I’ve been following closely (probably too closely) the United Methodist Church’s 2019 General Conference about human sexuality for the past few days. I went in with low expectations, and came out sadder.
One of the less-appreciated casualties of recent debates about sexuality, and of debates within the Christian church in general, has been the beauty and sanctity of the word “love.”
Love is a great word, maybe the best word. It tells us about God’s intentions for us, and for the world. We use it to describe romantic emotions we can barely contain or even describe. “Love” describes how parents feel about tiny humans we’ve created.
But in more recent debates about human sexuality, or theological doctrinal debates in the church, it’s come to mean something else.
It’s gotten so bad that in a note I made to myself when I was serving as a chaplain in a hospital, I didn’t say “love people.” I said, “Give a shit,” because “love people” has too much baggage for me.
“Give a shit” means that the person lying in that hospital bed means something to me; they’re not just another body in a room, filling out the time until I can go home. Or, as my CPE supervisor put it, “I care about what happens to you.”
And maybe that’s what love used to mean, but it doesn’t feel like that any more when it extends past my wife and kid and a few close friends.
“Love,” that beautiful, wonderful word, has come to mean “meanness.”
How did this happen? Through the addition of one word: “Tough.”
Apparently in 1968 a guy named Bill Milliken wrote a book called Tough Love that started this mess. I haven’t read it, nor have I read Dr. James Dobson’s book Love Must Be Tough, but their repercussions have echoed through both culture and the church.
In culture, this book and its titular phrase apparently led to abusive situations, and maybe some people getting help. Maybe a lot of people getting help.
However, in my memory the phrase “I’m only telling this because I love you” has never been connected to any words that were remotely loving. “I’m only doing this because I love you” was rarely if ever connected to loving actions.
Tough love is why you explain to an addict that you’re not going to support their life-destroying habit anymore – that you love them, so you want them to go to rehab. You tell them their choices are between rehab and living on the streets, and you pray to God and anyone else who might be listening that they choose rehab.
But I think many in the church got hold of “tough love” and used it as an excuse not to love at all, and pretend they did.
We saw the threatening behavior from the lover in the addict scenario say “Go to rehab or live on the street,” and somehow came to think the apparent cruelty of the action justified all cruel actions as loving as long as the person doing the “tough loving” also thinks it will do the other person some good.
But that’s not love. That’s just cruelty.
If you heartlessly do something cruel to someone and justify it by your belief that it will do them good, that’s not the same as being backed into a corner as you watch someone you genuinely do love destroy their lives and/or the lives of others you love and realize that, having tried literally everything else, your genuine love for them is going to force you, as a last resort, to do something that will cause them pain to save their life.
Far too often, “tough love” is the only kind of love people see from the church. Where is soft love? Kind love? Gracious love? If you love to tell hard truths, but never kind truths, what good is it?
I’ve taken my kid to get vaccinated. When he screams, I start to understand a little of what happens in someone’s head to make them fall for anti-vaxxer garbage. I know it’s for his own good but I still hate it.
If doing something that causes immense and pain and sorrow to someone else, “for their own good,” doesn’t feel like a knife in your own heart, you’re not doing it out of love. You don’t hurt people you love without it hurting you too.
The traditionalists at the UMC last night weren’t weeping. They weren’t in tears, at least as I saw, that they had broken the hearts of so many people in that room, and hundreds of thousands if not more who weren’t even present.
But even if it does hurt you to do it, that doesn’t mean it’s loving. My dad used to say “this hurts me more than it hurts you” when he hit me with a board on my bottom, but I didn’t believe him, and it wasn’t loving. It wasn’t for my good, and it didn’t stop me from hurting myself or others. It was just him, hurting himself and me.
Trouble is, when you define sin as “doing anything a verse or two in the Bible condemns, or failing to do anything a verse or two in the Bible says to do,” and the consequences are hellfire and damnation, it can get really ugly. “Tough love” gets even more cruel.
There’s no amount of harm you can do to someone that’s worse than hellfire. And it doesn’t matter whether the thing they’re doing isn’t harming themselves or anyone else in this life, or whether your actions to try to stop them are causing others harm in this life, because hellfire.
Which leads to a rather vicious understanding of God, who then has arbitrarily decided that people engaged in same-gender sex will go to hell because they’re disobeying. Not because of some moral principle or for their own good, but just… “because I said so.”
Which really screws with the word “love” because then you have to say God is love in spite of God torturing people for all eternity, or however you want to explain hell, just because they’re gay, which isn’t hurting themselves or anybody else. (See the last paragraph before replying to this one).
Which leads to the dread “Well, God is love BUT…” As the cartoon says, “Stop. Nothing good ever comes after that.”
Or worse, I’ve seen people acting as if love and abuse not only exist simultaneously, as my therapist said they cannot, but are conflated with each other. God torments people for all eternity in hell… out of love.
At this point it should be obvious why my note to myself said “Give a shit,” not “love.”
But sadly, in a lot of conversations I’ve had – with Christians – there is a heartbreaking lack of giving a shit about the LGBTQ Christians whose future they’re either making decisions about, or talking about.
Even if I’m wrong in the section above about damning someone for being gay being inconsistent with God’s character… Do you care about what happens to them? Really care, not just tell yourself you do so you can be mean to them?
Then use your imagination. Imagine you’ve tried for years to stop being attracted to people of the same gender. Imagine you came to believe it wasn’t a sin. Also imagine you’ve been called to be a pastor. Imagine you spent three years in seminary and jumped through the denominational hoops.
Even if you’re going to hell for being gay, if someone gives a shit about you, are they going to simply vote to keep you from getting ordained? Or are they at least going to find you and apologize after they’re done voting?
If someone cares about what happens to you, how are they going to tell you that what you’re doing is wrong? In a massive assembly, publicly, while the whole country watches?
So when the traditionalists tell me, demand to me, that they love LGTBQ people, even as they vote to very publicly say on behalf of a whole denomination that they shouldn’t be ordained, no matter what… it rings a little hollow.
Give a shit. Tell me the story of a person you love who went to seminary and found out they can’t be ordained by their denomination because they’re gay. Tell me about how you care about what happens to them, to that. individual. person. in their heartbroken space as they seek their calling. Then, and only then, will I maybe believe that you feel anything remotely like love for them.
* “But God’s not sending them to hell because they’re gay! It’s because they’ve rejected God’s authority!” No they haven’t. They’ve rejected the belief that God is cruel and evil and will punish them for living into their sexual orientation. Besides, even if they had “rejected God’s authority” by being gay, God’s authority wouldn’t be good, just arbitrary and random. Then you start to redefine “good” to mean anything and everything and off we go again.