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Love: The foundational fruit of the Spirit

The fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 is not presented as a random catalog of virtues. It is important to note that when Paul speaks of such fruit, love heads the list. It has pride of place as the foundational fruit of the Spirit, the chief Christian virtue. As Victor Paul Furnish, author of “Theology and Ethics in Paul,” observed, “This list may be regarded as a description of the concrete ways in which love is expressed.” In our own cultural context, we tend to think of love as an emotion, and thus may need to be reminded that love, in the biblical idiom, is not so much something you feel, but rather something you do. It is an action rather than a feeling – an action on behalf of another’s well-being – sometimes regardless of how we feel. And what might that look like?

I caught a clear glimpse of it in a Chicago neighborhood featured on the PBS Newshour on December 26, 2016. That year had been the deadliest on the streets of Chicago in more than two decades — 500 homicides, 90 in August alone. Yet on a street corner in Englewood, one of the hardest hit streets on the city’s South Side, where several men, a woman and a child had been killed in years past, something changed. In what was once a war zone, a grill was fired up, people gathered with lawn chairs, kids were playing — it looked like a party was going on.

What happened? According to Tamar Manasseh, founder of Mothers Against Senseless Killings: “We just showed up. That’s all we have to do. Show up, grab a lawn chair and a pair of sunglasses, and you can do this. You can change the world with that.” Ever since Manasseh and others began showing up, violence in the neighborhood has plummeted.

There is more to showing up, of course, than is apparent at first glance. Showing up also means connecting deeply to vulnerable people in a neighborhood where folk would otherwise be prisoners in their own homes. But whatever shape it takes, love has a lot to do with showing up.

This was further impressed upon me when a group within a congregation I pastored, The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., made a collective commitment to show up every other Tuesday morning during 2016-17 for a particular gathering that generated deep connections. For lack of a better name, we called it the “Jobs Club.” Doug, a deacon who oversees the church’s Radcliffe Room Homeless Program, spread the word among homeless friends who were looking for a job, inviting them to come and talk. When we gathered for conversation, we reflected together with them on job skills, work history and where they might find work and a stable environment where they could sleep and eat — so that they would be fresh for an interview and a job. Various church members contributed to this initiative. David helped those in search of employment think about their skill sets and work up résumés. Phil, an activist lawyer, consulted with participants on legal issues. Tyler, a technology whiz, facilitated internet information and access. The associate pastor and I added whatever we could.

But more than anything else we were connecting with John, Russell, José, Johnny and a woman with a wonderful name, Fynale (pronounced “Finally”), who taught other homeless women how to make jewelry. In some cases, there were noticeable results: One man started a lawn care business, another got a job with a concrete company and yet another landed a job with a window contractor. And the process happened simply because we showed up.

After our initial meetings, we asked our friends experiencing homelessness whether this was worth doing, and one man said enthusiastically, “Yes, coming here to talk about work and get encouragement, if not ideas, for jobs is helpful!” The commitment to showing up facilitated deep connections with those who might otherwise be isolated and overlooked, with the odds stacked against them — not just because they are homeless, but in some cases because they also had criminal records that made work difficult to find. So just like the Mothers Against Senseless Killing taking back their neighborhood in Chicago, the friends we made at church also had to fight the system, and the church was called to accompany and support them.

The deep connections eventually bore more fruit. In fact, at the end of 2017, several members of the church (including participants in the Jobs Club and the Radcliffe Room homeless ministry) began a conversation with the Downtown Business Improvement District and the local Department of Human Services to think strategically about establishing a homeless center housed at the church that would provide a comprehensive array of services in one location — inclusive of employment and housing assistance, mental and physical health services, and access to food, computers,
showers and laundry facilities. In 2019, the Downtown Day Services Center became a reality. Now, it serves about 160 people experiencing homelessness every day — a facility that never would have materialized if a dedicated group had not committed to show up and connect with our homeless friends.

I believe this is, in essence, what Paul was urging the churches he founded within the Roman province of Galatia to do: show up and embody an alternative witness. Indeed, he was trying to create cells of relational resistance and transformation that deconstructed prevailing social divisions. The odds, to be sure, were stacked against believers in Galatian churches if they aspired to be anything other than conquered, defeated people. If you place the politics of the Roman Empire in the foreground of Paul’s letter to these churches, what emerges is a social, political milieu that aimed to integrate subjugated people into the Roman colonial mentality. Inscriptions of domination that reinforced social hierarchy were part of the air that people breathed — in statuary, legal practices and even in Rome’s savage entertainment industry, which featured staged games where gladiators (usually slaves or captives) fought to the death with other gladiators, wild animals or condemned criminals. This was all part of Roman imperial religion and is what Paul refers to pointedly as the “other gospel” to which he objects in Galatians 1:6.

