WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
JANUARY 18–25, 2021
PRAYER / WORSHIP: Commentary on the Scriptural Text
Abide in My Love: How Jesus Teaches Us to Respond to Polarization, Conflict, and Violence
By Andrew DeCort
When the editors of Ecumenical Trends invited me to write this essay, I was receiving dozens of death threats. My initiative in Ethiopia called the Neighbor-Love Movement works to promote seeing others as precious neighbors across polarized identities, and some people were not happy about the bridges we were attempting to build. Sadly, many of the most hateful threats came from neighbors who claimed a Christian identity. As I prayed, I asked Jesus if he had a word he wanted to speak to my wife and me as we journeyed through that disturbing season. What I heard was “Remain in my love.” Thus, it was deeply meaningful to me that the editors asked me to explore this precise passage without knowing my situation. I share this to say that my essay is not meant as abstract theology from the ivory tower. It is meant as an attempt to listen to Jesus’s heart as we obey his command to remain in his love and love one another in real life, no matter the cost.
How should followers of Jesus live in the midst of escalating polarization, conflict, and violence?
This question has growing relevance in the two countries I call home, Ethiopia and the United States, and many other places. We see intensifying culture wars, religious divisions, and deadly conflicts across the world.
When we read the evangelist’s story about Jesus in John 15:1-17, we discover a strikingly similar situation, as well as Jesus’s own answer to this pressing question. In the face of escalating polarization, conflict, and violence, Jesus says, “Abide in my love” (John 15:9).1 According to Jesus, this practice of abiding, or remaining, has two dimensions: staying vitally connected to Jesus himself and obeying his command to love others even when this means sacrificing what is dear to oneself.
Jesus warns that anything less than this love leads to death. But he promises that when we receive his love and dedicate ourselves to extending this love to others, we find the key to answered prayer, true joy, and everlasting life in God’s new creation.
The Logos in Person
John begins his story by cutting through contemporary culture and grounding us back in the beginning of reality itself. According to John, Jesus is the divine Logos through whom “all things came into being” (1:3).
In the Hellenistic philosophy of John’s time, the Logos was variously understood as the original power that created the world, the force that holds it together, and the language that gives it meaning for humans to inhabit and understand. The Logos was the source, sustainer, and script of the whole universe along with everything in it.
John takes this cosmic philosophical idea and personalizes it in a shocking way: when you see this embodied human named Jesus for who he really is, you meet the Logos in person (1:14). The universe, every glimmer of light and particle of matter, each breath of life and consciousness itself – they’re all traces and signs, gifts, humming with Jesus as their source and sustainer (1:1-4).
In many ways, John’s story is about the unveiling of Jesus as the Logos in the most unexpected ways and places: a rural wedding party where Jesus makes wine out of water for a couple apparently too poor to prepare enough for their guests (2:1-11); the Temple shut down with Jesus wielding a whip and calling for a radically different way of meeting God (2:13-25); a healing conversation between Jesus and a despised Samaritan woman in a public place (4:1-42); an intersection in Jerusalem where Jesus heals a paralyzed man on the Sabbath (5:1-15).
No one expected any of this tenderness, aggravation, or hands-on care for neglected bodies from the exalted Logos. But in episode after episode, John whispers, This is who he is and what he does. See how much God loves the world (3:16). Give your life to Jesus and discover true flourishing (10:10).
But this Jesus caused trouble.
Escalating Polarization, Conflict, and Violence
Powerful religious and cultural leaders saw Jesus as heretical and dangerous (10:33). After all, Jesus had dared to disrupt the Temple. He embraced the hated Samaritans. He defied identify-defining practices like the Sabbath by healing the sick on it (5:16; 7:24; 9:14-16; see Numbers 15:32-36).
The leaders reasoned, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (11:48; see 19:12-16). We hear a mix of fear and outrage in their words. The purity of religion and the power of the nation were at stake, and they had to be defended against Jesus’s God-embodying transgressions. Religion and nationalism were here two expressions of the same self-preserving root – as they often are today.
As Jesus’ story unfolds, we watch polarization (6:52), disinformation (8:22), and demonization (7:20; 8:48; 10:20) rapidly build around him. John repeatedly tells us that the people were divided because of Jesus (John 7:43; 9:16; 10:19). The dynamics are strikingly similar to what we see on social media, the news cycle, and our streets today.
Soon enough, plots to assassinate Jesus emerge (7:45-52; 8:31-41; 11:50-53). Fear and exclusion intensify (9:22; 12:42-43). Insults explode (9:24, 28). Mob violence bubbles (10:31). Jesus’ disciples start worrying that they’ll get killed (11:16). Jesus himself begins avoiding public spaces (11:54) and goes into hiding (12:36).
Finally, surveillance and arrest orders are issued (11:57). Jesus’ closest friend Lazarus is targeted for assassination (12:10). And Jesus reveals that he expects to be murdered and that “trouble” is churning in his soul (12:23-28; 13:18-21).
At this critical moment, John suddenly notes, “And it was night” (13:30).
