‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “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 neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ — Matthew 22:36-40
In Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” To understand the full implications of this teaching, we must recognize that the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not a place where we go when we die, but rather, it is a state of being into which we are drawn through our following of Jesus, a state of being which alters all of our relationships — with ourselves, with others, with our world — in a Christ-like direction. We must also appreciate that, in this teaching, Jesus elevates doing over believing. One does not, he says, enter the state of being referred to by the kingdom of heaven just by calling Jesus “Lord” — which signifies adherence to a set of beliefs that make that title meaningful. Rather, it is putting into action the values of the kingdom of heaven as one follows Jesus as Lord that brings one into the new set of transformative relationships that constitute entry into the kingdom.
It is important, I think, that we appreciate the full depth of this particular teaching of Jesus on this day when the President has withdrawn the United States from the landmark Paris Climate Treaty that was concluded among 195 countries two years ago. Because many of those who have brought about that decision call Jesus “Lord.” And yet, the justification provided for this decision would indicate that they are very far from the kingdom of heaven.
The justification given for withdrawing from the Paris Treaty is, in the end, about selfishness — which, of course, was the very argument that brought the current administration to power. It all comes down to “America First” — and so it does not matter what the rest of the world thinks, nor does the health of our planet matter, nor does the well-being of the whole human community. It only matters whether it serves our own narrow interests as Americans. Putting aside the fact that, in the long run, the provisions of the Paris Treaty will aid the health of the planet and, thereby, serve our interest as human beings who live here, to put forth such an argument as the basis of exiting an international treaty is the very definition of selfishness, and caters to the basest of national instincts. All of this is the culmination of years of skepticism about the science of climate change on the part of large parts of the American population, most of whom also accept a narrative which places science and religion in opposition to each other, which venerates ignorance above learning, and, as one politician proclaimed early this week, believes that if climate change is really happening, God will save us from it.
Has it not occurred to anyone that the gift of human intellect upon which science, and so much else, depends, is God’s way of saving us?
It seems necessary to offer a reminder that selfishness is not a Christian virtue. The whole of Jesus’ life and teaching points to the exact opposite of selfishness, embracing the virtue of self-giving, and of putting others’ needs before our own. In no way is there any justifiable Christian theology that supports this idea of “America First”, no authentic Christianity that justifies putting the perceived, short-term self-interest of a few million people ahead of the well-being of an entire planet of billions.
To love God with one’s whole being, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, is the basic ethical stance of the authentic Christian tradition. It is the ethic that Jesus taught and on which he based his life. It is the putting of that ethic into action that opens the doors of the kingdom of heaven, that brings us into the state of being that Jesus calls us to. That ethic does not give us permission to love ourselves more than our neighbors, nor does it give us permission to adopt a narrow definition of “neighbor” that begins and ends at the American border.
I am not proud today to now be part of one of the few countries in the world that has turned its back on the biggest crisis to face humanity, choosing to hide behind the tribal wall of an increasingly ugly nationalism. And I am angry to be connected with those who use the name of Jesus and the Christian tradition to defend the selfishness that nationalism promotes.
Jesus also said we must love our enemies — and that is hard to do on a day like today. And I wonder how much love we will get from the rest of the world, when the United States has today become an enemy of the planet.
Let no one dare to say that what has been done today is somehow consistent with the Christian faith. It is not. It is simply being selfish.