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 from 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