Labelling and love

good samaritanWalter Brueegemann, one of the most influential contemporary theologians put his finger on a key issue for Christians — labelling others. “To beat each other up with labels like capitalism or communism or socialism is simply a waste of time.”  [I’d add LGBTQ, atheistic humanism and all political labels to that list!] Labels get in the way of what Jesus was trying to get across to us — what Brueegemann calls “neighbourliness.” He wrote “The discussion needs to start with what it means to be made in the image of God. The confession of the Christian faith is that all of God’s human creatures are made in the image of God. That means they are to be treated with dignity, offered maintenance and security, as is necessary. . . The only thing that will change people’s minds about this is getting to know people who are (different than you are).”

 But what if  (the labelled group) is out to subvert my way of life and harm my children and family?

Labelling, which flows out of fear is incompatible with being a neighbour. Suspending your use of labels and taking risks is what it means to love one’s neighbour. That is the essence of Jesus’s parable about the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan, an outsider and not an accepted religious practitioner, took the risk to rescue and care for the man who had been beaten by robbers even though he didn’t know the man. St Paul summarized the importance of this parable for Christians: “Love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.” (Romans 13: 9-10)

There is an epidemic of labelling in the media and on the Internet, which flows into our conversations and even our beliefs. We need to guard against being infected by this. Labelling has no place in the Christian community!

“Power is what makes love generative.”

I recently read a powerful book about changing the “system,” Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change by Adam Kahane. In it the author describes how both the proper use of power and the proper use of love must walk together to achieve lasting social change. Here is his most basic point (founded on the thinking of Paul Tillich, the noted theologian):

  • “Love has two sides, one generative and the other degenerative.
  • “Our love is generative when it empowers us and others; when it helps us, individually and collectively, to complete ourselves and grow.
  • “Our love is degenerative — sentimental and anemic, or worse — when it overlooks or denies or suffocates power.

What does it mean to “love with power”?

Given Kahane’s insight, Christians need to understand that love must be associated with power in an appropropriate way if we are to “love our neighbor as ourselves” as God commands.  We need, however,  to realise that love can also be destructive, of ourselves and others, if we misuse our power.  This is a difficult area to understand because the word power has so many different meanings and connotations — almost as many as the word love.  Kahane uses Tillich’s definition of power as his starting point: “Power is the drive of everything living to realise itself, with increasing intensity and extensity — the drive to achieve one’s purpose, to get one’s job done, to grow.” He also uses Tillich’s definition of love as “the drive toward the unity of the separated.” To love with power requires that we be able to discern when our drive to power and our drive to love are in balance and appropriate.

How do we love?

It is easier for us to understand our individual drive to power — to get things done, to achieve our purpose. But what does it mean to have a drive “toward the unity of the separated” as Tillich says? What in me is fragmented, and who in my life am I separated from? If I see myself as completely whole and already having deep intimate relationships — as a perfect person, completely in command of my own actions and relationships and life — then my self-love is unrealistic. All of us know that there are good and bad parts of ourselves, and healthy and less healthy relationships in our lives. Generally, most of us know we aren’t perfect, that we’re on a “journey,” still growing and maturing.  We realise that there are parts of ourselves, and damaged relationships, which we want to unify, bring together, get closer to. Recognising the reality of our imperfection and acting on it is healthy self-love in Tillich’s view.

The vital role of power in loving well

Martin Luther King said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” If we simply have a desire to love ourselves and our neighbors — a warm and fuzzy feeling about ourselves and all humanity — and do nothing, then our love is hollow. We must exercise our power to actually love.  But our power can also be degenerative and, if we use our power in the wrong way then we stifle or even pervert our love into something else. Misused power is “power over” another person — valuing my own purposes, growth and objectives over another person’s purpose, growth and objectives. Appropriate power is “power with” another person, helping them become complete, develop to their full potential, etc. Kahane gives a good example of both generative and degenerative power. A father using his power appropriately  “goes out to work, to do his job. The generative side of his power is that he can create something valuable in the world. The degenerative side of his power is that he can become so focused on his work that he denies his connection to his colleagues and family, and so becomes a robot or a tyrant.”

How does balancing love and power work in practice?

Kahane says that we must learn to employ both love and power  “like learning to walk on two legs.”  We can’t address difficult social problems and transformation while walking on only one leg — power or love. Like children, we need to learn a difficult skill: “moving first one leg and then the other and always being out of balance — or more precisely, always being in dynamic balance.”  The key is while we are focused on love, we must not forget power — and when we are focused on power, we must not forget love. This takes practice, stumbling, occasionally falling. But, with perserverance and grace, fully believing that both love and power are necessary in significant change situations, we learn dynamic balance.

How is this related to transforming local churches?

One of the difficulties in transforming a church is that everyone is very well aware of the primacy of love in the Christian pantheon of virtues. Conversely, power seems out of place. Jesus was God yet seemingly refused to exercise his divine power. Of course, if we all internalised Tillich’s definitions, then we would only have to learn how to dynamically balance love and power. But we don’t understand love and power like that and so, oftentimes, we lapse into degenerative love — emphasizing passivity in the face of the lack of unity, for example. We believe that there is one Body of Christ but we tolerate factions and divisiveness in our own church, let alone between different Christian religions. That kind of love in a church is, as M.L. King said, “sentimental and anemic.” Part of transforming our local church is learning how to confront issues that, in the interests of the growth of others, need to be faced. We must do that in a mode of  “power with” the other persons in our church, not forcing or manipulating but influencing them.

The greatest challenge in transformation, in my opinion, is for Pastors and Change Agents to learn the dynamic balance between generative love and power. If they fail to learn this practical skill, transformation will surely fail.