“Jesus Loves Me” was one of the first songs we taught the twins when they started to put sounds together to form some semblance of words:
Jesus loves me, this I know,
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong—
they are weak, but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.
But I remember cringing a little each time each time they sang it.
Feminist theologies, liberation theologies, queer theologies, and all the theory in between demanded that I qualify and footnote every lyric with an explanation. I had to stop my brain from processing all the theological and social critiques I had gathered over the years that would eviscerate this beloved childhood song.
As I listened to my children sing, I wondered what it would be like to explain the Bible to them as they got older. How would I explain what scripture is, why it is authoritative, and why we should approach it like it is a living, breathing creature? How would I begin to talk with them about this Jesus character—about why we belong to him and why he possesses us? How would I try to explain how we know or understand anything about God’s love at all?
Still, as I looked at their darling, toothless grins as they slurred the words together, I was overcome. I could sense the possibility in the lyrics. The strength in them. The hope in them. Yes, the struggle for truth and reality in the midst of baby fog was real—but sometimes it felt good to let myself be overcome by that entrancing and innocent gurgling. Truly, out of the mouth of babes comes sweetness and healing.
Even now, hearing or singing “Jesus Loves Me” in church has the power to disarm all my commentaries and judgments. I sometimes even feel reborn—not exactly in the theological sense, but like a child, like a baby. This is where life begins fresh and new: in the simple message that Jesus loves me.
And yet, this message is, and always has been, complicated by the differing seasons, contexts, situations, relationships and, especially, communities in my life.
As a young person, I tended to hear the affirmation that Jesus loves me not during Sunday services, but in the evangelical groups I was part of. It was distinct from what I heard in church. In groups like Young Life, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Navigators, and Campus Crusade for Christ, faith was always talked about in terms of a relationship with Jesus. Accepting God’s love meant that I would get that golden ticket to heaven and avoid the eternal fires of hell. Knowing God meant I would be happy and liked, and that I could share the Good News with all my peers.
There was a problem, though. Yes, Jesus loved me—but in order to access that love, I seemingly had to mimic and assimilate into the culture of white evangelical Christianity. I was expected to speak the same language, to say the right words, to tell stories a certain way, and of course, to believe the right things. Yet even when I tried to do so, I still wasn’t the right gender or skin color. I was never quite good enough, and I knew I never really belonged to those groups.
Such was the message I heard from the wider culture, too. As I grew up and matured—whether in school, or in church, or in professional settings like ministry—the words Jesus loves me became increasingly buried beneath the pressures and expectations that came with all sorts of becoming: becoming a spouse, becoming a minister, becoming a mother, becoming a stay-at-home parent, becoming a writer.
Yes, Jesus loves me … but I am responsible for my family’s happiness and comfort.
Yes, Jesus loves me … but I am subject to the whims and demands of my church.
Yes, Jesus loves me … but I am obligated to read parenting books and blogs and be diligent on Pinterest if I really care about my children’s development.
Yes, Jesus loves me … but I always need to prove my worth—my qualifications, my capabilities, and my accomplishments.
Yes, Jesus loves me … but at times in my life, I have lived with an internalized message of love that is not only more about control and abuse than tenderness, but also rooted in a number of oppressive structures—including white supremacy and patriarchy. At points, it felt as though the entangling of these structures with evangelical Christianity’s morality and purity was too much to overcome.
Which can only lead me to reflect more on the recent presidential election. I have struggled deeply with the percentages—how many evangelicals, white evangelicals, white women, and white women evangelicals voted for a man who has been absolutely and undeniably clear about his xenophobia, racism, misogyny, and bigotry. But deep down inside, I am not surprised by the vote.
When the media began to predict a landslide for Hillary Clinton, I felt a knot in my stomach. When Election Day arrived, the silent majority came out in droves and confirmed what I—along with many other people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ individuals, and disabled people—have felt throughout our lives: that we do not belong here. That we are not safe. That, no, Jesus does not love us.
So, what does this have to do with the church? Everything.
We can talk about solidarity, we can talk about direct actions, and we can talk about the kind of language to use in the newsletters sent out to our congregations. But is our message about love—more specifically, about a sort of love that is so counter to the norms and regulations of our society, so queer, that it constantly reorients who we are as the body of Christ in our communities?
Is our message of love truly rooted in Jesus, the Christ? Not a sanitized or domesticated Jesus, but rather, the brown-skinned carpenter from Galilee. The Jesus who was viewed as a radical; who confronted traditions and institutions; who lived, ministered, and died as someone deeply, physically grounded in his context; who challenged racial, sexual, cultural, religious, economic realities everywhere he went? Do we claim the love of a Jesus who loved with such compelling zeal and creative brilliance that he could undo structures and systems of power with a mere parable or blessing, a touch or gesture—healing, feeding, agitating, and praying, until he himself was finally undone on the cross?
Yes, this Jesus loves us. The Bible surely tells us this is so.
But that isn’t an easy message.
In fact, it is a burdensome message, one that we carry into a world where it is often rejected or despised by those in power—including people in the church—because it threatens systems of violence and oppression that privilege some while keeping others on the margins. That said, it could not be more urgent now for the church, and all of us in our own locales, to follow through with this message of radical, costly love. In our words and actions, in our structures, and in our day-to-day interactions with each other, we must minister to a society that needs our Jesus-love perhaps more than ever.