The Agape Dilemma #1

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(One of a series of quotations in many languages, displayed in frames, in the porch of St Hedwig’s Cathedral, near Alexanderplatz in Eastern Berlin)

I have been arguing that Christians need to retire the word ‘love’. It has passed its used-by-date.  A quick check of any dictionary will attest that ‘love’ has been reduced to a feeling.

Eros we know. Filia we know. But agape, the selfless, unconditional care of the other, …?

I have argued in my book that the ‘second commandment’, to love one’s neighbour as one’s self, has contributed to this degradation of meaning.

When you think about it, the ‘second commandment’ or ‘Golden Rule’, as it is widely known, is actually self-interested. To recover the Biblical intention of agape-love requires Christians to love their neighbour as they (the neighbour) would want to be loved.

This turns everything on its head.

Such ‘love’ is impossible without knowing one’s neighbour and, in the broadest sense, their culture. That means adopting a disposition of habitually wanting to understand the  other.

That is what ‘radical hospitality’ is all about – putting on hold one’s own agendas to allow the other the space for theirs.

Radical hospitality is the opposite of ‘telling’ – imposing oneself on the other, so in-ground in Christian consciousness – evangelisation and preaching.

Radical hospitality is unlikely from a ‘needy’ person, who inevitably seeks self-affirmation through every human encounter. It requires a certain confidence in one’s own value as a person, a deep understanding that their value is intrinsic, ultimately not determined by external circumstances or threatened by strangeness.

From a Christian perspective, that is the essence of the ‘Good News’ – that we are already, without pre-conditions, accepted and loved. That was what Jesus demonstrated. Practising this, moment by moment, frees us from the tyranny of fear, to be ourselves; we don’t have to prove anything. It is a discipline. It is a practice. It has to be learnt. It becomes a lifestyle.

I am in Berlin. Yesterday I wandered around the centre. There is no end to the monuments of self-giving that are honoured by the German people.

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I paused at the Neue Wache, the “Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship”. It is a large, severely grey, circular room covered by an open dome. There is only one permanent object in the centre of the space –  Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture Mother with her Dead Son. 

Kollwitz was married to a doctor who cared for the poor in Berlin. She came to admire them, and found beauty in them; so they became the subjects of her art. During the Nazi period, her work was condemned, not supporting the images of the myth of the superiority of the Aryan (German) race.

In and around the ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ museum many moving stories are recounted of spontaneous acts of self-sacrifice, on both sides of the Wall, acts of bravery and conscience that portray radical hospitality enacted in the face of grave danger. Many without second thought for oneself. Enough stories to restore one’s confidence, that in the face of human hubris, ignorance and greed, there is still a voice of hope.

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(In front of the Berlin Cathedral (Dom))

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