Where is the love?

by Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson for The Christian Citizen

Music is a powerful art form. The beauty of a musical genius is the ability to take messages from life, hang them on notes, and let them ride as if they were birds flying. Music has been used to say what cannot be spoken with words alone. “Where Is the Love?” a 2003 hit by the Black Eyed Peas, raises the question, “Where is the love?” considering the atmosphere of chaos and violence in the world and in America, in particular. The message is potent as it provocatively speaks to the racial divide. The current social atmosphere in America has exposed the truth about the racial dynamics in America. It has jolted those who were sleeping into the realization of the blatant brutality dispensed disproportionately on people of color. Perhaps the minds of many were clouded by the view of the first African American family in the White House. Perhaps some had erroneously assumed that America had overcome the cruelty of its racist history.

In May, protests erupted across America like brush fires rapidly burning through California’s forests. The protest that captured America’s attention was the result of another death at the hands of those tasked to protect and serve. George Floyd died as a police officer knelt on his neck for reportedly eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Floyd’s death seemed to have been the match that ignited the fuse for what has been simmering in the hearts of the least of these, particularly Black America. Floyd’s death is one in a long litany of killings that have taken place throughout America. And many have been stunned by the revelation of brutality that has been exposed. If we took a black and white panoramic view of the protests in 2020, there would be little difference from protests filmed from the 1960s. While America has advanced technologically since the 1960s, racial dynamics have not kept pace. In “Race Matters,” Cornel West sliced straight to the core of America’s race issue: “Our truncated public discussions of race suppress the best of who and what we are as a people because they fail to confront the complexity of the issue in a candid and critical manner.”[i]

To deal with the “complexity of the issue in a candid and critical manner” will necessitate utilizing lessons learned from past leaders. Those who were instrumental in nudging the needle of justice toward the Civil Rights Act of 1964, are the shoulders we stand on. James Cone noted that future progress will necessitate looking beyond the work that was previously done. He noted that “We need a vision of freedom that includes the whole of the inhabited earth and not just black North America, a vision enabling us to analyze the causes of world poverty and sickness, monopoly capitalism and antidemocratic socialism…”[ii] Cone positions the struggle not simply for a specific group but “liberation of the wretched of the earth.”[iii]

This process of “liberation of the wretched of the earth” must involve love. The Black Eyed Peas have raised a relevant question, “Where is the love?” This question suggests that love is the virtue that is missing from the struggle. The antithesis to love is Hate. It is powerful and corrosive. Howard Thurman described hate as one of “the hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the disinherited in season and out of season.”[iv] Hate not only hurts the one being hated; hate corrodes the moral compass and values of the hater and eventually harms the one hating. At the core of America’s racist history is hate. Martin Luther King wrote “Hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding.”[v]

That which overcomes hate is love. With this thought, it may be suggested that wars would not exist if there was more love in the world. If there were more love in the world, racism would not exist. In 1965 Hal David and Burt Bacharach wrote a ballad titled, “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Several artists have sung it and re-sung it over the years since then. The lyrics of this song did not expose the vivid colors of racism, chaos, and violence like “Where Is The Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas. David and Bacharach’s song is a sweet melody which paints a nice picture of love, while the Black Eyed Peas’ song strongly suggests that this powerful virtue is the element that is missing from life.

When viewing love through the lens of emotion, it may be difficult to see what love has to do with race. Love through the lens of emotion has a foundation of reciprocity coated in preference. From this perspective, one must have an affinity towards another before love takes root. This type of love lacks the power to deal with race or any of the world’s challenges. Love that transforms is not some sentimental outpouring feeling. Love in the English language has many expressions and can be confusing because the same word can be expressed in different ways. The Greek language has multiple different words for love. The love that transforms is not the same love that two people in love express towards one another. This word in Greek is eros, a romantic love. The love that is powerful enough to overcome hate and deal with racism is not even the love that friends have for one another. In the Greek language this love is expressed by the word philia, a reciprocal love between friends. This is that “ride or die” type of love in hip-hop vernacular. It is easy to love those whom we like and have things in common with. The love that has the power to transform is agape, which seeks nothing in return, but is “redemptive goodwill for all men.” [vi]

This love is challenging, and it works against human nature. It is human nature to love that which one has an affinity towards. However, agape loves the unlovable. Outside of the body of Christ, understanding this type of love is challenging. It is in the body of Christ where believers are exposed to this type of love through a relationship with God. Even within the body of Christ, this love in action is a stretch. However, St. John of the Cross has a provocative way of illustrating this in his work, “The Living Flame of Love.” There he describes God’s love as the living flame that not only consumes but transforms. When wood is set on fire, it becomes not what it was but is consumed by the flame and is transformed. Before becoming ash, briefly it becomes more than it was. “The Living Flame of Love” transforms the human heart into more than what it was—dare I say, into what it was created to be. A vessel that connects with others out of respect, appreciation, generosity, and love.

When the body of Christ is fully set ablaze with “the living flame of love,” the power to impact the world, liberate “the wretched of the earth,” and achieve justice will be possible. The collective body of Christ will be required to be ablaze. Those who identify as believers, and those who have stepped out of the culture into the shadow of the Cross will be the body that will have the power to share love with the world.

The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.

[i] Cornel West, Race Matters, (Vintage Books, 1993), 4.

[ii] James H. Cone, For My People, (Orbis Books, 1984), 193-4.

[iii] Ibid. 193.

[iv] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, (Beacon Press, 1976), 74.

[v] Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, (Fortress Press, 1963), 51.

[vi] Ibid. 52.