It’s as if the lights have gone out, and the text feverishly sweats with stress, fear, and grief in the darkness. The explosive culture-war cocktail of Roman imperialism, Jewish religious nationalism, and Jesus’s counter-cultural claim to embody God have reached a crisis point.
Two thousand years later, this maddening cycle of polarization, conflict, and violence is all too familiar to us. We feel it spinning out of control and see it ripping through our families, communities, and churches as vulnerability, fear, and contempt rise.
In my own context, just last year, Ethiopia had more displaced people than Syria as communities clashed. These communities were overwhelmingly Christian yet divided by ethnic identity. Some thirty-five thousand university students fled their campuses due to conflict and killing. Dozens of churches have been burned down, in some cases by fellow Christians across denominational or ethnic lines. Prime Minister Abiy has recently warned that Ethiopia’s survival is threatened by “the ideology of ethno-religious conflict and massacre.”2
How does Jesus himself respond to such a crisis?
Jesus’s words are beautiful and challenging: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (15:9). Jesus weaves together four threads in this final teaching, hours before his execution: a declaration, a warning, a commandment, and a promise for our prayer.
First, Jesus begins his response with a declaration about himself: “I am the true vine… you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (15:1, 5).
When we feel endangered and death is on the line, we desperately grasp for what we think will sustain us. We discover what we trust in these critical moments. The Samaritan woman appealed to her ethnic identity (4:9). The Jewish leaders held fast to their understanding of religious tradition and national interests (11:48). Moments later, Pilate will boast of his raw political power to free or kill (19:10).
But Jesus declares that he himself is the source of life, “the true vine,” the Logos of all fruitfulness and flourishing. And he loves us, just as God loves him. Within this gifting chain of love – from God to Jesus and from Jesus to us – Jesus gently but decisively insists: we can only truly live by “abiding” in Jesus and his love. (Jesus uses a variation of menō, to “remain,” “stay,” or “abide,” eleven times in this short passage. We can hear the tenderness and tenacity in his voice.)
To “abide” in Jesus is to actively root ourselves in the creative love at the heart of reality, which created the world and all people, embraced our flesh, and offers us everlasting life. Come what may, connection with Jesus cannot be killed. In him is “the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16). And anyone of any nation is invited to receive and remain in this love (see 10:16; 11:52; 12:32; 14:23).
The Neighbor-Love Movement has witnessed this firsthand in Ethiopia. As we’ve prayed, meditated on Jesus’s words, and encouraged one another, we’ve watched bitter attacks produce in us a deeper gentleness, affection, and longing for peace. We’ve been empowered to respond to curses with blessing, threats with forgiveness, and division with bridge-building. We’ve seen thousands of youth and some of Ethiopia’s key leaders sign our Covenant and commit to living as Neighbor-Love Ambassadors who love others across boundaries. Hope has pushed through despair with new life.3
Second, Jesus gives a sobering warning: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (15:6).
If Jesus is the true vine – the sourcing, sustaining Logos at the heart of reality – then self-sufficiency and autonomy are not options for his followers. Our ethnic or racial identity, our religious and nationalistic traditions, our power politics – they are false vines that ultimately leave us dry and dead. In the face of polarization, conflict, and violence, Jesus is resolute that nothing can sustain us except himself. Every other option leads to disconnection and breakdown.
Jesus’s warning may sound severe and exclusive to our ears. But we must remember that Jesus is talking to his closest followers who are terrified that they are about to face terrible violence and lose everything. In this ultimate situation where our loyalties are tested and our temptations triggered, Jesus is kind enough to be crystal clear: any source of life and identity cut off from the Giver of all life, for all people, can only end in division and death, so let it go and remain in his love.4
Third, Jesus gives his followers a new command, which defines what it means to remain in him: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:12-13).5
In the face of polarization, conflict, and violence, this is what Jesus commands: undivided, self-giving love. This love is God’s fruit and the guide for our action. When we actively root ourselves in the true vine that sources and sustains every atom of reality, radical love grows out of us. And when the grapes of God are crushed, what gushes out is this cherishing of others and an abiding commitment to their wellbeing – not a mirroring of the selfishness, anger, and hatred that crushes.
Here we see that Jesus’s declaration and warning clear the way for the most beautiful tenderness and service. A moment earlier, Jesus demonstrated what this love looks like in action when he stooped to the ground and washed his disciples’ feet with his own hands. Astonishingly, John says that this moment of humble service was the expression of Jesus’s perfect power (13:3). A few hours later, Jesus will lay down his life for the healing of the world on the cross.6
We saw this love’s paradoxical power in April 2019, when Pope Francis knelt and kissed the feet of South Sudan’s deadlocked leaders. If only for a brief moment, it was manifest to the whole world that a person in a position of total humility, whose heart overflows with love, has more power than warring men with weapons and armies.
This love is Jesus’s command. In truth, this love is Jesus’s astrophysics, economics, and ethics all wrapped into one: the Logos is love incarnate and mobilizes his community to love without end. Indeed, Jesus insists this love is the only identity marker that can distinguish true discipleship from empty religious identity: “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35).
