Redefining Words: Love.

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

1 Corinthian 1-8

(and the first entry when you Google “love chapter”)

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:30-31, attributed to Jesus Christ

“When Christians redefine bigotry as ‘love’ and oppression as ‘compassion’, it makes me rather interested in spending eternity in ‘hell’.”

attributed to JT Eberhard

We don’t have enough series on my blog, so let’s start a new one about redefinitions Christians make. And let’s start with the one big redefinition that way too many Christians do: love.

Words Mean Things. Except in Christianity.

You wouldn’t believe how frustrating it is to try to have a discussion about anything with a Christian who buys into the mental contortions involved in redefining simple words. We may joke about doublespeak and calling freedom slavery and slavery freedom, but in truth it’s incredibly annoying to hear some fundie say he totally supports sex education, only to find out that what he means by the word “education” is really “indoctrination” and that what he really wants young people to be “educated” in is abstinence and all the Rape Culture and Purity Myth bullpuckey that goes along with such a false curriculum (and yes, a fundie really wrote this during one of my YouTube spats). Redefinitions are one of the most aggravating aspects of modern Christianity because they make real communication difficult if not impossible. That’s why I’ve chosen to spend some time talking about this nasty habit.

Contortionist fitting himself in a trunk.
Contortionist fitting himself in a trunk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). Yeah, it’s kinda like this.

Christianity’s been quietly redefining the word “love” to the point where I can’t really be sure that any Christian I talk to who uses that word is actually using it in a way that I would ever recognize. How did “love is patient, love is kind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” turn into the toxic, abusive mess I see before me today when I contemplate the disgusting spectacle of modern evangelical conceptions of “love”?

Since there appears to be confusion in the Christian world, let me try to help. When I first got involved with Biff in high school, I’d been raised in a tumultuous, chaotic household. My parents fought all the time like a pair of cats in a pillowcase. I’ve got no doubt they loved each other; my mother wore her wedding ring until her death even after getting dumped and divorced several years before, and I know my dad was very messed up by her passing. Despite their love, I didn’t get a good model of romantic love at all from them. For that, I turned to the media.

But here I got stymied again. You see, this was the 80s, the happy era of power ballads and movies about dysfunctional couples who somehow beat the odds. Danny and Sandy drove off together into the sunset in their magic car, and they were not alone. Lloyd and Diane. Claire and Bender. Bonnie Tyler and whoever the heck she was singing about in “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” (Yes, yes, I know, but we didn’t actually read for comprehension back then.) Love was hard, undignified, and above all eternal. People who had no business together were getting together and, we got told implicitly or explicitly, were staying together. Even though they might break up, they’d be making up eventually. I learned that love is emotionally difficult, that relationships take “work” and compromise, that if you only just tried enough you could succeed, because all you needed really was mutual love and all the rest of it would follow. And the unspoken message rang through crystal-clear: if someone felt love, then a relationship was now mandatory. Somehow I got the whole idea of love totally confused.

Christianity confused me even more by insisting that there were all sorts of love. Catholicism practiced a love for all humanity (expressed so wonderfully by Anna in Hudson Hawk who characterizes her feelings toward one of the bad guys as love: “well yeah, in a weird sort of Catholic way”) and this was considered–sorry, Whitney–as the greatest love of all. I struggled to understand it and capture it because this was what my entire mother’s side of the family thought was valuable. Then I got my first crush and that stopped making any sense at all.

"Love or Duty" chromolithograph of a...
“Love or Duty” chromolithograph of a painter and a nun; published in Paris by Hangard-Mangué (Photo credit: Wikipedia). She doesn’t get out much.

Pentecostalism helped my confusion a little bit by grounding me in how to express love as an action. Love was a verb, not just a noun, I was taught, and actually I’ve kept that idea over the years. Not everything Pentecostals do is dumb or evil, and that love doesn’t do a lot of good if it’s not shown was one of those things that were neither. I don’t think people do enough to demonstrate their love, be it romantic or humanitarian. But my church took it way too far by saying that if you just expressed love through actions, that could not only substitute for feeling love emotionally but also even produce love if you kept at it long enough. While studies support this idea to an extent, I’m not convinced it’s such a great idea to act loving to the exclusion of feeling love in a marriage.

