Regardless of what you think of the Bible’s overall message, it is hard to deny that the issue of love comes up more than a few times. In the gospels, Jesus is said to have framed both of the greatest commandments in terms of loving God and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. And it is standard in Christian weddings (and probably more than a few non-Christian ones) to read from the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians, which begins like this:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Despite the fact that this chapter is nearly ubiquitous in these ceremonies, the part that more often gets read is the “Love is…” section that immediately follows, which is well and fine…except that it has nothing to do with marriage. In fact, the chapter sits in the middle of a longer discourse about spiritual gifts (a matter perhaps best left alone for the time being), which is why the part about prophecy and knowledge seems a bit strange when you’re trying to wax poetic about how amazing romantic love is in front of gathered loved ones.
The implication here is that being able to do something great is meaningless unless you can utilize it in a loving way. But the question for me is this: What constitutes acting in love?
Conservative Christian [to Woman at Left]: Jesus called us to love everyone, especially people who are really hard to love…like you!
CC: I accept you as who you are, so every night I go home and pray that you’ll reject one of the most fundamental aspects of your identity!
CC: I love you, so I advocate laws and policies that systematically discriminate against you!
WL: You’re an asshole.
CC: STOP PERSECUTING ME! WHY ARE YOU SO INTOLERANT OF MY BELIEFS?!
Now, even without the obvious smarminess of Conservative Christian, the incongruity is fairly obvious: We recognize that desiring a person to change a fundamental part of themselves is not actually acceptance, and advocacy of discrimination is contrary to what we think love is.
In fact, that last part is key: There isn’t a general consensus of what constitutes love. And that is a huge problem.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit strong. There are things we can generally agree are loving. But there is a huge gray area, and that’s where all the damage happens.
My indefatigable colleague Cassidy wrote about Christian love back in April, and while I generally recommend her piece for how thoroughly it addresses this topic, I have to quibble with one point: I don’t think Christians have redefined love as she claims. Rather, I think that the word “love” has been stripped of any real content. The one thing that you can be sure of when you hear someone appeal to love is that they want to appear that they have good intentions – which doesn’t count for much, as the road-paving cliché suggests.
If people talk about love with any specificity, you are more likely to see them appeal to categories of actions: protecting the vulnerable, taking care of the less fortunate, treating all people with dignity and so forth. We have grown accustomed to defining love by what we consider emblematic cases, not by criteria that make it possible to act consistently.
I don’t know that it’s fair to blame this on Christians specifically, but what Cassidy describes – and, to be frank, what so many of us have experienced directly – about “Christian love” is true all too often.
When I reposted the above cartoon, I repeated a line that has become sort of my mantra in cases like this: Love is not enough. And I stand by that.
The problem is that love has become an easy way to trump other, arguably more important considerations. When Christians disrespect boundaries, for instance, the excuses we hear are couched in those terms: It would be unloving for a Christian not to tell others about Jesus, no matter how much those people have heard the message or tell you that they’re not interested and that you’re being an asshole for pushing your religion on them. And who can argue with someone who says that they’re just acting out of love for you and your immortal soul?
In this way, appealing to “love” becomes a way for the agent of an action to avoid criticism and to elevate their own feelings over any considerations of the consequences of their actions. When this happens, it becomes possible to rationalize all kinds of harmful actions.
In our culture, many of us idealize love. We see it as some lofty cure-all for all of life’s problems. Our movies and our stories and our history all celebrate it as life’s ultimate goal, the final solution for all of our pain and struggle. And because we idealize love, we overestimate it. As a result, our relationships pay a price.
When we believe that “all we need is love,” then like [John] Lennon, we’re more likely to ignore fundamental values such as respect, humility and commitment towards the people we care about. After all, if love solves everything, then why bother with all the other stuff — all of the hard stuff?
But if, like [Trent] Reznor [of Nine Inch Nails], we believe that “love is not enough,” then we understand that healthy relationships require more than pure emotion or lofty passions. We understand that there are things more important in our lives and our relationships than simply being in love. And the success of our relationships hinges on these deeper and more important values.
This applies to any relationship: We must consider other factors that require us to contextualize our actions based on the other person in the relationship, which demands that we empathize with them.
If we aren’t willing to give these other factors precedence over our emotions in determining the right course of actions, then no amount of love will make up for that, and harm perpetrated in the name of love neither advances love nor helps people.
Let’s do better than just love.