If you’re looking for a Valentine’s Day gift your loved one will remember, you might consider a handwritten note from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sometime in the mid-1960s, he was asked to define the meaning of love. Dr. King wrote: “Love is the greatest force in the universe. It is the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. He who loves is a participant in the being of God.”
Then he signed the note, “Best Wishes, Martin L. King Jr.” The rare note is for sale for $42,000.
If only everyone agreed with Dr. King.
How Hollywood sees the world
One way our culture rejects Dr. King’s ethic of love is by rejecting those who most deeply share his faith.
A Penn State study found that “American society is in a downward spiral of interreligious intolerance.” “Highly religious Protestants” are among the groups that feel most targeted for their religious group membership and beliefs. The lead investigator noted: “When people see their religion or religious beliefs mocked in the public domain or criticized by political leaders, these experiences signal to members of entire religious groups that they don’t belong.”
A case in point: the Academy Awards.
The 2020 Oscars were watched by their smallest audience ever. According to Variety, 23.6 million viewers tuned in Sunday night. The show had six million fewer viewers than last year.
However, an audience of 23.6 million is still larger than the population of 177 of the world’s countries. The cultural popularity of the Academy Awards, together with the credibility they bestow on actors, directors, and films, can make it difficult to resist the worldview Hollywood promotes.
If we are to believe the movie and television industry, gender is fluid, same-sex relationships are to be celebrated, LGBTQ people are to be accorded protected status, marriage is optional and divorce is nearly inevitable, and life begins and ends whenever we say it does. I could cite popular movies and TV shows that proclaim each of these “values.” If we disagree, we are branded as homophobic, bigoted, and even dangerous.
And we haven’t even discussed the sexualized Super Bowl halftime show. If my grandchildren had been watching the game with us, we would have been forced to change the channel.
One solution for biblical Christians is to avoid all popular media. But even if that were possible, is it biblical?
Eating with tax collectors and “sinners”
Joseph took an Egyptian name and wife when he became the second-most powerful ruler in Egypt (Genesis 41:45). Esther became queen of the Persian Empire; her uncle Mordecai ascended to “second in rank to King Ahasuerus” (Esther 2:17; 10:3).
Daniel served the rulers of Babylon and Persia from 605 BC to at least 522 BC. Jewish Christians continued following Jewish tradition (cf. Acts 3:1; 13:5) until they were forced from their synagogues toward the end of the first century.
Jesus set the example of cultural engagement by building relationships with Jews (Matthew 4:23), Samaritans (John 4), Gentiles (Mark 7:24–37), and tax collectors and “sinners” (Matthew 9:9–10; Luke 19:1–10). He called us to make disciples of all “nations” (Matthew 28:19), literally ethnos, meaning ethnicities or people groups.
Our Lord described us as “salt” and “light,” both of which must contact that which they are to transform (Matthew 5:13–16). To retreat from culture means that we lose all opportunity to change culture.
Living as a “guest” in this world
At the same time, we are to be in the world but not of it. A ship is supposed to be in the ocean, but the ocean is not supposed to be in the ship.
Jesus prayed for his disciples, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15). Scripture is clear: “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15).
God calls us to “flee from sexual immorality” and to “resist the devil” (1 Corinthians 6:18; James 4:7b). To do this, we must first “submit yourselves therefore to God” (v. 7a). In his power we can defeat any temptation we face (1 Corinthians 10:13), knowing that “because [Jesus] himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:18).
The key is to see ourselves as “guests” in this world (Psalm 39:12). We care for our fellow guests, but we know that this world is not our home or theirs.
“God never stops loving”
When our culture violates Dr. King’s ethic of love, Jesus calls us to respond in love. David Vryhof of the Society of St. John the Evangelist: “Why would we choose to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us? Because this is the way of God.
“God never stops loving, never stops caring, never stops blessing. Yes, it’s outrageous. It’s impractical. It’s unrealistic. It’s beyond us. Which is why we need God and why we need each other. Only God’s love abiding in us can love in this way.”
Who was the last person to love you “in this way”?
With whom will you pay such grace forward today?