Love between the Lines

The Revd Canon Dr William Lamb
The Second Sunday before Lent


Intercollegiate Service

Leviticus 19.9-17      Ephesians 4.1-6, 11-16

In England and Wales, the law recognizes five types of hate crime: race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and transgender identity. These crimes are covered by two pieces of legislation: the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and section 66 of the Sentencing Act 2020. Hate crime may include verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and damage to property. Hate crime not only harms its victims. It also harms their families and communities. All of us are diminished by hate crime. 

And yet, although the introduction to this order of service records that from 2022-2023 there were almost 15,000 reported hate crimes last year, when I reviewed the figures myself I discovered that there was a missing zero. The figure was nearer 150,000: 145,214 to be precise. Two thirds of those hate crimes were racially motivated. Although there is some comfort in the fact that the number of incidents reduced by 5% between the last reported year and the previous year, it is sobering to consider that even accounting for the fact that people are more conscious of hate crime and therefore more likely to report it, between 2012 and 2023, the incidence of hate crime increased by 252%. The House of Commons Library notes that over the last ten years, there were spikes in racial or religiously aggravated hate crimes at the time of the EU referendum, the 2017 terrorist attacks, and the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

How do we negotiate and reflect upon questions of identity and difference in the face of these statistics? On the face of it, the Book of Leviticus doesn’t appear to be the most promising place to start. Chapter 18 of the Book of Leviticus contains some of those proof-texts which are often used to bash people who identify as queer. If anything, Leviticus appears to be part of the problem rather than the solution. These proof-texts are frequently used to bolster and justify religiously motivated hate crime in relation to sexual orientation and there are other texts that are rolled out in relation to transgender identity. 

But not too fast…  The Bible was not written to be read as a series of proof-texts. Sometimes we need to read between the lines. Written in a culture very different from our own, the Book of Leviticus provides an extended meditation on the phenomenon of holiness. The Hebrew word for ‘holy’ is the same word for ‘apart’. Holiness can speak of separation. So reading Leviticus, it can seem to be about making distinctions, drawing lines everywhere. It seems to speak of the separation, the distinction, between the divine and human, between God and the created order, between life and nothingness. But as the Book of Leviticus unfolds, something else comes into view. The passage that we have heard today is followed immediately by a phrase which barely bears repetition because it is so familiar: the writer says: ‘You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’

Too often in drawing the lines and making the distinctions, we forget the love between the lines. We do not diminish or ignore the differences between ourselves and our neighbours – my neighbour may be different from me in all sorts of ways, ways which contribute to their flourishing and to mine. We may draw the lines of human identity very differently today. But the curious thing about the Book of Leviticus is that when it says ‘you shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin’, so often religious adherents imagine that the line must be drawn tightly or narrowly. But may be… with the benefit of a more generous judgement, we may discover that the word ‘kin’ is far more capacious than we at first imagined. 

Some of the earliest writings in the English language come from a number of contemplatives, who lived in the fourteenth century: there is the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Richard Rolle, a hermit who lived in South Yorkshire, Julian of Norwich, an anchoress who lived in one of the parish churches in Norwich and who was one of the first women to write in English, Margery Kempe, a contemporary of Julian, who wrote the first autobiography in English. These contemplatives bear witness to a rich and vibrant tradition in English Spirituality – a tradition which we have largely forgotten. 

It is to Julian of Norwich that we owe a series of revelations of divine love. In one of these revelations, Julian uses an extraordinary phrase to describe the way in which God takes on human flesh in the mystery of the incarnation. She refers to ‘that blessed kynde, that he toke of the maiden’, the humanity which he took from his mother Mary. Christ is ‘our kind’, a human being like us, and by extension ‘our kin’. Clothed in human flesh, Christ will in turn clothe us in God’s love. When Julian refers to Christ as ‘our kinde Lord’, we assume that she means that Jesus is gentle and tender, but she is saying much more than that. She is saying that ‘Christ is our kin – our kind’. It is the same insight, that accent on the incarnation, that inspired Desmond Tutu to oppose apartheid with every fibre of his being. I remember Tutu preaching in this church when I was a student. Confronted by the evil of apartheid, he saw that not only was our common humanity at stake, but also two essential elements of Christian orthodoxy: the doctrine of the incarnation, and the insight that in every single person we see the unique and unrepeatable image of God.

We live in a society in which some of our political leaders feel compelled to hold people apart, and to use the rhetoric of identity to diminish and threaten the humanity of others. We see this phenomenon replicated 150,000 times in hate crime every year. We see it in the many conflicts taking place in the world today. 

I invite you this evening not only to reflect on the moral resources, but also the theological resources, we need to confront the challenges of conflict, division and violence in the world today. Remember that bad theology hurts people. But that does not mean that theology is completely dispensable. We should not fall prey to the temptation to get rid of theology all together. As Desmond Tutu once reminded us, good theology sets people free. 

Perhaps the beauty of holiness lies in being kind.