Finally, Jesus makes an astonishing promise: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. … I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (15:7, 11).
As we have seen, the lights have gone out. Conflict is boiling over. Violent death is near. And yet Jesus speaks of answered prayer and complete joy. And this must be the healing radicalism of the Christian life: when everything around us points toward outrage and aggression, we can trustingly talk to God and experience a deep reconciliation that points to new life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a profound example of Jesus’s promise. On the day Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in April 1945, a witness reports that Bonhoeffer bowed to his knees in prayer and comforted the other prisoners. With his final words, rather than cursing or crying out in fear, Bonhoeffer declared that his “end” was truly “the beginning of life” and that “universal Christian brotherhood” would overcome all “national hatreds.” There is a radical hope and defiant joy in Bonhoeffer’s words, even as he honestly faced his death. The witness testifies: “In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”7
Jesus’s promise is counter-cultural and healing. Joy doesn’t come from winning, from vanquishing the enemy, from being exalted in greatness above others. In this incredibly intimate, raw moment soon before his ultimate sacrifice, Jesus promises that God is listening and that joy comes fully alive when we remain in his love and lay down our lives for others.
Conclusion: Prayer for Healed Community
We live in a time of escalating polarization, conflict, and violence. There is much bitterness, division, and fear in and between our communities. Many of us feel vulnerable and uncertain of the future. For some, it seems like the lights have already gone out and that the worst is inevitable.
In this crucial moment, let us, like Jesus, defy the forces within us and around us by pausing, re-centering, and praying.
Let us pray that we would remain in Jesus’s love, the true vine, who is the Logos of all creation and the faithful source of all flourishing. Jesus loves us – all of us.
Let us receive his warning and examine the false vines in which we seek our life. Have we mistaken our national or political affiliation, religious institution, economic status, or some other marker of identity for the fruit that we seek? Let us prayerfully bless and surrender these identities to Jesus.
Let us receive afresh his command to love one another – love and not hate, healing and not wounding, hands that wash feet and don’t raise themselves in violence.
And let us welcome Jesus’s joy even in the storm of this world as we pray for new community healed in his love.
Remaining in Jesus’s love is not a weak piety. It is a counter-cultural statement about the nature of reality itself. If the self-giving love of God embodied in Jesus is the true source and life of all reality, then self-giving love is the only way to flourish and enter into a new future. Being crucified in Jesus’s love is more powerful than contempt, conflict, and violence cut off from Jesus.
This love must be the heart of all of our prayer and practice in the world, until Jesus’s prayer that we would be one is finally answered in new creation.
Dr. Andrew DeCort is the director of the Neighbor-Love Movement (nlmglobal.org), which works to inspire love, justice, and flourishing for all neighbors in Ethiopia. He holds a PhD in Ethics from the University of Chicago and has lectured in ethics, theology, and Ethiopian studies at Wheaton College, the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, and the University of Bonn. Andrew’s passion is seeing the precious value of each person and challenging cultural patterns that devalue others. He is the author of Bonhoeffer’s New Beginning: Ethics after Devastation (Fortress Academic, 2018) and writes a weekly newsletter called Stop & Think at www.andrew-decort.com. Andrew and his wife Lily live and work in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
1Unless otherwise noted, all references will be to the Gospel According to John. I will loosely follow the New Revised Standard Version; alterations are based on my reading of the Greek text.
2 See Abiy Ahmed, “Democracy in Africa,” The Economist, September 17, 2020.
3For more information, see www.nlmglobal.org and Andrew DeCort, “Unity and Diversity are Neighbors, and So Are We,” Ethiopia Insight, April 26, 2020 at https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2020/04/26/balinjeraye-unity-and-diversity-are-neighbors-and-so-are-we/.
4Jesus’s sobering warning should not lead us to despair or ignore his radical mercy, for ourselves or for others. For example, after Jesus’s closest disciple Peter denies even knowing Jesus three times before his death, the resurrected Jesus responds by asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and fully embraces him (21:15-19). John’s Gospel ends by suggesting that the Logos Jesus can and wants to restore branches that have cut themselves off from the vine.
5See John 10:15 where Jesus says that his mark of authenticity is that he lays down his life for others. Paul also names love as the primary fruit that grows when God’s Spirit nourishes us (Galatians 5:22; see Romans 5:6, 8). Does “loving each other” exclude loving people who are not followers of Jesus? Clearly not, for Jesus himself actively served the Samaritan woman, the Roman centurion, and declared that his love was for all people (see 10:16; 11:52; 12:32; 14:23).
6It is important to note that Jesus stands up for himself throughout the Gospel of John. When people misrepresent or verbally attack him, he challenges them with the truth. He is not passive. But when violence is used, Jesus refuses to respond with violence and sacrifices himself.
7See Andrew DeCort, Bonhoeffer’s New Beginning: Ethics after Devastation (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2018), 150.