It was in this kind of world, a hierarchical culture of conquest and domination, that Paul made a stunning statement: a baptismal affirmation that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This affirmation was revolutionary, turning the world upside down, which seems to have been Paul’s intent. As Brigitte Kahl puts it in “The Fortress New Testament Bible Commentary,” for Paul, the entire imperial model of “divide and rule” was drowned and washed away in the waters of baptism. The distinctive markers that created binary oppositions of “us and them” were
washed away.

In Paul’s view, if we have caught a glimpse of God’s character in the crucified and risen Christ, then we are compelled to create communities that manifest the new creation, in which all such distinctions are overcome and transformed. As Kahl writes in “Galatians Reimagined,” this is “a ‘revolutionary’ movement of self to other” in which one loses an abusive perception of oneself in order to retrieve oneself “in the other, for the other, through the other, with the other, constantly dying and being resurrected, living no longer as the old self but as the mystical body of Christ” in baptism. For Paul the opposition of “us versus them” is drowned, washed away in baptism. The result is a community of “we” or “us” in which cutthroat competition is dissolved. In visible communal and political terms, this is what love looks like and is integral to the church’s public witness in
the world.

When Paul speaks of “works of the flesh” and “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5, he is contrasting vices and virtues that are not only individual, but also public and political. Indeed, Paul’s strategic vision was to create communities founded in the politics of love that could resist the politics of death — communities in which fruit of the Spirit are embodied in ways visible enough to challenge the world. As he insists, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another”
(Galatians 5:24-26). When Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit, it is critical to remember that he is speaking of the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, for that same Spirit is working resurrection life in us.

Moreover, love, the foundational fruit of the Spirit, is always cruciform, which is to say that it is cross-shaped and entails the “revolutionary” movement of self to other. One loves by letting go of a false sense of oneself in order to retrieve an infinitely more robust self in relation to others. To be co-crucified and co-risen in Christ is to participate in what Kahl calls the new creation — a new community of love and mutuality through the “birth canal” of the cross and resurrection, whereby we are remade in the image of God, and become one with others rather than consumers of others. The politics of death, for Paul, must be resisted.

Resisting the politics of death can come with a cost. Those who do so can find themselves excoriated as insufficiently patriotic, even treasonous. Lest there be any doubt about this, consider former NFL players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid. When they took a knee during the national anthem before a football game in 2016 to protest police brutality and racialized violence, and inspired other NFL players to do the same, they were widely reviled as unpatriotic, even by the president of the United States. In the years since, Kaepernick has continued to be censured for his protest and denied the opportunity to resume playing in the NFL. A little-known fact is that Kaepernick and Reid are devout Christians who saw themselves as witnessing to their faith. In so doing, they were following in the tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., the Black church and other Christians during the civil rights movement who called on this nation to live up to
its ideals.

This is, I think, the kind of witness and resistance that Paul had in mind for the Galatian churches. The church, in other words, in Paul’s day and ours, is called to “take a knee,” to show up, to take to the streets in embodied witness to cruciform love. The Roman mentality is still part of the air we breathe, reflected ad nauseum in rhetoric about “winners” and “losers.” Losers are those who have failed, who have been beaten to death, if not physically, then spiritually; and winners continue to inscribe domination upon them. To be great is to win, to vanquish one’s foes.

But if we can embrace Paul’s vision in his letter to the churches of Galatia, it can inspire us to embody God’s gift of a new community of love and mutuality through the “birth canal” of the cross and resurrection, whereby we become one with others rather than abusers of others. And to act like the church is to visibly embody love, the foundational fruit of the Spirit — and if I understand what that means, it has a lot to do with “showing up.” In so doing, we may lose false and destructive selves and retrieve more robust selves in relationships with others, especially with the most vulnerable in our midst — the homeless, the immigrant, the refugee, the residents of violent neighborhoods. The Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead summons us to just such places and to just such persons and empowers us to exhibit the political virtue of love.

Roger J. Gench is an editorial consultant for the Presbyterian Outlook. He lives in Richmond, Virginia. (This article is excerpted from his book, “The Cross Examen: A Spirituality for Activists.” Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.