The other day I was writing about an opinion piece by a Baptist pastor about atheists, and something occurred to me: this fellow’s essay is a perfect example of the total lack of empathy and love that so many Christians exhibit.
Something Christianity’s either forgotten somewhere along the way or has willfully dismissed from its mind as a group is how to love. Their sense of empathy appears to have been scorched right out of them somehow, their hearts cauterized.
That’s a shocking thought even for me–I certainly thought I was being loving when I was Christian, and I know most Christians believe they are being loving today. And they have good reason to want to be loving, since that is one of the two big commandments Jesus is supposed to have given his followers, after all (the other being “love your god”), and there’s an entire chapter in the Bible called “the Love Chapter” that shows up at a great many weddings both in and out of the religion.
But somehow, over the years, something happened.
Christians forgot how to love.
I wonder sometimes just when it happened.
Like many of the other changes I’ve noticed, this one must have happened long, long ago–maybe before I became a Christian. Hell, maybe before I was even born. Maybe even right at the beginning of the whole religion.
I just know this: at some point, it happened.
I’m not some ingenue who bounced briefly into one lukewarm church and then danced out again, forever to disbelieve. I was immersed for the entire first half of my life in various flavors of Christianity. Yet despite my deep interest in the subject of love, despite my passion for learning and studying what I truly believed was the one true religion, despite my genuine belief that this was the real deal, I can’t remember ever learning what real love really was while I was in the religion–not from any priests or pastors or oh-so-wacky youth ministers or peers; I did not read about the real definition of how to show love in missals or study Bibles or on rockin’ 70s-style retro church wall hangings or anywhere else. The new redefinition of love was all I heard, all I learned, and all I knew.
The new redefinition was like a bread recipe that left out the flour. I got handed this “recipe” for love and kept trying to make bread with it, but because I didn’t know about the flour, I kept trying and trying–and failing and failing–to bake from it. I never even knew why I kept failing. Friendships were difficult to make and maintain. Love relationships–well, yeah. I’m sure I was a royal pain in the ass to pretty much everybody outside the church because I did a lot of things thinking I was being loving when I was not in fact being loving at all. Interestingly, long ago people wrote recipes that left out essential ingredients because their authors thought that of course everybody knows you put flour in bread; maybe that’s how it was before the redefinition destroyed Christianity’s sense of love.
Unlearning that redefinition was one of the hardest parts of my climb out of religion. Today I’m going to share how I finally reconnected those lost ends.
A Loving Deed Is An Equation With Three Components.
The person initiating has some intention in mind to be loving. The act is conceived in that person’s mind and the idea of how to do it is formulated. The person thinks, “Roses!” and heads into a florist’s shop.
The act is actually performed. The roses are given to the person who is supposed to get them.
The person getting the roses responds to the action somehow–hopefully with approval and a big smile.
The problem is that a huge number of Christians have cut off the last part of the equation.
In our rose example, a lot of people like getting flowers–but not all of them. And of those who do, which flower matters quite a bit; some cultures view particular colors or species of flower as meaning “please die” or implying infidelity, and our own culture would view giving a platonic friend long-stemmed red roses as distinctly weird. Learning what forms of affection our loved ones find meaningful is part of what makes our relationships so special. Yes, I’m kind of talking about “love languages,” but maybe it even goes past that sort of specificity to understanding in a basic way that for an action to be truly meaningful, it has got to take into account the reaction of the target of the action. Like love itself, these deeds have to have two-way action or they’re not meaningful.
Christians have the first part of the equation, yes. I believe them when they say they want to be loving. I know that I did way back when I was Christian. The religion gives severe penalties for not being loving, and being loving feels good anyway. So I can’t believe that Christians just wake up every morning and paste a Jesus smile on their faces and think “I’m going to totally ruin people’s days and be gratuitously mean and controlling.” No. I think most Christians wake up and think about being decent people, like most of us do, which includes behaving lovingly.
And Christians certainly do lots of what they imagine the second part is. The entire push of Christian Dominionism is basically them thinking that the best way of expressing love for America is to take total, utter control of the lives of every single human being in the country and dictate their lives, forcing them if necessary to be Christian. It’s done for what they believe is our own good. They talk about themselves as if they are parents having to discipline some bratty little child who may not always realize what Mommy and Daddy are doing when they smack the shit out of the kids–which is how they largely talk about their deity’s behavior toward themselves, so I can see where they’re getting this imagery.
