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.