11/22/2008 View Comments
A Four-Letter Word
The pastor at Laker Life, a bible study that I sat in on for a few weeks, has said more than once to me, "Sid, you are wrong. You know I love you, but you are wrong." Another lady who attends the Laker Life meetings has also said to me in passing, "Love ya!" And in Denver, where a local atheist group commissioned a billboard that reads, "Don't believe in god? You are not alone," one Pastor Willard Johnson commented, "We denounce what they are doing. But we do it with love, with gentleness, with decency and with compassion."
I suppose I should feel blessed with all this freak'n love coming my way, but I don't.
How could I possibly be against something as good as love? Well, I'm not. But unlike the word "God", which could mean anything from the interceding tyrant of the Old Testament to a warm, fuzzy, amorphous blob of universal quasi-energy, the word "love" actually means something. Something important. Probably the most important thing in the world. It means something precious, so I don't care to see the word "love" thrown around like cheap glitter.
I have been extremely lucky to make the acquaintance of many fine people in my life. But if "love" means, "feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection," I could probably count on my fingers and maybe my toes all of the friends I truly love. And here is the hard part: out of those precious few friends outside of my family that I love, I only have the courage and opportunity to say, "I love you," to, at best, two or three.
So please excuse me if I feel a bit indignant when someone who hardly knows me claims to love me. Many people will pass through my life never knowing how profoundly they have changed my life for the better. None of the three strangers I mentioned in the beginning of this piece come even close to making such an impact on my heart, and I sincerely doubt that I have made such an impact on theirs.
Do you tell your wife and children that you beat them because you love them? "Love" is not just some four-letter word you can tack on to your conversations to make yourself appear more compassionate than you really are. Even in the wider sense, as in "love your neighbor as yourself," it requires empathy, compassion, and an honest interest in improving the beloved's well-being. I see little love in forcing a gay couple to jump through convoluted, expensive legal hoops to visit each other in the hospital, or inherit property, or make critical decisions for their partners and the children they care for- all rights that straight parents and spouses take for granted. I see little compassion in forcing women to risk their lives on coat hangers, knitting needles, poison, or shady profiteers, just because they had the selfish audacity to have sex. And I certainly don't see the love in equating atheism with amorality.
Note to Pastor Willard: when you denounce atheists speaking their minds and reaching out to others like them, don't say you do it with love. It has been the slander of the church that has isolated atheists, that has made it nearly impossible for us to be represented by one of our own in public office, that has forced many of us to hide our true thoughts from our business patrons, friends, and closest family members. It is that slander that inspires violence against us and builds walls between believers and non-believers. How cruel is it to say, "No, you can't tear down those walls. You can't have your say in the court of public opinion. You can't reach out to others who feel as alone as you once did?" Then to commandeer the word "love" to make it appear as if people who believe in God are the only ones who feel it -- I don't think the irony could get much thicker. Do you tell your wife and children that you beat them because you love them?
I'm certainly not one to begrudge true acts of love committed by Christians. Habitat for Humanity is one of my favorite charities, and it claims to be inspired by God. In fact, if "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" was all that Christianity was about, I'd sign up in a New York minute. Strip away the Holy Trinity, the rapture, the Ten Commandments, the crackers turning into flesh, the incoherent parables, the edict against women teaching in the church, the hostility to nearly all sexuality, and the bloody human-god sacrifice for an involuntary sinful nature, and you would have a religion anyone could sign up for. Except, there wouldn't be anything to sign up for.
The commandment, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself," is written on the hearts of all of us. Christian, Muslim, pagan, Taoist, Buddhist, agnostic, and yes, even atheist -- all have countless representatives acting upon an instinct for compassion, mercy, and charity. We come from a tradition of community, cooperation, and social responsibility that reaches back millions of years. This species has struggled against all odds and thrived because our ancestors worked together, because they loved one another. In this age of the global society, scarce resources, and weapons of mass destruction, the instinct for love is now more critical to our future than ever.
No, this instinct is not infinite, nor is it perfect. But that's okay. We don't need an infinite amount of love from our fellow humans; we only need a little bit more than what we know we deserve. And we don't need to be perfect; we only need to strive to be a little bit better than what we think we are capable of. This alone is sufficient to make the world a better place. It has to be. It's all we've got.