I’ve written previously regarding the issue of a theology of romantic love in conversation with Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That post was, in many ways an elaboration on earlier posts related to the nature of sexual identity in Christian perspective. Here I want to explore the issue further from the standpoint of a pacifist ethic. Whether or not one accepts a thoroughgoing pacifism, I think that this sort of ethic of romance will prove germane to all.
The key issue, as was explored in conversation with Bonhoeffer comes down to the sort of love that we are called, as Christians to embody in our relationships with one another. The love that is propagated in our late-capitalist culture is one that is fundamentally acquisitive. The only sort of romantic love we really know is one which obtains satiation through possession of the other. This is displayed poignantly in the Death Cab for Cutie’s most recent single, “I will Possess your Heart.” The music video makes supremely explicit the sort of possessive and indeed, coercive love that lies at the center of this sort of notion of romance. In the video (which is prefaced with a four-minute jam session, so we get to see quite a lot) we see an alluring, yet somewhat plain young woman traveling the world alone, experiencing all sorts of exotic and different places and realities, all the while listening to an unseen male suitor sing to her that, given enough time spent together, he will possess her heart:
How I wish you could see the potential, the potential of you and me
It’s like a book elegantly bound, but in a language that you can’t read – just yet
You gotta spend some time–love, you gotta spend some time with me
And I know that you’ll find–love, I will possess your heart
What is fascinating about this song is its utterly coercive and (epistemologically) violent perspective. The male interlocutor can clearly see the potential of their union as lovers, which the female cannot see or even understand — its as unintelligible to her as a foreign language. She is told that she must spend time with him and as the result of that, her hear will be possessed by her aspiring lover. What is fascinating about these lyrics is their foregone closure. He knows that her heart will be possessed by him should they spend time together. He is certain, that, if he can simply draw her into his field of influence, that he will be able to possess her, to win her love, to realize the potential that she cannot see in their union.
Eventually the song bridges into its finale which is ultimately a turn to outright coercion:
You reject my advances and desperate pleas
I won’t let you, let me down so easily, so easily
In the face of potential rejection, the male refuses to allow his beloved’s rejection to have determinative value. He will not let her rejection have any final value or significance; her desires or lack of desire for him cannot ultimately be an object which is respected, it is always an obstacle to be overcome. No matter what, his pre-ordained design to “possess her heart” will be realized, whether she wishes it or not. The end of the desire for possession is ultimately violent coercion. The only possible peace and concord that can occur is through submission of the other to the desire of the self.
This, if anything is the romantic mythos of our age. What I wish to centrally highlight about this notion of romance is that it is, from beginning to end, agonistic and violent. The object of desire is just that, an object to be possessed and overcome through persuasion, and if necessary, violent coercion. The proliferation of sexual violence and the current mythology of romantic conquest and possession lie but a hairs breadth from each other. The disciplined male in this mythos, if rejected, must ultimately become a rapist, whether the violence employed be rhetorical or physical. To live within the contemporary myth of romantic love is to live within the economy of rape.
This is precisely why a truly Christian ethic of romantic love must differ fundamentally from that of the reigning mythos of romantic conquest, which for all practical purposes is the glorification of rape as the proper mode of eros, rather than its deformation. This is the most outrageous of the failures of the contemporary evangelical masculinity movement which explicitly enshrines this notion of violent conquest as the normal mode of maleness and male-female love. (See for example, the “ministry” known as “Godmen” or the many books of John Eldredge, which I will not offer links to.)
A truly Christian ethic of romantic love, however must take its bearings, not from the libido dominandi which rules our world’s imagination, but from the cruciform witness of Christ who loved, not through domination, but through serving and self-giving, even to the point of death. In accepting the cross, as John Howard Yoder notes, “Christ renounced the claim to govern history.” Christ refused to violently seize the wheel of history and attempt to turn it to his own ends, but rather, in complete faithfulness to the Father’s mission, embodied the self-giving love of the Trinitarian God to the fullest in the world, to the point of the dissolution of his own self in death. And it is only in this radical act of total self-giving, the very act of refusing to possess his own identity, that Christ receives from the Spirit of the Father the fullness of inexhaustible resurrection life. Christ’s eternal reality as the Trinitarian Son comes by way of the refusal of possession in the constant giving away of his self to the Father in the Spirit, and only thereby is Christ truly alive.
Thus, as Yoder goes on to say, “what Jesus renounced is not first of all violence, but rather the compulsiveness of purpose that leads the strong to violate the dignity of others.” It is precisely this compulsiveness of purpose leading to violence that underlies the current mythos of romantic love. Beneath the dark desire to possess the heart of one’s beloved lies a seemingly irrepressible obsession with the outcome of one’s romantic life. The movie Bridget Jones’s Diary or the much more erudite show, Sex and the City are perfect examples of this (which interestingly transpose the “male” anxiety for possession and conquest of the other onto female characters). Underneath the desire to allure and win the heart of the beloved lies a bottomless fear of being alone, of being undesired, of being a failure. In short, our romantic longings are but microcosms of the greater tendency of sinful humanity to seize control of their existence through violence. As such, our romantic mythology is simply another specimen of the sort of violence that Jesus rejected in favor of the way of self-giving love to the point of death. And, as the resurrection proclaims, it is only in embracing the way of self-giving that true life can be received. The only way for one to experience the truly redeemed, Christic reality of romantic love is for us to adopt this same pattern in rejecting the myth of romantic conquest and possession.
However, it must be stressed that this is not simply another strategy for satiating our desires through different methods. To again quote Yoder, “The point is not that one can attain all of one’s legitimate ends without using violent means. It is rather that our readiness to renounce our legitimate ends whenever they cannot be attained by legitimate means itself constitutes our participation in the triumphant suffering of the Lamb.” It may well be that we cannot attain our desired ends through the life of self-giving, but should not trouble us. For the life of cruciform self-giving is itself our participation in victory of Christ, and as such in the eternal life of Trinitarian love. Anything that cannot be ordered to participation in this end is not just a waste of time, it is bondage to the powers of death, pure and simple.
What is offered in Christ is not a way to get our perceived romantic needs met through different means, but rather the invitation to participate by grace in the triumphant love of the Crucified. We are invited to let go of our attempts to violently and coercively control our history, including our desires for marital union. To again commandeer Yoder, “might it be, if we could be freed from the compulsiveness of the vision of ourselves as the guardians of history, that we could receive again the gift of being able to see ourselves as participants in the loving nature of God as revealed in Christ?” Yes, I submit that this is indeed what we must hope for and live into in our attempt to subject our romantic desires to the discipline and transfiguration of the kingdom of God. In renouncing the claim to govern our own stories we are given the gift of crucifying the contemporary idol of romantic love. This is the ethic of romance appropriate to the endlessly exciting vision of peace that is unveiled for us in Christ, through whom we are admitted into the Trinitarian discourse of love. It is in this way that we are invited into the apostolic mission, of having nothing and yet possessing everything.