By Susan K. Williams Smith
Out of my formal theological education, there were three definitions given that I cherish to this day. I grew up on a street that was filled with kids who were what we called “Sanctified.” I didn’t know the difference between “Sanctified” or “Holiness” or “Pentecostal.” All I knew is that Mama said they were “sanctified.” They were proud of that and would call all the rest of us “sinners.” We were, according to them, going to hell for just about everything. They weren’t though because they were holy.
So, I was relieved when I learned that sin wasn’t just breathing or wearing red or a skirt that was too tight, but that sin was anything that separated us from God. That could include a lot of things – like choosing to stay in bed on Sunday morning instead of going to church or taking your offering money and using it to purchase something you wanted. My understanding was that there were (and are) a lot of things that separate us from God.
“Righteousness” was yet another term for which I was grateful for having gotten the definition that to be “righteous” was to be in the right relationship with God – i.e., a vertical relationship where God was in control (I now struggle with God being presented as what I see as an autocrat). I was sure I was in that kind of relationship and so felt like I would not go to hell on that one.
But it was the requirement that we be “holy” that really got to me. Who could be “holy?” The Pharisees, with their over 600 laws that a person had to follow to be holy, made it impossible to make the grade, I thought. Now, clearly, I am not looking at or defining “holy” as a theological scholar, but as a person trying to “be right” with God. My sanctified friends said they were holy, but none of the rest of us were. And so, I kind of stayed away from them…watching as they got into all kinds of trouble, doing things I wouldn’t have thought of doing – but not worrying because of their status as “holy” ones. I was not that. Not even close. And would never be.
So when I saw “holy” defined as being a component of love by Old Testament scholar Dr. Wil Gafney, I felt a little better. Hell seemed a couple more steps away from me. In my Bible study, I got the students to listen to a popular white evangelical preacher who delivered the message that social justice was different than Biblical justice and that it was in fact “anti-Biblical.” The message I got, loud and clear, was that Jesus and the Gospel were about judgment, not love, and adhering to anything that was anti-Biblical was a crime against God, subjecting persons to judgment and perhaps the loss of their salvation.
Dr. Gafney wrote in “Holy Leviticus! Justice is True Holiness” that to be holy was to adhere to the Great Commandment that teaches us that we are to love the Lord our God with everything we’ve got andto love our neighbors as ourselves. (italics mine) We are not allowed to hate those whom we would like to hate. (One of my students asked if there were exceptions!) Dr. Gafney said that we are “not to hate the haters,” something my mother taught us as we watched children and women being attacked by police dogs and firehoses in the 60s. “You have to love them!” she said to us sharply. Dr. Gafney said it as well: “You shall not hate the haters. You shall love those who don’t love…You shall love and rebuke. Love them and not call them names. Love them and not start a Twitter fight with them. Love them and rebuke them…” She said, “Rebuke Donald Trump. Rebuke Franklin Graham. Rebuke black preachers who hate black women while using their bodies and their money. Rebuke preachers who hate gay folk. Rebuke white supremacist Christianity. Rebuke bad preaching and worse exegesis. Tell the truth about the love of God and her call for us to love our neighbor as a demonstration of our holiness, her holiness, because we understand that she who is our God is holy.”
To be holy is to love. It’s not easy. Sometimes the requirement causes spiritual and emotional pushback. We don’t want to do it, but it is a divine requirement. We are not only to love others whom we would rather ignore and cast into hell ourselves, but we are also to love ourselves. That’s hard for a lot of us. We don’t like who we are, what we have done, what we look like – none of it – but the Great Commandment says, “do it.”
Gafney says, “Love yourself. Love your flesh. Love your fat. Love your freckles. Love your edges. Love your bald spot. Love your sag and your swag. Love your melanin. Love your kinks and your kink. Love yourself through your failures.Love yourself too much to let anyone love you less.(Italics mine)
These definitions are something I can live with. They are like SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. I would add “difficult,” but they are not impossible. More than that, they are in alignment with the Great Commandment, which the God of the Hebrew scriptures gave us and that Jesus quoted.
Amen and amen.
(See Wil Gafney’s article athttps://www.wilgafney.com/2019/07/20/holy-leviticus-justice-is-true-holiness)