What is love?

SERMON  Evensong  Domestic and Family Violence Awareness Month Sunday 30 May

St John’s Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane

©Suzanne Grimmett

“I want to know what love is” was the cry of the 1984 soft rock ballad by Foreigner which became an instant hit, perhaps because it voiced the disappointment and confusion of so many. On an evening when we are exploring the scourge of family and domestic violence in our society, to look to love as the answer may seem inane and impotent. Love surely is the subject of romantic ballads and Hollywood movies, a language of useless platitudes or saccharine sentimentality and hardly a robust response to such a serious epidemic of violence.

But do we know what love is? At the heart of our faith, we say that God is love, and yet we seem to think it wishy washy, and prefer really to speak about a God of power. Whether we are to invoke a God of love, or a God of power is the kind of proposition that comes into sharp focus when questions of male headship are raised and verses from the letter to the Ephesians are quoted, as was recently by a public Christian leader who gave as the solution to domestic abuse;  “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Husbands are to love, but wives are to submit, with the later verse in Ephesians, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”, once again on this occasion ignored. It is like we cannot conceive of love existing outside a dynamic of hierarchical power. The problem is, as bell hooks puts it, “awakening to love can happen only as we let go of our obsession with power and domination.”[1] On this Trinity Sunday, the question of what kind of power is expressed in divine relationship could not be more critical. Do we worship a God who is an almighty ruler, to whom the Son and the Spirit are subject, and our human relationships echoes of the same hierarchy, or can the way of divine love point us to another kind of relationship entirely?

For many, the image of God is the absolute essence of power- and is therefore to be feared. It seems natural that our human relationships fall into that same pattern where love and affection must be earned and appropriate submission cultivated to avoid punishment. Perhaps this is why so often verses in the Bible that actually speak of submission to one another are twisted into the more easily understood shape of power over instead of power mutually surrendered. In domestic abuse, as in slavery, the freedom of the self is colonised by the dominant party whose ownership extends to the whole person: emotional, mental, physical, sexual, spiritual. In this Reconciliation week we are called to attend to the violent, systemic problem of colonisation which at its heart is about power of domination over the other. The dignity and communion promised through the incarnation is at odds with the structures of violent or controlling power which is present in all forms of colonisation.

In the same way domestic and family violence is not just an issue alongside other issues that we should focus on as church, highlighting the problem in an awareness month and keeping on our list of things we need to work on improving. Social researcher Jess Hill emphasizes that a fundamental social paradigm shift is required. Not only, she notes, is domestic abuse the number one threat to public safety, it is also our number one law and order issue. In Victoria, for example, it consumes 40 to 60 percent of police time on average, and that in spite of the statistic which tells us that only 20 per cent of victims who are experiencing abuse ever call police. On average, one woman a week in Australia is killed by a current or former partner. It is core business for our family law courts: more than 85 percent of cases feature abuse allegations…..one in four women report physical or sexual violence from a partner since the age of 16. [2]

In speaking to groups of women and hearing the stories of abuse that emerge as a safe sharing space is offered, I suspect this proportion could well be higher. Would you be surprised to know that a quarter of the women in your church have experienced intimate partner violence? Would it be safe for these women to share their stories? Further, the nature of colonising relationships is that with a loss of personhood comes a loss of the sense of what is normal or healthy in a relationship, making it harder still to seek or provide support. You don’t reveal what you don’t see as a problem, even if it is slowly killing you. Like the frog in the boiling water, the creep of control can escalate in increments, with stories abounding of women whose partners began by being sometimes resistant to them seeing their friends and ended with accusations of adultery, tracking phone calls and barring them from leaving the house.  bell hooks notes that patriarchy and capitalism have marched hand in hand together as structures of domination. Replacing the larger familial community and extended kinship network with privatised small family units hidden in separate suburban dwellings has increased social isolation and made abuse more possible, particularly for women and children who become dependant on the absolute rule of the father or mother behind the closed doors of the home.[3] This places even more importance on the need for alert, enlightened bystanders, or good friends to see that something is very wrong, and find a way to ask, to notice, to listen deeply.

This is not an isolated issue affecting a few but a pandemic in our community that affects everyone. How can the power of love resist such violent and oppressive forces, lift up the lowly, bind up the broken hearted, and embolden the meek? We talk a lot about love in the church, but I wonder sometimes if we truly believe it to be the only power that can transform us, or if we are relying on the same old mechanisms of self-advancement we have always known. Love itself puts power on trial, revealing its incapacity to serve love’s purposes.[4] Our culture and indeed our church so often misguidedly believe that love can be present where one group or individual dominates another. It is as if love is a kind of add on softening agent to the divine power which ultimately controls our lives. But Scripture never says “God is power”, but rather “God is love”. Love does not balance out the dominating power of God, but rather love is the power of God. There should be no hierarchy in our relationships because there is no hierarchy in the dance of the Trinity, but a flow of mutuality and interdependence into which we are invited to participate as the new family of God.

The church has not only been silent, but with the doctrine of headship, has actively supported structures of dominance and control. Too many have embraced that because ‘God sacrificed his Son’, a sacrifice of the self to the other is required- wives to husbands, servants to masters- at the expense of self-affirming dignity. [5] Too often the church’s counsel has been to preserve a marriage at all costs, when the healthy, loving and life-giving response to cruelty is to put yourself out of harm’s way. Too many have mistaken the self-demeaning, passive acceptance of abuse as an expression of Christian love. This all comes at a great and terrible cost, including to the men who have been socialised to believe that their manhood is affirmed when they are emotionally withholding and whose will to dominate places an impenetrable barrier between them and real love. This is a tragedy for us all. Too often we fail to imagine a different way of being together. The startling claim of the gospel is that we can be changed, our social structures of oppression which we too often accept can be transformed. It is why Jesus tells story after story of what the kingdom of God is like when the incarnation ceases to be interpreted as a once off event and is repeated in the lives of men and women everywhere, open to the spirit. When we consider the strength in our society of patriarchal ideas, of twisted and damaging views of masculinity, we need to ask ourselves how much we as church have remained wedded to our own culture and failed to be the salt and light that is so needed in transforming our understanding of love and human relationships. We need to take up the work of love embedded in justice; a power greater than any will to control, stronger than any hierarchy and capable of liberating us to the space where we might all finally know what love is.                                         

[1] bell hooks All About Love: New Visions (HarperCollins, New York: 2001) , p87

[2] From Jess Hill, “Australia’s Number One Law and order issue: addressing the scourge of domestic violence”, The Monthly, May 2021

[3] bell hooks, all about love: new visions, Harper Collins, USA: 2001, 130.

[4] Keller, Catherine, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2008) 94

[5] Keller, Catherine, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2008) 114.

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