The Power of Love by Marcia Mount Shoop


Love does not create powerful empires or concentrations of wealth or military might. Love is not what fuels the tanks of commerce or political clout or financial success. Many would say that love slows things down, mires us in complication. Love is not the way the successful and the effective move–it’s not fast enough, it’s not ruthless enough, it’s not excellent enough.

It’s no coincidence that women have often been seen as the carriers of love–the mothers of how we are loved and how we wish to be loved. The domain of women has been traditionally seen as “behind the scenes.” Women are the nurturers, the familiar narrative goes. Women are the ones who provide a soft landing after a hard day, an understanding ear for all the stresses of the world “out there.”

The extended narrative is that women will have to become masculinized to “play the game” of public life. Women will have to learn to be “like men” in order to compete, in order to win, in order to make an impact. Underneath these narratives of nurture and impact are the contours of power in patriarchy. Imprinting women with the responsibility to love in a context where love is secondary or even tertiary to things like aggression and competition, means women will often relegate themselves to the margins of public power. Not because we think we should be powerless, but because that’s where we often feel the most at home. And sometimes ceding public power can feel like the price women pay to truly love–to love ourselves, to love who we love, and to love the world around us. The contours of power in patriarchy can distort not just women’s lives, but everyone’s lives in ways that carry the weight of this distortion of love.

These gendered expectations of how and where love gets to live and move and breathe in this world distorts the power that love brings with it. After almost ten years of life working from the margins of institutions (church and academy) as an independent scholar and “freelance theologian” I have felt the push back about love as a respectable methodology and mode of operation enough to recognize it quickly.

Institutions often answer my invitation to a loving attentiveness to bodies, particularly to traumatized bodies, with legalities and anxieties: the language of “boundaries,” “reporting laws,” and “misconduct” can shut down work or conversation. The patriarchal hyper-sexualizing of love makes it a no-no or at least something to be feared as a slippery slope in institutional life. In ecclesial settings, where love is supposed to define our mode of operation, these conversations rapidly find their way to sin and human failure. Love is “in spite of” who people are, not because of who they are. Love is impossible without lots of grace and patience and overlooking the problematic things that people do. Love is, if we’re honest with ourselves in these contexts, a real chore in this iteration of its nature. And people default into feeling like a burden, not wanting to bother anyone with their problems, and feeling ashamed of who they really are.

Love is about trust: trusting a moment, trusting a space, trusting each other. And love struggles in contexts where spaces, moments, and people are not trustworthy. So many with whom I work in consulting, retreats, spiritual direction, and teaching struggle to trust and to love. They struggle to trust and love anything because they have encountered so many untrustworthy spaces along the way. The competitive intensity of doing good work can translate into a diminishing and demeaning cycle of “never enough” and the need to protect and defend.

It is amazing to witness what happens to people when they realize they can trust a space–even if it is just a temporary space, a pop-up beloved community where you can really be yourself and won’t be judged or scrutinized. The conventional standards of excellence might suggest such settings work from the lowest common denominator and the generated “product” will suffer from a lack of competition or lack of scrutiny. On the contrary, I see over and over again the beautiful things people can be and do and say and feel when they are loved and accepted. Art, poetry, unique insights, oratorical wisdom, powerful music, deep healing, a sense of freedom, clarity, creativity, peace, support, friendship, and good work all emerge in startling and potent ways when people encounter trustworthy love.

The academy and the church define themselves as places where people can learn and grow and find community. These institutions were formed by patriarchy, but are they doomed to reiterate the diminishing returns of patriarchy forever? Their aspiration is to help people find their way in the world in the most constructive ways they can. And in the world today, people need trustworthy love to truly find the music of their soul. The power of love can transform the spaces of enlightenment and ecclesia into truly collaborative, supportive, loving places of work. Far from screeching to a halt, these spaces might finally hit their stride.

