Harnessing Love’s Power
to Stop Oppression

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True Love

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Oct 21, 2009

mljMegan Lloyd Joiner is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary and Religious Education Coordinator at the Unitarian Church of Staten Island.

I recently attended a wedding at which the reading was from the oft-quoted 1st letter of Paul to Corinthians, chapter 13:4-7:

Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about the present-day cultural implications of lazy interpretations of Paul’s first-century letter to an early Christian community.

Our society often turns to this text as proof that love is wimpy. Love is quiet, calm, easy going. It doesn’t talk out of turn, but endures every insult that comes its way. It is long-suffering and naive.

Many women, and some men, have heard portions of this text used as justification for domestic violence, urged that, as exemplars of Christian love, they should not be arrogant or irritable, but endure abuse and dehumanization.

Oppressed and excluded peoples and their allies, are told to be patient, not to insist on their way, but to wait for metered justice to be dolled out.

Even those who do not explicitly look to New Testament texts for inspiration can fall back on these cultural assumptions about love that permeate our society. When we idealize the human capacity to love in this absolutely selfless way, we run the risk of thinking of ourselves as morally superior, capable of loving our neighbor better than anyone else could. Or we see ourselves as martyrs, outpouring sacrificial love without acknowledging or safeguarding our own interests. The third option is simply to conclude that this kind of love is sentimental and irrelevant to human reality, and thus easily dismissed.

We have forgotten that the love Paul is espousing here (the Greek agape) is a fierce, strong, and powerful love. Moreover, it is something we can only strive to emulate, not to master. This love is, Rev. Dr. Serene Jones writes at www.standingonthesideoflove.org, “about justice, not sentimentality.”

This love is hope-filled, but not complacent. “For many years we have shown an amazing patience,” a 26-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1955 to a gathering of the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association as they planned a bus boycott. “But we come here tonight,” he continued, “to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”

The hundreds of thousands of people who gathered on National Mall on October 11and the many more who joined them in spirit stood in the spirit of a love that refuses to endure exclusion or violence any longer. We stand with a love that is impatient with hatred and proclaims the power of love in the face of fear. And here is where the beauty of Paul’s words come through, this love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth.” This is a love that stands up and says no to hate. This love is true.

One Response to “True Love”

  1. Bill Baar says:

    It was a verse once common in Universalist Churches but now longer. We’re not asked to stand on a side of Love. Love abides. Nothing whimpy about it. It’s some of the most powerful theology ever written, and it’s best to read the whole passage.

    1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, it profits me nothing.

    4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

    8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

    11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

    13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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