Thanks to ideas like these, young people in my denomination got married way too young after way too short of engagements (we joked about those “whirlwind Pentecostal courtships” and I got a lot of flak for my years-long engagement), and my church’s young people were all happy and secure in the notion that all it took for a marriage to last was two people of differing genders who loved Jesus, acted lovingly toward each other, and had a sincere desire to succeed. Naturally, this assumed that both parties had to be Christian, because love could only come about in Christianity. Anybody who wasn’t Christian and got married was just doing this weird fake kind of love that wasn’t eternal and wasn’t really love. Obviously only people who loved our god the way we did could really love anybody else.

All that nonsense and my church wasn’t even in that “courtship” culture that evolved years after I’d deconverted, though it isn’t hard for me to see its roots in the society around me at the time.

All I knew was that I desperately wanted to be like this little old Irish couple who attended my church. They were incredibly old, but if you’d never understood the word “peppery” before, you’d understand it instantly after meeting the wife. She pinged my radar early on when I saw her standing in the middle of the emptied church after a Sunday morning service one day, hands on her hips, bellowing, “Wheeeeeeeeeeere’s me man?!?” Her man was a sweetly fiery old coot with a soft spot for children and animals, and they were perfectly matched. They’d been missionaries for many years starting in Ireland and moving to Africa; at the time of my conversion they had retired to Houston and were now being taken care of by my church. They seemed so companionable and happy to me. And they were so loving and kind to each other; they even held hands when they walked and it was inconceivable to imagine one without the other.

Compare and contrast with Biff, who even while we dated was a horrible boyfriend. He was constantly late, denigrated me all the time by comparing my weight (130 pounds) and attractiveness (oh and BTW: I was damned cute as a teenager) unfavorably to his past girlfriends, had no sense whatsoever of decorum, played grab-ass with me in public (some folks might not mind that, but I found it quite embarrassing and had spoken sharply to him about it many times without success), could not handle living on his own or even caring for his own affairs in the least despite being in his 20s, and was comically inept at sex. But I was convinced I was in love with him. He was handsome and as charming as any predator ever could be, and I didn’t know any better.

I’ll say it right here: I didn’t really want to get married to him. As the big day came closer and closer, I got colder and colder feet, especially as his flaws began to show through the facade he presented. But I shouldered through. Everybody said we were a perfect couple, and remember, I was solidly convinced that these were just pre-wedding jitters like everybody got and of course I’d fall back in love with him. I just had to act loving and pray a lot. I’m not kidding; that was my mindset and that’s what I was taught.

Strangely, that wasn’t how it worked out.

I didn’t know what love actually involved, so–unsurprisingly–I let myself get into a really scary situation that has impacted my entire adult life. Had I understood a few things about love, I’d never have made such a horrible mistake.

Maybe it’s time for a little sanity.

CAPTAIN CASSIDY’S LOVE MANUAL

Love is not abusive. Love does not ever lash out, hit, yell, or snap. Love does not involve hitting, punching, screaming matches, or terror. Love doesn’t dehumanize anybody or denigrate anybody by saying he or she is not quite human (like saying s/he doesn’t have a moral framework, isn’t capable of “true” love or grace, has no purpose in life, etc).

You cannot love that which terrorizes you. Love is incompatible with fear. Love never, ever uses threats. Love does not issue ultimatums. Love gives and accepts: it does not demand.

Love is not all you need. You also need respect and reciprocity.

Love doesn’t do thoughtless or cruel things that make the other person feel sad all the time, or constantly emotionally wrenched. It doesn’t make you feel scared. It doesn’t make you feel inadequate or inferior. Love doesn’t do evil things that make the other person cry or feel afraid. It doesn’t ask you to perform upon command or risk losing that love. It doesn’t demand you give up your human rights or dignity, ever.

