I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood, the grandchild of Slovak immigrants. When I started dating, I got asked a question: “Is she Slovak?”
That sounds odd, but it makes sense. Immigrants cherished their cultures and traditions. Their food, their language, their polkas – all were a source of comfort in the new world.
They wanted their traditions to persist and thrive, so they thought it important for Slovaks to stay with Slovaks. And Italians with Italians. And Hungarians with Hungarians. And the Polish with the Polish.
And so on, with so on.
Other relatives had very different question when they heard I was dating. They’d ask: “Do you like her?”
Such different approaches to relationship within one family!
It’s not at all surprising. If you think about it, those two approaches have been in a constant tug throughout human history. Is relationship primarily about maintaining the status quo? Or is it about something else, something much more personal?
The truth is that although we enjoy fairytales about love overcoming great obstacles, it’s been far different in how we live. We’ve been more interested in creating obstacles to love. Most often in real life, lowly Cinderella doesn’t get to dance with the prince, and Beauty isn’t allowed to love the Beast.
This month prompts that discussion again: Is relationship primarily about love or something else?
Beauty isn’t allowed to love the Beast
Fifty years ago this month, the Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage. Two years ago this month, the court ruled for marriage equality. Both decisions went against the tide and prompted a backlash, which is understandable.
Putting love first is a significant evolution. It shakes things up.
For most of human history, love hasn’t been the essential element in the relationship equation. Women have been treated more as property than persons, unable even to choose their spouse. Royalty couldn’t marry a commoner. Interfaith marriages were opposed by religions. People of different races or ethnic backgrounds met resistance. Gay and transgender people were barred.
Relationships were seen as a way to keep people in their assigned places. Everything else was an after-thought.
What’s love got to do with it? Well, actually: Love has everything to do with it! Or at least it should.
Love is the starting point for every meaningful human endeavor, the heart of anything truly spiritual and God-filled. Without it, our lives and our relationships become empty voids.
Our many relationships – including but not limited to marriage – must be centered in love alone. And we have clear examples of what that means and how it’s been so often resisted.
What’s love got to do with it?
For instance, Jesus formed relationships with those he was warned to avoid. He was told that God didn’t want him hanging out with Samaritans and Romans and tax collectors and women and fishermen and the poor and the needy and the sick.
Those people he was told not to love? He went out of his way to love them, which infuriated the religiously observant people who quoted their interpretation of scripture and their laws.
His response? Only love can fulfill the law. Love alone is the measure. And his followers must live by the same guideline. Their love must transcend and topple all barriers and limitations.
His love-first approach wasn’t popular then, or now. Let’s face it: We all have a problem with love and relationship. Our fears, insecurities and self-doubt get in the way. And our selfishness and our ego get confronted and directly challenged.
Who really wants that???
But here’s the flip side: Love alone takes us to the places we’re meant to go. Love beckons us to stop hiding behind our laws and fears and open ourselves to a deep experience of grace.
Loving relationships take us somewhere that we can’t go by ourselves. They bring us into a deep encounter with the God who is love. Our loving relationships are God’s way of transforming us.
A new tradition
While it’s true that traditional relationship has been about something other than love primarily, it’s time for change. Instead of asking whether two people in a relationship are of the same faith or race or background or anything else, let’s ask if there’s love – real love — at the heart of it.
And this goes not only for our most intimate relationships, but for all of them. It includes every encounter with another person at home, at work, in our faith community, on the street, on social media.
Is what we’re doing and saying based on love? If so, then we bless it and God blesses it.
Let’s continue the movement to redefine relationship, the way a rabbi did 2,000 years ago and the way so many others have done with their lives as well. Let’s make love the measure.
Love and love alone.