Love is Liberation: Rethinking Love Post-Fundamentalism
In our Sunday school class right now, we are delving into the meaning of love in a way that has not really been possible for me until now. Growing up in Evangelical Christianity, I was taught that love could only mean one thing: concern for the eternal destiny of souls. If you really love someone, you’ll make sure you tell them about Jesus. Period.
Any modicum of kindness you show another human being must only be a means to that end. If your good deed isn’t wrapped in a sermon, then you might as well save your energy because they’re probably going to hell anyway—and, if you didn’t warn them of the imminent danger, you are complicit in their demise. Love is only love if it leads to salvation.
Let’s just say that I was never really good at “loving” people. In my teenage years, I carried a lot of guilt for all the missed opportunities to save my peers from eternal damnation. But I was never really good at “witnessing;” it just felt too awkward and unnatural. As I entered into adulthood, I stopped feeling guilty. I had entered into a church in which it was easier for me to participate without really believing in anything I professed to. I stopped feeling guilty, because I wasn’t really sure anymore that there even was an afterlife.
Still, I was left with no concept of what it meant to love people. I didn’t really know how to love, so I settled for simply not being a jerk. I stopped using the word “love,” but I suppose I had come to see the concept as merely not being mean to people. Granted, that’s better than the concept I had left behind, but I still felt there was something lacking…
Learning to Love
In 2015, the year I finally managed to critically evaluate the teachings of the church I had become immersed in, I stumbled across an idea of love that completely transformed my perspective. I had been really into existential philosophy since college and, as I began to wrestle with the incongruity of what my church taught and what I actually believed, I started looking around. I came across a book called Principles of Christian Theology by little-known existential theologian John Macquarrie. This blandly and unassumingly titled religious work changed my entire perspective on the Christian faith. Among other things, it changed the way I think about love. Here’s what Macquarrie writes:
“Love is letting-be. Love usually gets defined in terms of union, or the drive toward union, but such a definition is too egocentric. Love does indeed lead to community, but to aim primarily at uniting the other person to oneself, or oneself to him, is not the secret of love and can even be destructive of genuine community. Love is letting-be, not of course in the sense of standing off from someone or something, but in the positive sense of enabling-to-be. When we talk of ‘letting-be,’ we are to understand both parts of this hyphenated expression in a strong sense—‘letting’ as ‘empowering,’ and ‘be’ as enjoying the maximal range of being that is open to the particular being concerned. Most typically, ‘letting-be’ means helping a person into the full realization of his potentialities for being; and the greatest love will be costly, since it will be accomplished by the spending of one’s own being.”
Maybe the revolutionary nature of this passage doesn’t hit you with the same force as it did me, but here’s essentially what I think Macquarrie is saying: love is not possession, love is liberation. Love is recognizing another’s subjectivity and choosing their autonomy over what we think is best for them. Many of us tend to love human beings the way we love our prized possessions. We love them because they’re valuable to us—not because they have any inherent value. They are means to our ends rather than ends in themselves. To love something is to control it—to keep it safe and secure, to guard it and protect it, to have power over it, to have ownership of it. To love is to objectify.
Although it was never explicitly stated in these terms, this is the framework of love that I had been taught growing up in Evangelicalism. People are like God’s prized possessions and your goal is not to grant them greater freedom but, rather, to make sure nothing bad happens to them. If you really love someone, you will protect them from themselves. Because, obviously, you know what’s best for them better than they do.
Until stumbling across Macquarrie’s work, it never occurred to me just how egocentric my concept of love really was. My assumption that I was the sole arbiter of what was good for another pervaded every act of kindness I had undertaken. We’ve all heard the expression, “if you love someone, you’ll set them free.” But I think Macquarrie is arguing that authentic love is going a step beyond that. Love isn’t merely setting someone free; love is helping someone become free.
Setting Love Free
As I pursued this idea of love as liberation, I became immersed in various forms of liberation theology—which has now become my guiding moral philosophy. I have come to believe once again that “love is only love if it leads to salvation,” but simply in a new way. To me, love means actively pushing back against systems and practices of oppression so that people may be freed, not from their own personal sins, but rather from the sins of the people who have enslaved them. As Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
But I haven’t only adopted this meaning of love for broader systemic issues of social injustice. I’ve also attempted to integrate it into my personal relationships. I’ve tried to think of loving people as helping them become a better version of themselves. When an opportunity arises for me to do something good for someone, I try to think about how the act might be perceived from their perspective. Am I helping them achieve their goals, or am I merely trying to assimilate them to mine? For example, rather than giving people unsolicited advice about a situation they’re in, I try to instead ask them questions about what they’re hoping for in the situation and tailor my suggestions toward their desired outcomes.
Both on an interpersonal level and a systemic level, I’ve come to believe that we all really need to be more proactive about setting love free. Using the idea of love as a justification for selfish accumulation of power and control has led to the most have all been justified as “loving” people enough to introduce them to the purportedly superior western, white, and wealthy value systems. And it is often called “love” when parents place their gay children into “reparative therapy” programs in an attempt to “cure” them of their aberrant sexuality. This shit needs to stop. This is not love.
Love is empowering people to be black in all of their blackness, rather than insisting that they be more like white people.
Love is empowering people to be queer in all of their queerness, rather than insisting that they be more like straight people.
Love is empowering people to more of what they are and not more of what we want them to be.
Love is helping people into the full realization of their potentialities for being.
Love is liberation.