I love art – looking at it, watching others create it, attempting to make it myself, even though at least half of my attempts end up looking like they were made by a kindergartener without much artistic promise. Art is a language in which I connect to the divine, and so I have at times invited the students with whom I work to create art as a way of expressing their own faith journey. Years ago, we broke out the paints and canvases, and I asked my students to try to paint something that came to their minds when they thought about the Divine. When we were done, we hung their colorful paintings in the youth room.
I had my last day as youth pastor at this church last week. As I packed up my things, I realized that there was one last painting from those many years ago remaining on the wall. It read, “Love Every One.” Painted when he was only 13 years old by a young man who will graduate this year, it definitely could have been a reflection of the grammatical attentiveness of an eighth-grade boy; but to me, it is profound. I took it from the youth room wall and hung it in my home.
The reason why I love this particular painting more than any of the others in my house is because I believe it undercuts the way our culture thinks and operates. It shakes people of faith out of tired and unperformed platitudes. Moreover, it cuts to the heart of this Christmas season that my faith tradition is celebrating.
You see, I have always found the shepherds in the Christmas story to be the most fascinating characters. They are the ones at the celebration of Jesus’ birth that express the heart of the God in which I believe. According to the story, Israel was under the tyrannical power of the Roman Empire and was hoping that a messiah would come and set them free from all forms of oppression. Christians believe that a poor young couple – the woman a virgin not yet married to her older fiancé – traveled to Bethlehem to be counted for the Roman census. This young woman had agreed to miraculously become impregnated with the baby that Christians believe would be this long-awaited messiah, and she went into labor in Bethlehem. Yet no one would give her and her husband a place to stay, save one innkeeper who let them birth the baby in his barn. On that night, angels appeared to shepherds in the hills and invited them to go to the manger to see a newborn baby that would be their savior. They were the only ones with a personal invitation from the divine to be present at the birth scene. Why them?
As an animal lover, I have long thought it might have something to do with the fact that the shepherds cared for animals, the least of these, the creatures that most of us discount as not entirely worthy of great care, love, or respect. In this way, God might have been indicating that it is this care for the least, this pouring out of life for those that the world might discard, that is at the heart of the Christ and is the divine call of us all. And I still believe this is part of the reason they were called.
But then I remembered a parable that Jesus would grow up to tell, comparing the way he interacts with us to a shepherd’s care for his sheep. Jesus says that as our shepherd and care-giver, he seeks out the one sheep that would wander away and get lost. This honestly seems completely illogical to me, even as one who carries my love of animals to borderline-fanatical levels. (I own a shirt that says, “Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends.”) Why would Jesus risk leaving the other sheep – 99 of them, as his story goes – to save just one? Isn’t this jeopardizing the wellbeing of the whole to save the one? Apparently this was typical behavior of shepherds, too!
My new painting gives me the answer: Jesus, like the shepherds, is saying in this story that he “loves every one.” How vastly different from our utilitarian society that justifies its choices to sacrifice the one, the least, the minority, the margins to “save the many!” And how vastly different from the tired, comforting, generalized, empty banality that we in churches and synagogues and mosques and the world spout about “loving everyone”! We do not love everyone because we believe this merely to be a general attitude of charitable affability with which we view the world. It has no actual obligation. It takes the shape of “prayers” for the hurting instead of action to end the suffering, and looks like utilitarian sacrificing of livelihoods in the name of collateral damage instead of creative solutions and efforts to solve problems. It comes in the form of “loving the sinner but hating the sin” that justifies selective self-righteous judgment of others who violate our various constructed moralities while ignoring our own egregious violations of the most basic compassion. This simple grammatical correction certainly “corrects” our behavior – but not for the better.
Yet we are called to something much more radical than “loving everyone;” we are called to “love every one” – individually, personally, sacrificially, even illogically. Our hearts should break at the one, not just the many, lost and suffering and alone. To all who ascribe to utilitarianism as unavoidable, logical, and perhaps even a practical solution to the ethic of love, I say that this simple painting and this simple Christmas story do not agree. Christmas is about the creation of an active solution to the human problem on a dark, cold night of suffering, fear, and oppression – a solution that promises peace and goodwill to all and every one of humankind. If we ever contemplate sacrificing the one for the many – unless this sacrifice is the laying down of our own selves on our own volition out of love for others – we are not being creative enough. We are giving up too easily. Love does not sacrifice others but instead involves the effortful, sometimes excruciating hope that we can save all if we all pour ourselves out in love for each suffering one. This, I believe, was the heart of Jesus. It was the heart of the shepherds. And it should be our hearts.