On June 19, 2016, the 150th Anniversary of the first Juneteenth, Rev. Sean J. Nickleberry stepped into the pulpit of Hope AME in Prairie View, Texas. A century and a half earlier, news that slavery in the United States was over had finally reached the pulpit of another AME Church, Reedy Chapel, in Galveston, Texas. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had taken place two and a half years earlier in 1863, it took time for the news to be proclaimed in Texas.
That 150th Juneteenth was significant. It was two days after the one-year anniversary of the murder of nine beautiful lives in Charleston, South Carolina. It was only one week after the massacre of forty-nine people in Orlando, Florida, who were almost all people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. Lastly, it was three weeks shy of the one-year anniversary of an unnecessary arrest right in front of Hope AME’s doors, that would lead to the untimely death of a young woman named Sandra Bland. Speaking into a hurting congregation, the message that Rev. Nickleberry had that morning was necessary: If you do not know love, you do not know God.
The scriptures warn us of false prophets, advising us to test the spirits and examine the messages we hear through the lens of the God that we know. Among our tools for doing so, the most vital was contained in Rev. Nickleberry’s simple message: God is love.
The question then becomes, What is love? Everyone has their own definitions, and even our own scriptures have become overused so as to almost lose their meaning. Yet, the simple definition remains: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13).
There are many voices in our world that would claim to show us the way. Yet, we are called to test those voices and spirits against the God we know and not be led astray simply because something has become culturally appropriate or the norm. The way that God gave us to test the messages around us for whether they truly came from God was simple: God is love. If you do not know love, you do not know God.
Cultural Christianity diverges from Scriptural Christianity when it loses its focus on God’s love. The love of others is replaced by the love of self. The love of God is replaced by the love of money and power. The unconditional love of God is replaced by the selective and conditional love of man.
The results are disastrous. In the 1800s, these false teachings of Cultural Christianity led to the enslavement of people of African descent being preached from many Christian pulpits as God’s will. In many ways, it is that same pursuit of greed and power that continues to lead to many of our tragedies today. Therefore, we can find ourselves mourning that Dylan Roof, the young man who shot those nine church leaders in Charleston, South Carolina, was a member of our Christian institution, without necessarily being a part of the movement of God’s love. This kind of distortion of our young people’s hearts becomes possible when the complacency of Cultural Christianity leads us to be silent as voices of greed, power, and hate rise.
That is why when 1 John 4 tells us to test the spirits to see if they are false prophets it focuses on love. Our antidote is a Scriptural Christianity, with tools to focus our discernment:
- “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8): This is as simple as it gets. Is there love in the message you are hearing? If not, it is not from God.
- “He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27): Does the message lead you towards greater love of God and your neighbor? If it does not, it is leading you away from God not towards God.
- “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:10): Does the message lead you to long for money and power? God wants to be our protector and provider; when we seek to amass our own power, we turn away from, not towards, God.
God is love.
The Rev. Hannah Adair Bonner is the Curator of The Shout, a community that seeks to reimagine open the microphone to the prophetic voices outside the walls of the church. She also serves as a pastor on staff at St. John’s Downtown in Houston, Texas. Bonner hails from Philadelphia, holds a Masters of Divinity from Duke Divinity School and is an Ordained Elder in the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Bonner is a respected speaker, justice advocate, and an integral part of the UMC LEAD leadership team, which produces the UMC LEAD blog and the yearly LEAD event. Her study, The Shout: Finding the Prophetic Voice in Unexpected Places, released in May.