The Orwellian Christianese of “Love”

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Too many Christians confuse pity and paternalism with love.

Actually, “confuse” may be too generous a word. For some it can be Orwellian Christianese, where “love” or “forgiveness” is simply used as a tool to demand submission, or to silence complaints. One of the most common negative responses to prophetic language is Christian tone-policing—saying that it is “unloving” or “hateful” to use oppressors’ own rhetoric to disarm their religious weaponry, or to criticize those in power who use religious language as a political tool of domination. In this reading, much of what Jesus himself said is unloving and hateful.

It is a kind of weak rhetorical ju-jitsu to take the words of the prophets* and the complaints of those who are oppressed and describe them as “hate.” As if protesting the disproportionate slaying and imprisonment of black children is “hate.” As if objecting to for-profit sick-care is “hate.” As if decrying Christianese support of militarism and fascism is “hate.” As if championing the rights of “widows, orphans, and aliens” against the abuse of political leaders is “hate.”

There is something I gladly admit to hating: this kind of language. This condescending, paternalistic, bullying and bully-enabling language that uses the words of Christ for cover. (There is a difference between hating the sin and the sinner, right? Or does that only apply to gay folks?)

Rather than get tangled in endless psychologizing or spiritualizing about the inward state of debate partners, I’m much more interested in the effect of our language, practices, and policy. Where do we see the oppressed being freed? Where do we see widows, orphans, and aliens valued as fully human and made in the image of God?

That’s where love is.

I appreciate that Christ loves me, and I have full assurance of salvation through the Holy Spirit. I appreciate that Christ also loves the bullies and fascists of the world, the Torquemadas and Roy Moores and Bull Connors, and that where I’m unable to love I can intercede that Christ love for me while shaping me into someone more loving. I can acknowledge my own failure to love.

But I have no interest in a “love” that does not rejoice in the truth. Nor do I have interest in a religion that can only speak of “good news” if the oppressed are silenced.

There is difference between paternalism, pity, and love.

*(Of course, there is a critique of the less-than-loving attitude of the prophets in the Bible itself. It’s called the Book of Jonah.)

Jonah_and_the_Whale,_Folio_from_a_Jami_al-Tavarikh_(Compendium_of_Chronicles)

If Paul Wrote “The Love Chapter” Today

handheart
If I speak Christianese, but do not have love, I am just an annoying advertising jingle for Jesus. And if I have a big blog following, and three best sellers, and if I run a big church, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I become a martyr for evangelism or social justice, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 

Grandstanding is not love. Smarm is not love. Love does not belittle the beloved’s anger. Love does not gaslight, tone-police, or tell victims to reconcile with their abusers. Love does not shrink from conflict, but calls all parties to act like mature adults.

 

Love does not bear all things, because it rejects that which diminishes the image of God in self or others. It does not believe all things; it rejects bullshit, because it is neither naive nor gullible—it rejoices in the truth. It can endure much, but it cannot endure “love the sinner and hate the sin.” See above. Love treats others with the compassion, respect, and dignity we want for ourselves.

 

The internet will end. Politics will end. Blogs, books, and religion will end. Right, now? All this stuff is a pale reflection of the love and justice God has in store.

 

When I was a toddler, I thought “sharing” meant that you give to me. I thought “love” meant you defer to my wishes. I thought Christian paternalism and pity were love. But I grew out of that.

 

I’m not perfect, of course. I’m still capable of self-deception. I’m not as mature as I will one day be, but one day we will all know God’s love inside and out.

 

Sure, faith is important. Hope is important. But you know what’s more important?

 

Love. Mature love.

 

(1 Corinthians 13, for comparison)

Ledgers

Some folks have ledgers,
and in their records
you will always be
in the red,

Even if you have
never met these folks,
and you do not know
who they are,

Nor do they know you
or your place of birth,
or your family,
or your dreams.

Some claim you owe them
to look as they look,
to want as they want,
forever.

Here is the fine print:
you only ever
pay the interest
until death.

Here is the loophole:
No one can collect
(though they may call you
and send bills.)

So, already free,
do not pay in hate;
but owe to no one
anything
except love.

—Dave Barnhart, 2014

Romans 13:8

The Love Chapter (Dave’s Paraphrase)

Not to be confused with an actual translation:

If I speak in the languages of humans and of divine beings, but do not have love, I am white noise and static, distortion without melody. And if I have a huge blog following, and can read Greek and Hebrew, and have written best-selling books, and if I can quote whole paragraphs of the Discipline, and if I am just generally more religious than you, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my stuff, and die like a martyr in an inspiring story, but do not have love, I gain diddly.

 

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not condescending or paternalistic or patronizing or rude. It does not employ disingenuous rhetoric: religious code words, race-baiting, gay-baiting, ad hominem attacks, scapegoating, or mansplaining. It does not insist on its own privilege; it is not fearful of science or of being proven wrong; it does not indulge in schadenfreude, but rejoices in the good of others. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

 

Love never ends. But as for policies, they will come to an end; as for institutions, they will cease; as for the internet, it will come to an end. For we do things only in part, but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was immature, I threw tantrums and argued like a child; when I became an adult, I stopped that sort of thing. For now we see dim reflections of our world, our selves, and our God, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. So three things will outlast all this temporary, immature stuff: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.

The Geometry of Love

Dorotheus of Gaza

Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. …Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center: the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings. …Let us assume for the sake of the analogy that to move toward God, then, human beings move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center. But at the same time, the closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God.

(Dorotheus of Gaza, from Roberta Bondi’s To Love as God Loves, p. 25).