Love doesn’t play headgames, act like a parent over a child, try to fix anybody, or “test” the other person. Love is about mutual respect and dignity.

Love does not lie, trick people, or deceive them in other ways. Love is honest and true (hear that, liars-for-Jesus? Just because Jesus lied all the time doesn’t mean you should).

Once you fall in love, you’re not required to act on it by getting involved with someone who is bad for you. People fall in love all the time with people they have no business whatsoever making a relationship with. It’s okay to love someone and not get into a relationship with them. You can’t command your heart. But you aren’t the slave of your heart because not everything your heart wants is really good for you. Instead you can choose to act on your impulses in healthy ways.

Love is not a substitute for emotional health.


Love
Love (Photo credit: praram)

Yeah, you can probably see that a lot of this comes from the Love Chapter in the New Testament. Countless Christian couples have used this chapter for their wedding readings before promptly forgetting about any part of it.

Now, the other day this Christian, Randy, that I tangled with (and am still tangling with, weirdly enough) insisted that he was just acting “out of love” because he saw me veering straight toward a cliff and he felt obligated to stop me from my doom. This is a common apologetics argument to explain and hand-wave away cruelty to someone else. I’m not sure how it fit in with his other assertions that because I’m not Christian I obviously can’t understand morality or have real meaning in life, because neither of those are particularly loving things to say, but I’ve heard it often over the years. And to the people saying such things, I reply this:

You are not pushing me out of the way of a cliff. (I might have gotten this idea from the inestimable Dan Fincke.) You’re charging up to me on a normal, everyday, mundane city street, screaming “CLIFF!” and knocking me down. You’re doing it over and over again, damaging my clothes, even hurting my knees and hands as I fall. I get up and look around the street and say “What cliff?” because I can see that there is no cliff. But you tell me, wild-eyed, “There’s a cliff there and I’m saving you from it!” You cannot demonstrate there’s actually a cliff, or that there’s any danger coming that you need to save me from. Exactly how often am I obligated to let you knock me down and hurt me in the name of this “love” you declare you feel toward me?

But let’s get a little deeper into this metaphor, shall we?

Who put the cliff there? And why did that person put it right where he did? Why are you not objecting to the cliff’s presence on a city street? Why aren’t you working to get rid of the cliff instead of trying to push one or two people to safety? Millions, trillions even, are at risk of falling down this cliff, and the fall lasts forever and hurts a lot. The cliff is the problem, not me, not you, not anybody else. You’re applauding the cliff-builder and insisting that the cliff itself is the manifestation of that builder’s love, mercy, and goodness instead of reviling a builder who’d put an invisible cliff right on a city street, which anybody with sense would be doing.

And if this cliff was really so dangerous, there should be some evidence of it. But there isn’t. How exactly is this “cliff” a Christian imagines more compelling than the aliens that rednecks claim kidnapped them for vile experimentation, or the reptilian overlords that David Icke and a host of others imagine control our government, or any of the other imaginary threats against humanity that crazy people envision?

Worse yet, when these same Christians who trumpet their “love” to the skies declare in the next breath that dissenters are “cockroaches” and “morons,” which yes is really what Randy and his Christian buddy did in that squabble, the entire house of cards tumbles and is revealed for what it really is: a need to control others.

Think about it.

“Nobody will ever love you like me.”

“I only hurt you because I love you.”

“You deserve this pain.”

“You’re a complete scumbag whore and you’re not even really human, but baby, there’s still a chance for you if you come back to me.”

Somehow between the writing of the New Testament and today, modern Christians have warped love into an especially disgusting form of domestic violence. I consider the way modern Christians use the word “love” and act on that “love” to be one of the biggest marks against Christianity. And I’m not the only one who thinks that.

The Barna Group, one of the biggest religion-researchers in the country, were totally shocked to discover that most people–even most Christians–see Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical, overly political. “Loving” is hardly even mentioned by outsiders. Instead of love, people see contempt and hate–like what I saw from Randy and his buddy.