Marcia Mount Shoop is an author, theologian, and minister. Her newest book, released MMS Headshot 2015from Cascade Books in October 2015, is A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches, co-authored with Mary McClintock Fulkerson. Marcia is also the author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010) and Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade, 2014).  Find out more at www.marciamountshoop.com

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Feminism, General

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24 replies

  1. Your post reminds me of a line in John Cobb’s new book about the Abba of Jesus. He said that when he began to define God as a loving Father rather than a dominating law-giver and judge, he was told he was making God into a “wimp” by other male theologians.

    On another front, I am reminded of trying to create a space of trust where growth could occur on many levels in my classrooms. I ended up doing double the work of most professors, trying to help students learn to think and write (even in regard to that a lot of profs didn’t think was their problem) and also spending endless hours talking to them about incest, rape, and so forth (which they never brought up to other profs).

    We have a long way to go.

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    • Thank you for your comment, Carol. I responded yesterday but I just noticed that it is not showing up! As I said in the previous comment I thought I left, John Cobb is one of my heroes. And I hear you about how labor intensive being someone who lets love lead the way can be in the spaces formed by patriarchy. So much of my work these last several years has been about the invitation to practice new ways of being together that allow love to lead the way, but not be so draining. Embodied practices are the focal point of that invitation. And yes, when we clear space for trust to actually become a reality, often stories of sexual violence surface and need to be heard. Thank you, again, for commenting. I am sorry my comment didn’t show up yesterday!
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  2. “People need trustworthy love to truly find the music of their soul.” Yes, those “spaces of enlightenment” — not just find it, but also express it. Thanks so much, Marcia, for this profound and sensitive post.

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    • Thank you, Sarah. I had written a reply to your comment yesterday. I am sorry I am just noticing that it didn’t show up! I appreciate your affirmation. And I agree with you so very much about the need for expression to have space to emerge. And those expressions need space to be idiosyncratic–some spoken, some non-verbal, some artistic or musical, etc. Thank you again for your comment.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  3. Such a grounding essay. Thank you.

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  4. Beautifully stated, Marcia. I have found this base of love and trust in our Madison Monthly Meeting (Quakers) here in Wisconsin. And in our current State of Society report that I helped to draft, we noted that the basis for our internal decision-making and going out into the world in so many ways now is that love and trust and respect for each other. It is quite a gift to experience and live this place. Thanks for your post!

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  5. Thank you for reading and for your affirmation.
    Peace,
    Marcia

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  6. Thank you Marcia. The first part of my life was about survival, the next part was about healing. Now it is about loving. The all work together in some way, but at times there is a “major” and a “minor” section. This time I’m living in a housing complex that promotes sustainable and healthy food, and mature relationships. I’ll keep your post for encouragement.

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  7. Thank you for this essay, Marcia. My being relaxed into it as I read.

    Barbara Cooper, your living place sounds like exactly what I want. May I ask where it is?

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  8. Even women have to fight against violent rape and abduction especially in the Middle East and Africa, but soon probably i Europe and in the USA as well if we do not begin to use our logic in combination with pure love. That is why pure love always must come in balance with logic. One is nothing without the other.

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    • Thank you for your comment. I hope you can tell me more. As a rape survivor myself I am not clear on how logic addresses that reality. Can you tell me about what you mean by logic? I do not understand love as somehow illogical. Love, like any kind of power, can be abused and become harmful when distorted. I am describing how the most powerful (e.g. life-giving, constructive, transformative) forms of love are those that give people room to be who they are made to be in a trustworthy space. Of course, violence destroys trust. Many scholars like myself describe USA as a rape culture, so I agree with you about the constant threat of violence in cultures all around the world. And in these non-trustworthy contexts, love languishes. I hope to hear more from you about your understanding of logic in these contexts.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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      • To understand something deeply, we must not think fleetingly. To feel something deeply we must not try to feel something fleetingly. Thinking in many steps, looking deeply at the facts and then combining it with deep care and emotion is the right way.

        If we are lucky this happens in meditation, the same kind of meditation that Jesus performed.

        If we lack the ability to understand logic or emotion it can be explained to us. And how do we understand the lack of logic or emotion in our own minds? We must ask others and tell them to be honest towards us, really honest unless we can be honest with ourselves.

        Nothing that happens happens because of nothing. Everything has a cause and an effect. If we all do good and clever things good and clever things happen more and more.