The problem is that they totally fall down on the last part.
If we grew up in a household where smacking someone upside the head was interpreted as loving, and then went out to smack someone upside the head to show that we loved that person, we’d get told immediately, “That is not loving to me; it hurts me and traumatizes me. Please stop it.” And we’d be mortified, because we want to show love and obviously we chose a way of showing love that our target did not think was loving at all but rather found hurtful and damaging. We’d find out what our target thought was loving, and we’d do that instead. We’d know that sometimes people just don’t have the awareness to know this stuff without asking and learning, and we’d be more interested in ensuring that our target felt loved than about getting our way.
Because we are loving and empathetic people, we would not say, “Well, smacking you is how we show love, so you’d better just get with the program because we’re not changing.”
We may joke about kids who give their frail little grandmothers baseball gloves for Christmas, or romantic partners who give utterly inappropriate gifts*, but in truth, when we get something from somebody that is totally out of line with our natures or desires, and then when we object we’re told told that we’re just going to have to deal with it because the person doing that action doesn’t want to take the time to figure out what really matters to us, we do not feel loved by that person at all. The interaction is one-sided as well as self-serving. It not only doesn’t make us feel loved to be smacked upside the head, but it makes us feel hurt. And that hurt only worsens when we try to tell the person who is repeatedly smacking us to stop, only to be informed that the beatings will continue until our morale improves.
Indeed that is exactly what is happening in a huge chunk of Christianity. Because they’ve totally shaved away the importance of taking into account their targets’ responses, even to the extent of demonizing those responses as idiotic, ignorant, or harmful, they suddenly become free to commit shocking abuses and perpetrate unheard-of overreaches in the name of “being loving.” Because they think that non-believers are idiots who don’t know any better–or even snotty children who need Mommy and Daddy’s firm discipline (and we know what practitioners of harmful religion think about disciplining children and the general idea of consent, right?), they can treat us with breathtaking arrogance and condescension and still believe at the end of the day that even though their targets just didn’t understand, they were still being oh-so-very loving. And the next morning they can wake up, plaster their Jesus smiles on their faces, and go about their day doing exactly the same stuff and getting exactly the same response–and be just as unbothered by it as they were the day before. The system as it stands now has been constructed carefully to have no boundaries, nor any way to recognize when they’re actually in the wrong.
We see the idea writ large in right-wing politics, itself dominated utterly by that sort of harmful Christianity, which genuinely seems to believe that if its leaders just keep repeating their toxic, abhorrent platforms often enough, people will finally understand. And just like I could say about such politics, I could tell Christians this: We totally actually already understand, no, we totally get it–and we reject it with as much force as we can summon.
But it’s not like we’re not telling them this stuff on a daily basis.
It’s that we’re telling them, and they’re not listening.
Indeed, they cannot. Their entire worldview is so deeply invested in this idea of being the world’s Designated Adults, in this idea of them knowing oh-so-much better than anybody else what is best, of their approval being not only needed but required, of having not only the capacity to totally override another human being’s autonomy and consent but the goddamned requirement to do so to the extent of wanting to literally legally enslave non-Christians for their own good, that at this point to take their hands off other people’s lives and to be truly loving to others would require a rewrite of their entire conceptualization of their religion and their place in society.
Our reactions may well be interpreted as proof that these Christians are “doing something right,” possibly even a demonstration of our deep need to be shown this “loving” hatefulness and control. A number of apologists and pastors talk this way, and it’s definitely filtered down to the flocks. No matter what reaction they get for their “loving” deeds and words, they can in this manner rationalize any response whatsoever as an encouragement to continue behaving this way toward others. Back then, I certainly took it that way, I’m ashamed to say. I had no intention of changing my ways just because these poor ignorant sinners didn’t know that love meant reproof and that I, being infilled by the Holy Spirit, was much more moral than they were and therefore better qualified to figure out what was best.
When we tell Christians that what they’re doing doesn’t produce the sensation of feeling loved in us, we are told–every single time–that the problem is how we interpret love, and that the Christians in question are not going to change how they express love just because we don’t feel loved by it. They can complain all they want about how the big problem here is that the rest of us simply refuse to buy into their one-sided displays, but that isn’t going to make us start adopting their lopsided view of love. To do so would mean having to scorch away our empathy like they have. And until they realize that they cannot force the rest of us to accept this ersatz “love”, they are going to continue to alienate themselves further and further and further from the rest of us–and their religion is going to continue to lose people.
