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 a tale as old as time: Is relationship about love primarily, or about something else? The two approaches have been in a constant tug throughout human history.
Although we enjoy fairy tales about love overcoming great obstacles, in reality the other viewpoint has carried the day most often. In real life, lowly Cinderella isn’t invited to dance with a prince. And Beauty can’t love the Beast.
This month highlights that tug 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.
We saw that clash of ideas clearly defined in the marriage equality ruling. The majority opinion by Justice Kennedy noted that marriage is an enduring bond that brings people into a deeper intimacy and spirituality.
As part of the dissent, Justice Scalia ridiculed the talk of intimacy and spirituality. He wrote that freedom doesn’t encompass spirituality, and that intimacy is “abridged rather than expanded by marriage.”
Well, what a romantic, huh? In his view, love is more of a prison. And the other dissenting justices argued that law takes precedence over love.
It’s understandable why there would be such a backlash against putting love first in relationship. 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 secondary.
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.
What’s love got to do with it?
As Paul puts it in the familiar passage from Corinthians that’s used at many marriages: We can be the most religious, most amazing, most advanced human being ever but if love isn’t the basis of all that we do, then none of it means anything.
Our lack of love doesn’t diminish our faith and actions; it renders them totally meaningless. And that goes especially for relationship.
Of course, Paul got his ideas from a rabbi who was warned by religious leaders to avoid having relationships with certain kinds people — Samaritans, Romans, Gentiles, tax collectors, fishermen, women, lepers, the poor, the needy, the sick, and on and on. Jesus’ response was to seek out those very people for loving, healing relationship.
He said that love and love alone fulfills the law, not anything else. 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: It’s more comfortable and convenient to make relationship about something else. And we all have a problem with love and relationship. Our fears, our insecurities and our self-doubt get in the way. Our selfishness and our egos get confronted and directly challenged.
Who really wants that???
But here’s the flip side: Loving relationships take us to places that we can’t go by ourselves. Here’s where I strongly disagree with Justice Scalia: Loving relationships aren’t prisons. Rather, love alone frees us from the prison of our insecurities and our fear and our shame and our self-absorption.
Only love can do that
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.
So this is a fitting time to recommit ourselves to making love the starting point and the reason for all our relationships. Let’s ask ourselves the question: What’s the loving thing to do right now? And then let’s try our best to do it.
Let’s make love the measure of all that we do. Love and love alone.