There is so little in sacred texts that is straightforward. How lucky am I then that today I get to reflect on perhaps the most succinct statement of meaning put forward by Jesus – you shall love God with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. I’ve always felt Jesus cheats a little here by squeezing two imperatives into one “greatest commandment/first of all commandments.” But if we understand God to be God within us (and indeed She is), then we can understand the interconnectedness of these two constructions. If God is in us, and we love God with all our strength, then we love ourselves with all strength, and if we love our neighbors as ourselves, we love them with all strength, too.
To love with all our strength. I don’t think I have anything new to say about this, but I do think strength is kind of a funny qualifier to apply to love – we don’t speak often of strong love in the English language, though strength in other regards has plenty of value in our patriarchal society. I have only my own experience to draw from when it comes to what Jesus may have meant by this. To love with all our strength. When do we really equate strength with love? I thought about this for a while. And then I thought about the one place in creation I had most frequently seen strength and love meet. In mothers. In motherhood, more than anywhere else, do I understand that love is an active verb, it is a rigorous exercise, it requires strength and fortitude emotional and physical and psychological, maybe more than any other activity. Mothers teach us that love is not complacent. Love is not inaction.
In my work I have had the great privilege of observing the strength and fortitude of motherly love firsthand. Last summer I was part of a team responding to the humanitarian crisis devised by our government when they forcibly separated asylum-seeking parents from their children and transferred parents to prisons across the country – including over 50 parents sent from facilities in Texas to a federal prison in SeaTac and to the immigration prison in Tacoma. Their children were then scattered across the country, in foster systems and group homes as far away as Florida and New York. For weeks, these parents were transferred from prison to prison, without being told where their children were. Perhaps it is under duress that the physical strength of love – of a mother’s love in particular – is most visible. I spoke over the phone and later in person with a mother whose son was being held in New York, in a foster home, where she was not allowed to contact him. I don’t really have words for my conversations with her, except to say the force, the strength of her love for her child was tangible, palpable, frantic, and fearsome to behold.
It was this same fearsome strength of motherly love which brought forward countless volunteers, many of them women, willing to put their lives and their bodies and their time on the line because they knew what these separated mothers were experiencing – many of these volunteers were mothers themselves. They understood personally the strength of a mother’s love, the deep and earth-shaking grief caused when this universal bond is tampered with. I watched as a lawyer, a mother herself, went into the federal detention center and fought relentlessly until she got the separated mother I spoke to on the phone released and her son returned to her. I also stood in awe as a mother from Edmonds, Julia, felt compelled by the strength of her love to take action during this crisis. When she realized there were asylum seekers as young as 18 years old in the federal prison in SeaTac, with no family and no connections in the US, and were therefore unlikely to be granted bond, she put her own name down as sponsor to ask an immigration judge for one 18-year-old girl’s release – we’ll call her Juana, for the sake of this story. Julia made a room in her home for the young girl Juana, prepared for her enrollment in a high school, had ready clothing and other necessities, raised the money to pay for Juana’s bond. Julia was ready to adopt this young woman into her heart – because the strength of a mother’s love is transcendent in this way. Devastatingly, the immigration judge denied Juana bond, and she remains imprisoned in Tacoma today. Juana has been in prison for almost six months now, spending half her 18th year behind bars for no criminal offense. Juana told Julia that she can no longer stand to be locked up and is willing to give up her asylum claim and return to a dangerous and abusive situation in Honduras if it means she can get out of prison. Juana is one of many in a similar situation I’ve spoken to. The heartbreak of both women is tangible when I speak with them. But Julia loves anyway, even more in the face of devastation, and she continues to visit Juana. I think hers is a love like Mary’s at the foot of the cross. How much strength this must require. This surely is love with all her strength.
Jesus says this active love is worth more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices. The active verb love is worth more than any gesture, any ritual meant to bear meaning. It is the action itself Jesus is interested in, not the gestures which represent the action. It is one thing to say you love the poor or the marginalized or the oppressed. It is another thing entirely to act on this love. How does love in action look, in our country today? To me, it looks like the love of a mother, fighting relentlessly for a lost child. When we do this, Jesus says, when we live this radical and active love for God, for ourselves, and for our neighbors, we are not far from the kingdom of God.Just a quick footnote – it’s been 101 days since a court ordered the federal government to reunite all parents separated from their children, and there are still separated parents imprisoned here in the northwest. There are still imprisoned asylum seekers willing to return to danger to live life outside prison. If this story moved you, you can be love in action by turning in your ballot by Tuesday to show our active love for our neighbors who are disenfranchised or whose rights are at stake at this critical moment.