John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

Loving is listening

LoveJ. Elliott LeinComment

During my recent conversations around LGBT and faith on Facebook, while discussing a linked articled called "Distorted Love: The Toll of Our Christian Theology on the LGBT Community" a concern around who defines "love" was brought up:

"If I take your last response and article at face value, then I must conclude that it is gay advocates (Christian & otherwise) who ultimately define love, with no room for dialogue or dissent. What a sad place for the Church."

Here is my response, an off-the-cuff set of ramblings on how I might attempt to answer that question.


Love. My thoughts.

Love cannot be defined solely by the giver, but must be affirmed by the receiver (and generally recognized by outsiders who see a net benefit in the long term).

A simple example is the "5 love languages". If the giver insists on using the language of "service" because it's what they resonate with, but the recipient values "touch", then is it self-less or self-ish love?

A more complex example would be the idealist's conviction that an action is loving based on their values, but which is experienced by the recipient, communities with other values, and/or by history as having a damaging result. For example, I think of Saint Augustine and John Calvin supporting the torture and/or death of what they saw as heretics because they thought it was more loving to ensure that the remainder would gain eternal salvation as they understood it. I can understand and empathize with their motivation. I can see how they thought it was love. I can understand that the civil law, cultural understandings of the time, and social pressure from their own religious group would influence their perception and that I might have done the same in their place. But I personally cannot define that as love from where I stand, based on the recipient's experience.

White American slave owners in the 1800's were convinced that they were loving their slaves by providing food, lodging, moral direction and steady work. It's clear that they had a high moral conviction around their policies if you read the declarations of secession or other documents by the southern states. Over half of published Christian sermons before the War supported this position by appealing to both general morality and to Scripture.

"In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law."
           — from A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union.

Many national leaders we now see as morally troubled made decisions motivated at least initially by a conviction that they were in the best interests of others, yet because they did not listen to opposing voices or accept challenges to their worldview, we now see them as "evil" (Mao, Lenin, Hitler, etc could all fit into that category on some level I think as extreme examples).

If an expression of love from the giver ends in obvious, provable harm for the receiver (setting aside exceptions such as restraining the receiver from hurting others), then we need to ask some serious questions about whether that is actually love.

"Love your neighbor as yourself". You have to get to know your neighbor pretty well before you know how to love them to the level that you love yourself (whom you know pretty intimately). 

I'm not saying any of this is empirically true of any particular non-affirming Christian or the traditional absolutist position on marriage. However, if we do not allow the gay recipient of a person's love to voice their sense of how it feels to receive that love, then how do we judge if it truly is love? Whose interpretation of the Bible "wins"? Just the one that's been around longest? Then we have to wrestle with the Scripture-supported "curse of the Jews" anti-semitism which began in the 1st century, was supported in the Inquisition and by Martin Luther and cumulated in the Holocaust before we finally returned to re-read the Bible in a different way (see Southern Baptist ethics and holocaust scholar Dr. David Gushee's work on this).

That's what the article we have been discussing is saying, I think: 

"The recipients of your love aren't agreeing that they feel loved or respected, even when you share the same faith and love for the same God, and neither do independent observers around them. Why?"

Us "gay advocates" are just asking our fellow Christians to take the time to listen more carefully to the recipients of the traditional language around marriage, and to think and pray carefully about how God would want to us to respond. I personally failed to find a way to do so without changing my mind (and after I did, I came to a new understanding of Scripture that seemed clearer and more literally accurate than before).

To be honest, some of this may challenge some particular understandings of theology on a larger level, which is part of what I've gone through in the last couple of years. Yet there too are many different approaches available from that very same Bible we share and love.

Well, that's my opinion. Maybe it helps you understand better where I'm coming from even if you disagree.