        Some people have chosen to believe in violent scriptures/cultures/erotics that degrade women, talk about ethinc/religious cleansing, some people has chosen to approve of it or focus on it. The one that choose to be naive and passive to reality is likely to suffer from reality as do people suffer in this world right now.

        The one who see reality for what it is and begin to do the decent thing is more likely to make things better for all of us and of course at the same time for himself or herself since we all are included in the concept “all”.

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  9. Marcia, another deeply felt and moving article about the way we are changing in this loud and crazy country.
    Thank you. I remember our many talks at the barn about the Shift and I admire that you are in the front lines! Well done. The time is drawing near!

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    • Thank you, Mary Lou. I remember those conversations fondly as well. Time with horses is an important part of this practice for me. Their intuitions and our deep connections have profoundly initiated me into this shift. I am thankful to share that experience with people like you!
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  10. After reading this I am definitely thinking about not only the power of love , but the ways in which women are somehow thought to posess a type of”love” yet we are seen as weak and unable to be ourselves or like men. I have struggled with love in this world in defining it , giving up hope in people and places, and always having a wall up. I am glad to hear that you are sharing how love is something intense , and that we are all entitled to be ourselves and are not defined based on others and we should love ourselves and others.

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    • Thank you for your response, Rebecca. I hear that the complexities and intensities of love in this culture surface live questions for you. Even as this same love tells you who you truly are. You state this dynamic very clearly and powerfully. Loving our way through these things takes a lot of practice and trustworthy communities and connections are food for the heart AND soul! Thank you, again, for reading and for sharing your thoughts here.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  11. Marcia–
    Your writing is very powerful and I can tell that you speak from a place where there have been a fair share of altercations with the proverbial heart. I agree with you that the concept of love has been deeply rooted within the female population and also agree that this is not fair. In addition to not being fair, love and nurture has been looked upon by the patriarchal infrastructure we live in as something of a shortcoming or weakness. Boys would and still do refer to other boys who play with “dolls” as being a sissy because there is nothing more “un-boy-like” than feeding a bottle to a pretend baby. These are learned ideals and the only way to change them is to re-teach the importance of care to our children. The irony of it all is that a greater percentage of women hold careers in early childhood education than do men. Why? Again, this has to do with the patriarchal society that has really become a fixture in our country after the industrial revolution. Other than big factories, the industry revolutionized was how information became disseminated to our citizenry. The media is the number one culprit in furthering the notion of acceptable gender roles within America. Who was in charge? Wealthy white men were at the helm. In the 40s and 50s gender roles were solidified and education reflected this new standard. Boys played sports, rode bikes, and wrestled and girls played with dolls, dressed up, and made pies in mini kitchens. Which was harder to do? Was it harder to catch a ball, or was it harder to stop a crying baby while not burning the pie in the oven? I believe the latter.
    You state, “The domain of women has been traditionally seen as “behind the scenes”.” Well, I agree with you. I also would like to take that statement and put it in entertainment terms. When we think of a movie winning an award for best picture, we think of films like, The Wizard of Oz, The Ten Commandments, Lawrence of Arabia, Jaws, Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, E.T., and Pulp Fiction to name several. What are the two things that each of these movies have in common? The first, and probably best known attribute is that each of these films were directed by a man. The second thing that each of these films all have in common is that were also edited by a woman. There is nothing more “behind the scenes” as the position of film editor. In fact, many film buffs would agree that the editor is the one who controls how the movie turns out. Unfortunately, the media does not want us to know the names of the editors, or the importance that they should be given. I would argue that it takes much more than love and nurturing, but rather patience and perseverance to organize 1-200 hours of footage than it does to shoot it.
    I would like to end with a quote from bell hooks’s, Love as the Practice of Freedom:

    “Without an ethic of love shaping the direction of our political vision and our radical aspirations, we are often seduced, in one way or the other, into continued allegiance to systems of domination―imperialism, sexism, racism, classism.”

    Thank you for staying true to your heart, and for continuing to practice love over fear and complacency.
    All the best,
    Ben

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