Love Does No Harm

November 12, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein


I am grateful to Clayton and Ellie Handleman for giving the Faith Journey this morning. It has been a real joy to work with them both on what they would say this morning; a process that yielded rich conversation and sharing of ideas. I hope that we will continue the conversation.

It occurs to me, listening to them, that perhaps the church makes a mistake when it speaks of love always in terms of gentleness, softness, calmness and motherly nurturance. We just heard lesbian Episcopal theologian Carter Heyward speak of love as justice, love as right relation. These are all attributes of love that the church seeks to instill in its people, and we do well to seek to make our lives expressions of those kinds of love. When we say that God is love, it is an affirmation of love as the most powerful generative force in the universe. In those terms, love becomes a mystery that keeps bearing forth the gift of life, the promise of wholeness where there is fragmentation, rebirth where there is ending and death.

And yet, it seems important for the church to occasionally remind ourselves that when we speak of love as tenderness and kindness, we aren't so much naming what is, but what we wish might be. How do we know love best, after all? Through human relationship. And in our human relationships, is love ever all about tenderness and kindness? In moments, yes. In ideal form, yes.

But in reality, not entirely. Where there is love, there is also often passion, desperate need, dependence, sexual energy that confounds and can seem to control us, and even irrationality that comes from being swept away with surges of emotion that mix with love.

We want love to be pure, we want love to always honor the other. But yet, as I am a human, it is only natural that I should gaze upon the face of my nephew sometimes, and literally fight the urge to bite his cheeks until he cries. Love coming through the human animal can have a savage element. I give you a comical example, but as we know, the savagery that can arise out of what first feels like love is a terrible, violent force in our world and in our own lives.

As we are sitting here this morning, we know in the privacy of our hearts that there is violence in some of our homes. There can be violence in the way we speak to each other, there can be violence in vicious teasing and the withholding of love unless impossible expectations are met.

There is violence of feeling that sometimes erupts into physical violence between adults, or between parent and child, or among siblings. This is never right. Violence is never an expression of real love, but an expression of domination and the need to shame and control. Violence in our intimate relationships is not an issue of class or educational level or race or geography or religion. It exists in all spheres of society. If any of you experience violence in your intimate relationships, I urge you to seek help and support in ending it. Please consider this church, and me, a resource, and know that your suffering is no cause for shame, but is absolutely cause to seek help.

Our offering to the South Shore Woman's Collaborative this morning gives us an opportunity to acknowledge that although love should be about right relation, it isn't always. There are elements of power and aggression in most of our relationships: who calls the shots, who has authority, who gets their needs met, who doesn't, how do we compromise, how do we live together? This isn't a male or female thing. It is a human thing.

I think of the show that opened recently on Broadway involving two characters named Little Edie and Big Edie (real life cousins of Jackie Kennedy Onassis) --an extremely eccentric and tragic mother-daughter team of recluses who live in a Hamptons mansion they've allowed to become a total hovel. They spend their days swooning about in bizarre outfits, remembering the past through the gauzy lens of romanticized memory, feeding dozens of cats, dancing around broken furniture and filth, and both adoring and abusing each other. Their relationship fascinates us because it is like many of ours, held up to a funhouse mirror. "Grey Gardens" is a good reminder that the desire to control a relationship and to dominate the other, or to become insanely co-dependent is not just a heterosexual phenomenon, but a quality of many of our intimate and family relationships.

When we talk about who does love well and who does love right, and who is most inherently capable of loving in a way that creates wholeness and flourishing of the other, it is very, very important for the Church not to perpetuate the stereotype that it is women who do love right and men who are still trying to figure it out. We are ALL still trying to figure it out.

David Murrow's book, Why Men Hate Going to Church has the best cover I've seen in a long time: a guy in a suit and tie sitting in a pew fast asleep with his mouth open. I laughed out loud when I saw it in the library, and I knew I had to read it. The good news for us is that a lot of what Murrow discusses, i.e., the trend toward male non-involvement in the mainstream American church, is not true for this congregation. We have many men and women attending worship on Sunday mornings, attending programming, and serving as lay leaders (although I need some men to join the Caring Committee!).

Where I find David Murrow helpful for our reflections this morning is in his discussion of how the Church traditionally defines appropriate love.

Murrow makes the argument that since the Church was founded on the teachings and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and that Jesus was a nurturing, unconditionally loving, healing, sharing-and-caring kind of guy, that's the kind of love that the church holds up as the ideal. But Murrow says -- wait a minute! Jesus was also very masculine in the traditional sense of the word. As often as he reached out to heal someone or to listen to them, he just as often organized an effort to feed a crowd. As often as he prayed, he aggressively debated a point, made demands on his followers, and took command of situation after situation. He was courageous, and incredibly powerful, although never violent. He was anything but passive in his love. Jesus' "sharing and caring," form of love had real muscle to it. Murrow wants to know, is this kind of acting out of love appreciated in our churches today, or do we expect love to get incarnated in one kind of way that is more traditionally female?

I think that we are all sophisticated enough to know that whatever gender body we were born into, we all possess traditionally "masculine" and traditionally "feminine" traits. We know better than to pigeonhole people in limiting gender stereotypes, and we try to be sensitive to sexism and heterosexism, and to avoid them. But when we create a mental image of love within the context of the church, what do we envision? Mostly fairly gentle activities: sharing feelings, making visits, worshiping together, listening to music, maybe cooking and sharing a meal.

But as Clayton reminds us, and as we are learning from our boys (and girls) in the Sunday School program, loving fellowship in the church isn't always in the "softly and tenderly" mode. Sometimes it's about showing up with a hammer or back hoe, ready to fix something or to make something. Sometimes it's a slap on the back rather than a warm hug, or a gruff critique that comes with an offer to help make something better. It's the slightly wild, primal flames of a campfire instead of the soft, contained flame of a candle. Being more sensitized to some of our sexist assumptions about who "does" love and relationships better, can help us to recognize more kinds of love when they occur, even when acts of love don't look like the soft and gentle kinds we have been trained to see.

What we know of love we know as humans. We will probably never understand the mystery of love fully, but one thing we do know for sure is that however love gets acted out, love never harms. As Paul said in his famous letter to the Corinthian community, Love is patient, love is kind, love does not insist on its own way. When we remember that, let us also remember that neither gender has the superior biological capacity to love built in and endowed by birth. We are all equally endowed to be able to love, and we must find the way there together, male and female, sisters and brothers, friends and fellow sojourners all.