I know that another way Christians rationalize showing this contempt and hate toward others is that they genuinely believe that love means trying to fix the person you love. No, really. Healthy people understand that no, actually, it’s actually pretty contemptuous to treat another human being like your own personal DIY project. But toxic Christians think that if they don’t try to fix us, that if they leave us alone to make our own mistakes our own way, they are being unloving.

One thing that propelled the idea of making this blog was a cute little anecdote I read told by a Christian about a pair of Christian missionaries who ran across two separate tribes of incestuous kiddy-diddlers (let’s ignore the shockingly racist, imperialistic, and xenophobic overtones of this story, since the Christian telling this tale sure did). One missionary taught the tribe that incestuous kiddy-diddling was wrong and his tribe flourished. The other was all soft and sweet to his tribe and tried to understand and work with their customs, and that tribe bred itself out of existence via genetic disease.

Most of this Christian’s audience was absolutely shocked by his equation of “letting adults live their own lives as long as they aren’t hurting anybody” with “child sexual abuse that must be stopped at all costs.” But he never did understand, no matter how much anybody (and there were lots of people trying) told him how sick, toxic, and harmful his attitude was and how unlike reality his story was. He insisted to the very end that it was an awesome “metaphor” and an even better explanation for why he felt so strongly about denying gay people civil rights. It was all out of love, you see. He knew better than they did what was good for their own lives.

In the same way, the entitled old white dudes in Congress right now think they know what’s best for women’s lives better than the women in question do. And Christians all over the country think they know how to best run other people’s lives for them. They all mistake this controlling abuse as “love.”

They liken the exercise of control and discipline on normal mature adults sometimes to “tough love,” which just shows how little they understand actual “tough love,” which is a tactic used on drug addicts. The idea is that these addicts can only function and survive with the considerable assistance and enabling of their friends and family, so removing that assistance and enabling will force the addict to address his or her dysfunction. It’s nothing more than refusing to support the addict. It does not in any way mean disciplining the addict like he or she is “a wayward child,” as the first link suggests.

The people Christians are using this misunderstood “tough love” on are not drug addicts. We’re not doing anything illegal. We’re not asking for help. We’re not even needing help. We didn’t ask for the Christians’ love, and wouldn’t want their love even if they offered actual love and not abuse. And love, even Christians’ misunderstood tough love, is not about abuse or control. At no point in the tough-love regimen are the addict’s friends and family encouraged to control or dominate the addict’s life–that’d defeat the entire purpose, which is to encourage the addict him/herself to seek help. If you force someone to comply, you’re not doing anything more but controlling that person, and the second you stop controlling that person, the old habits will come right back along with a healthy dose of dislike for the controller!

Control is not love.

Even the Christian god is said to be “a gentleman” who doesn’t want to override people’s minds, and as the pastor in that link says, if a nation tells him to get lost, he won’t argue. A pity Christians can’t duplicate that mindset. I know why they can’t, though: because doing so would be to relinquish even the illusion of control they have over others.

Control is an expression of sheerest contempt. That’s treating other adults like children. That’s showing massive disrespect to their desires, rights, and abilities. That’s setting yourself up as not only a parent, but as a judge, jury, and executioner of other adults. It’s almost pathetically funny that Christians who feel this way are probably right now this moment wondering why their religion has become a byword for intolerance, contempt, cruelty, evil, divisiveness, and controlling toxicity.

And until Christians realize that they’ve gotten this whole love thing totally wrong and start making some changes, their religion’s going to continue its downward spiral into irrelevance. Mature adults know what love is and isn’t–and they are not seeing it in Christianity. A religion that trumpets its love for humanity to the skies, that puts love as its foundation and says its very savior is the “Lord of Love,” is seen by most people as unloving. It’d be almost comical if it weren’t for the legions of people who have been hurt by “loving” Christians practicing this form of “love.”

I saw this once on a .sig file and it seems like a very good way to end this entry:

“Don’t tell me you love me. Let me guess.”

Next up, we talk about respect, since a big part of love is respectfulness and Christians get that really wrong too.

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