Sentimental Claptrap #3: Love On
This is such a creeper phrase that it really, really skeeves people out. I heard it a lot growing up and still hear it from people I love, so I know that it’s usually said with genuinely good intentions and in a variety of different situations. But it doesn’t matter how you’re using it or what your intentions are.* You could be saying, “as a youth pastor, my job is to love on those kids” and really mean it; you could be telling your son that “your sister is having a really hard time, so we should all love on her right now” and be expressing genuine concern; you could even be saying “Christ didn’t ask us to convert people, he asked us to love on them” and think you’re in solidarity with the Pope. You’d still be so wrong.
Let’s start with the superficial. Any variation of this phrase immediately sets off alarm bells in the millennial-and-younger crowd. We will be expecting you to do this at any moment:
I really hope I don’t have to explain to anyone why that’s completely terrible.
That’s just the knee-jerk cultural reaction to the phrase, though, right? I mean, just because some kids don’t like it doesn’t make it wrong, you might be thinking. Well, in this case I think the knee-jerk reaction of millennials comes from an unconscious but desperate rejection of thing-ifying people.
Our culture has turned the objectification of people into an art form. Whether it’s the negative objectification of pornography or the positive objectification of hero-worship, treating people as objects has actually become the norm. People treating each other as human beings is in fact so revolutionary that sites like Upworthy are springing up for the sole purpose of documenting it. How many times have you heard someone react to something with some variation of, “it’s just wonderful to see that people still care?” What they mean is, “it’s just so wonderful to see a human being treat another human being like a person.” Millennials grew up in this culture. We’ve been steeped in the fine art of objectification since childhood, when everyone’s ambition was to get Slimed as a teenager and get voted off the Real World after high school.
The mainstream Christian culture hasn’t been much different. The language itself reflects it. Evangelicals and Catholics alike are constantly obsessing about how to “win souls for Christ”, seemingly oblivious that Christ already told us how to do that. Witness the recent hysteria when Pope Francis paraphrased this greatest commandment as “love of others, as our Lord preached. It is not proselytizing, it is love. Love for one’s neighbor, that leavening that serves the common good.” The tendency to objectify has gone so far, though, that it’s managed to turn even love into something that you can do to someone else. One of the obvious problems with this is that our culture automatically associates love-as-action with one thing, and one thing only.
Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine a Catholic priest talking with a group of parents whose young sons have just signed up to learn from this priest how to be altar servers. Imagine the reaction if he said, “I really just want to love on your sons.”
Now, imagine you are a teenager who has been sexually abused, and you go to a Wednesday night youth meeting at the local Evangelical church hoping to find some kind of solace. Imagine the youth leader getting up and saying, “we’re just here tonight to love on you all.”
See how that’s a problem? That’s the creep factor. Now let’s take sex out of it. Let’s say you’re a high school kid facing serious personal tragedy that has made you doubt your faith for the first time. How would you feel if you tried to find someone who would talk these difficulties through with you, but everywhere you turned people were just trying to love on you by reassuring you with empty platitudes and context-free Bible verses?
This phrase is grossly patronizing, implying that children or teenagers or even adults are just blank slates that need to be loved on. It turns people into objects that you can literally put love on, instead of complex human beings who might not want you to put your love on them. Worse, this phrase reveals nothing so much as your own pride. By saying that you want to “love on” another person, you’re patently not claiming that you are building a relationship, trying to understand who they are, or leaving yourself open to the possibility that they may have something of value to give you. You are bestowing your love upon them, with all the self-aware generosity of a medieval knight tossing coins to the peasants.
This phrase leaves no room for the give-and-take of real love, with all its human messiness and unpredictability. It leaves no room for humility…after all, if someone rejects the love you’re heaping upon them, it’s probably because they hate puppies and God. It’s not like a real relationship, where if someone rejects your true and genuine friendship it hurts, and you have to ask yourself why. It leaves no room for growth…neither of you have the chance to change or be changed by the dynamics of a relationship, because there’s a constant deluge of one-sided love. Essentially, “loving on” someone else leaves no room for anyone but you. The other person can’t accept that love, be changed by that love, reciprocate that love, or even flat-out reject that love because they are passive recipients. Love is something that’s being done to them, with no regard for the individual human person and what he or she might need, want, or have to give. It’s a love that’s entirely about one person: you, and your astounding magnanimity.
Christ never “loves on” anyone. He loves people individually, taking the time to get to know us, being considerate enough to understand the differences in our personalities and humble enough to give each of us what we need. More, he allows us to love him back. He wants us to! He doesn’t just spew forth self-assured, generic “love” onto the world and call it a day.
Neither should we. People aren’t objects to be loved on, they are a person to be loved. Choose to love that person, as you hope they will choose to love you back.
*Okay, well, if you’re a grandma who can’t wait to love on her grandbaby, you get a pass. Cause babies are really only capable of being loved on, and your daughter is probably desperate for you to come love on her new bundle of joy so she can sleep for the first time in a century, so far be it from me to discourage anyone from giving new parents a break because of some stupid semantics. There are lines, ya know?
Confused? Frightened? Wondering what the hell I’m talking about? Here are some background links: