I’ve been stalling on writing this post because it’s kind of an intimidating topic. I mean, I’m not always the best at modeling love…who am I to try to write about it? But it’s been on my mind for quite some time, so here goes.
A lot of things done in the name of love are not very loving. At various times, some people have claimed to do all of these things due to love: physical assault, rape, murder (crime of passion), verbal attacks, neglect, and war. Yep. Every single one of those things, and that’s just a partial list.
Part of me wonders if those who make such claims are intentionally lying, but then I also wonder if the problem has more to do with misguided notions of what is love. Maybe it’s a bit of both. The one thing I’m certain of, though: those are not acts of love.
Do we even know what love is?
[Cue the 1980s-era Foreigner song...]
More seriously, I suspect that a lot of us don’t really know how to love. After all, our earliest models in childhood weren’t always the best (even if the intent was well-meaning), and the same can be said for our parents’ childhoods. I could just throw up my hands and declare that it’s a never-ending cycle, and we’re stuck in this pattern of modeling less-than-loving behavior.
But I don’t believe it has to be this way. I also know that many of us did experience a safe, nurturing childhood environment, with at least one parent (if not both) who modeled healthy love. Some (but not all) of us still become scarred later along the road.
Ironically, one of the places where I see cruelty masked as “love” is in churches and religious institutions. To me, this is nothing short of spiritual abuse, especially when a religious authority tells others that God doesn’t love them for who they are. I’ve seen it a lot recently in debates about same-sex marriage. This issue surfaces in many other scenarios, though, such as when an unmarried teenage girl becomes pregnant or even when someone simply questions their faith and experiences doubts, as in the long tradition of what’s called “the dark night of the soul.”
I want to be clear that while I’ve seen this happen with leaders of all the world’s major religions, my own story is based on my childhood experience in Christian churches.
During my childhood, my family spent several years at a small church that nearly caused irreparable damage and trauma to me. I don’t think it was intentional on the part of my Sunday School teachers, but the trauma was still all too real. I was terrified that I hadn’t been baptized because I was told that God would not “wipe the slate clean” until such an event happened. In the meantime, I lived with the threat that if I died before I was baptized (fully immersed in water, of course, as christening “didn’t count”), God would hold me accountable for every single sin I had committed, regardless of whether I was even aware that I had sinned. What a warped notion of what a loving God should look like!
I cannot begin to describe how scary this was for me, as by that point in my life I had somehow absorbed the message that approval from “adults” meant everything. This led me to two habits: 1) praying every night “for the sins that I didn’t know I committed” (my own little loophole that I hoped God would grant me); 2) hiding certain aspects of myself that I didn’t think would be accepted.
In retrospect, I can’t help but laugh because the thing I was most ashamed of was that I loved rock-and-roll music. I didn’t find anything wrong with it, but I knew that my Sunday School teacher would have been horrified if she had known about my secret. The message at church was that “secular music is Satanic,” and my childhood mind wondered if there was something inherently evil in me that caused me to love that music. There were other things that I kept to myself as well, such as the questions and doubts that I had about what I was being taught in that church. But if I couldn’t be perfect, at least I could pretend to be.
When my church decided to hold its first baptismal ceremony, I jumped at the opportunity to be washed anew. I sometimes wonder if part of my motivation was to stop feeling the need to pray for all those unknown sins. Admittedly, it was nice to shorten my nightly confession, but in spite of that little incentive, I really did believe that Jesus could (finally) work in my life if I was baptized.
As it turned out, I became the very first person to be baptized as part of that church, a sort of symbol for how God could work in anyone’s life…even if I was the daughter of a single mother who had willfully sinned by deciding that it was important for her kids not to be raised in the unhealthy home environment that we had experienced in early childhood. My mother’s divorce became a bigger issue in the coming months (although she was still encouraged to play piano every Sunday for services, by that time without any financial compensation). Soon after that, we went back to the United Methodist Church (UMC), my family’s church home for multiple generations.
I later lost faith in the vengeful brand of God that I had come to know during those few years away from the UMC. I had reached a point where I could no longer believe that God was so cruel and vengeful as to banish children to hell simply because they hadn’t been immersed in a baptismal pool. It took a lot longer for me to reestablish trust in God, but fortunately the UMC taught me about a God who was less condemning and more grace-full.
I considered deleting the above story from this post because it does make for a lengthier entry, but I’ve decided to keep it. To me, this is representative of the tension that exists between different religious camps when it comes to what constitutes love. The God that I feared in childhood was that of a harsh, stern father who wouldn’t hesitate to condemn His own children to a fiery eternity in hell. My own personal concept of “father” didn’t help to balance out what I had been taught of fatherhood at church–my own father was largely absent and often unpredictable.
Some pastors and churches use intimidation and fear to force people into submission. We’re told that we’re utterly wretched, but if we follow certain rules, we can be part of a chosen elite. Those who select which rules should be imposed typically ignore other parts of the Bible that are more inconvenient. Sometimes it’s a matter of recognizing the near impossibility of adhering to orthodox standards such as unmixed fibers in clothing or kosher crop division. Then there are times when behavior is excused or covered up for “men of the cloth” but condemned for others. (Note: These instances of abuse are not representative of all or even most religious leaders–one of my closest friends is a priest, and I would trust him, as well as anyone I love, with my life.)
This hypocrisy leads many people to reject Christianity entirely. When churches bully or otherwise abuse anyone who doesn’t conform to their understanding of scripture, they can have the effect of undermining the proclamation that God is love. At a deeper level, this conduct also sends out a message that love is a twisted and conditional sort of thing.
The mantra “Love the sinner but hate the sin” is a classic example of how spiritually abusive behavior confuses the true meaning of love. I have tried and tried to understand what this means (“I love you but I hate the way you live your life”), and I still can’t wrap my head around how this sort of intimidation would motivate someone to change, if that’s even the intent.
Regardless of the protestations, those words still sound a lot like hate, conscious or not, and remind me of the list that I offered at the beginning. “I love you, and that is why I am speaking for God by telling you that you are going to hell.” Or said to a teenager, “I love you, and that is why I am kicking you out of the house for telling me that you are gay.”
Originally, I had intended for this post to delve into what authentic love looks like, but I’ve decided to write that as a follow-up entry. In the meantime, I would like to challenge us all to imagine what love would ideally look like in our own lives. Imagine those moments when we’ve truly felt loved, and what it felt like.
Did it feel safe…or scary? Was it comforting…or unsettling? Was it familiar…or uncharted territory? Or was it all of the above? Next, let’s imagine how do we show love…and how can we be the love that we want to receive.