someone you already love and then get away with it.
But the law itself—the law against murder or any other law—cannot make people love each other.
Why Can’t Law Make People Love Each Other?
There are several reasons, including the reality that law cannot operate on people’s beliefs and opinions.
Another reason law cannot make people love each other is that, as human beings, we’re always looking for what we can get away with. We’re always looking for the narrowest possible application of the law to our own situation.
As a result, we miss the big picture. We miss the larger moral principle that may lie behind a particular law.
What Is the Larger Principle Behind the Commandment against Murder?
The law against murder is one of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5).
We may be feeling pretty good about ourselves when it comes to this commandment. Here’s one commandment that most of us have never disobeyed. Surely, most of us are completely innocent.
Or are we?
What are we being told to do when murder is what we’re being told not to do? In other words, what is the good that is the opposite of murder?
The opposite of committing murder is doing anything and everything that encourages life and promotes the well-being and quality of another person’s life.
Are we actually in the habit of doing things that encourage each other’s lives?
“You have heard that it was said….but I say to you”
In the Sermon on the Mount from chapters 5-7 of Matthew, shortly after the Beatitudes at the very beginning, we can read a series of paragraphs about God’s commandments to the people of ancient Israel.
Several of the commandments that are mentioned in these paragraphs come from the Ten Commandments, beginning with the commandment not to murder.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’” But, in each case, Jesus then tells us something more.
“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment;….” (Matthew 5:21-26.)
He’s saying that the principle behind the commandment not to commit murder requires us to do something more than simply refrain from strangling the person standing next to us.
The principle behind the commandment not to commit murder is the principle of doing all we can to encourage life in the people around us.
This means that things like anger and insults are not our friends or allies.
- Getting angry and hurling insults are not going to get us where we need to be.
- They are not going to save us from ourselves or save us for something better.
- They are certainly not going to encourage life in someone else.
The Argument against Anger: Our Own Best Interest
The actual argument that Jesus puts forward in favor of refraining from anger and insults as well as murder is an argument from prudence.
At this point he’s not telling us to be nice for the sake of being nice or because God wants us to love each other. He’s simply telling us that refusing to let anger overcome us is in our own best interest.
When you start picking fights because you’re always getting angry—when you get into the habit of insulting people—then sooner or later you’re going to get into a fight with
someone who is bigger than you are,
someone who has more power than you do,
somone who can take you to court, force you to hire a lawyer, and persuade a judge that you’re the one in the wrong.
Then what happens to your life? Not to mention what has happened to your accuser’s life.
What if your fight could have been settled out of court?
What if your relationship with your accuser could have stepped back from accusation?
What if your relationship with your accuser could have ended in reconciliation instead of litigation?
For mature Christians, there are other and better reasons for encouraging life in the people around us. But prudence is probably where we all need to start because we all start out thinking about our own self-interest.
That’s where Jesus starts with us.
The first step we can take to encourage life in this world is to make sure we’re doing things that do not cut off or cut short or otherwise diminish our own lives.
Once we cease letting anger overpower us, we’re in a position to think calmly and rationally about what will really help another person relate better to us and to others.
Once we stop with the insults, we’re in a better position
to figure out who is in the right and who is in the wrong,
to change our own mind if necessary,
to change someone else’s mind if that’s necessary,
to walk away if that’s the only solution.
The Argument against Anger: The Encouragement of Life
Obviously, no law can stop us from being angry. No law can make us act instead in our own best interest anymore than any law can make us love each other.
But if we regularly take time to think about the principles behind the Ten Commandments and other good laws,
if we have a place where we can allow ourselves to be addressed by the author who stands behind the Ten Commandments and all good laws,
if we renew our acquaintance with Jesus so that the concept of love becomes more than an abstraction in our minds,
then we will become active encouragers of life in ourselves and in others.
We will be more likely to recognize the Spirit of God’s love and to cooperate with it.
Life on this earth is a rare and astonishing gift, and it doesn’t last very long. It is an exception to the laws of physics, an anomaly in the universe.
Dust and ashes are far more common.
Should we not do what we can to make every life less painful, less violent, more joyful, and, finally, more loving?