But there’s hope. After I deconverted, it took me a while to learn that people’s responses matter when it comes to interpersonal relations and that my approval and input was neither requested nor welcomed by them. It took even longer to learn to let people do their own thing and stop thinking they cared what I thought about it unless they asked. And yes, it took time to learn that a gesture is meaningless or worse if I neither know nor care what the target thinks of it. Folks, this understanding of reciprocity and response didn’t come overnight the second I deconverted. Those old lessons died very, very hard.
Gradually, even Christians themselves are starting to reconnect the love formula. Oh, it happens slowly to be sure; there’s a lot of pushback. “But but but I can’t possibly bake a cake for that couple/treat POC with dignity and fairness/make sure teenagers get adequate, accurate sex educations/celebrate that woman’s single parenthood/send a housewarming gift to that cohabiting couple/let my ex-Christian daughter live in my house/attend my nephew’s karate belt test! I’d be condoning sin!” is the primary objection I hear: this wringing of hands and a whined, “I can’t possibly condone sin!”, as if it’s just totally out of that Christian’s hands, sorry, memo from the top and all that. And when you hear that, you are hearing a Christian locked into that disconnect. At this point, that Christian is so worried that his or her disapproval might not be noticed that even a display of callous, heartless, and shocking hate, bigotry, or division becomes perfectly acceptable–even required. But when the fruits of that display become apparent**, when even the Christians who act this way can’t turn away from the damage done to both their own and their religion’s reputation, they have a decision to make. And sometimes someone steps away from the herd and makes the right decision.
What we need to be asking ourselves–whether we are Christian or non-Christian or transformed Muscovy ducks, is:
Is this gesture of love going to come across as meaningfully loving to the person receiving it?
If the answer is no, then we need to seriously re-assess things.
Because if that answer to that question is no, we are performing the action basically for our own benefit, aren’t we? It’s entirely one-sided and self-serving at best and hateful, controlling, and mean-spirited at worst.
And the person receiving that gesture knows it.
You can’t force someone to see something as loving that is actually seen as rude, boorish, hateful, or bigoted. It’s not possible. That person can’t be strong-armed or gaslighted into suddenly magically seeing that thing as loving. A meaningless gesture can be invested with meaning sometimes, but if something is actively repellent, then no, you’re not going to be able to change someone’s interpretation of it. And a sensible person will recognize–with good reason–that someone who repeatedly does hateful, repellent things, while insisting up and down that those things are loving, is someone who is not trustworthy or emotionally safe to be around.
I’ll sum up with one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard on this topic, a saying that came from an ex-Christian friend of mine:
Don’t tell me you love me. Let me guess.
* True story: years ago, a partner of mine asked what I wanted for Christmas. We were poor so it was important to us both to ensure we chose good gifts. I asked for a particular kitchen knife. His friends told him I was going to kill him because apparently all women universally hate getting kitchen gear as gifts. I’m still glad he cared enough to find out what gift I’d actually want instead of heeding that wisdom. I loved it. Still have it, actually, though we broke up many moons ago.
** I once asked a Christian friend of mine if he’d ever heard of anybody converting to Christianity because they got disapproved at by disapproving Christians. He couldn’t think of anybody who had, and neither can I. But I don’t think conversion is the point. Social dominance is the point, and it can be cloaked in as much sincerity as anybody likes–it’s still not love. You can imagine what his “loving” tribe did to him when he blogged about how Christians were doing love all wrong.
Speaking of which, we’ll be talking about “Bad Christians” next, so please do join me on Monday for it.
Super-Important Note: Any time someone talks about the Christian redefinition of “love,” the comments can be counted on to get flooded with oblivious Christians insisting that they can’t possibly start doing anything differently. The comments on any blog post about Christian hate-masked-as-love justify the existence of both the complaint and the blog post, pretty much. If you’re a Christian reading this post and your fingers are already itching to type one of those sorts of responses, please save yourself some time; those rationalizations only sound convincing to someone who likewise believes that nothing says “love” like a big ole smack upside the head. Nobody else is fooled. Thanks in advance. (Also, in before “but but BDSM.” You’re fine, it’s chill.)