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A Pacifist Ethic of Romantic Love

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.

15 Comments

  1. Well done. I too was struck by the coercive nature of the song and thought it as the proverbial tip of the ice burg.

    Friday, August 15, 2008 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Nathan Smith wrote:

    Death Cab’s corpus is full of deficient concept of love. I have actually thought about doing a post on this. The most common theme is “We fell out of love, nothing we could do, oh well.” That shows up clearly in “Title and Registration” (“there’s no blame for how our love did surely fade”), “Summer Skin” (“we left our love in our summer skin”) and “The Ice is Getting Thinner” (“there was little we could say, and even less we could do, to stop the ice from getting thinner under me and you”). Interestingly enough, those last two songs even use the exact same season-change metaphor, just with different seasons. Needless to say, my enjoyment of Death Cab has gone down a bit thanks to the utter silliness of how they approach love.

    Friday, August 15, 2008 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, even the music video itself seemed really shallow and pedantic. Though I admit, I enjoy the song. Reminds me a bit of Transatlanticism.

    Too bad its so terribly, terribly wrong.

    Friday, August 15, 2008 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    I used to love DCFC, still like the really early stuff, but as you’ve noticed, their “romantic” songs are just retarded. This is what happens when otherwise geeky and socially maladapted guys finally find success with the ladies late in life.

    Friday, August 15, 2008 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  5. Andreas wrote:

    I have never heard the band before, but I really enjoyed your post. Helped me get some focus on this issue of romantic love. It just brings out how extremely hard love is.

    A year back I got my eyes on this girl that just swept me off my feet, she had this beauty, calm and grace about her that was just overwhelming to me. But it turned out that she wasn’t really looking for someone, at least this is what she said, and she had an ethnic background that would have explained it. And the question just hits me. How long am I supposed to be intrusive? Should I just give something up that I’ve been waiting for all my life? Was I wrong wanting to be involved with what she radiated? Or shouldn’t there be a place for a theological concept of attraction? We are attracted to God and our hearts have no peace until we find comfort in him, but isn’t it a good thing to be attracted to human beauty as well? As a matter of fact. Part of the reason why I stopped making moves on her was that her whole persona just gave me deep respect for her, she couldn’t be possessed I guess, and I would just have felt like a fool if I were to continue.
    So is wanting a “piece” of her inherently negative? Might not attraction be a starting point for growing love? Or what? Drives me crazy….
    Thanks again for the post!

    Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 6:00 am | Permalink
  6. eriol11 wrote:

    Don’t be so hard on the band, since they have said in various interviews that “Possess Your Heart” is written from the point of view of a stalker, so it’s necessarily deficient.

    And thank you for the post. I hope that I’ve lived in this kind “Pacifist Romance,” and I get sick of how is seems that dating or romance seems to be predicated on being a dick. Sorry for my french, there just doesn’t seem to be a (clean) word for this kind of idiocy.

    Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 2:39 pm | Permalink
  7. dcrowe wrote:

    I was shocked to find such a great meditation on romantic love growing out of contemplation of Death Cab for Cutie. Well done.

    Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    Halden, your post reminded me of a collection of essays compiled by Leon and Amy Kass entitled Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar. I was curious if you were familiar with it? If not, I heartily recommend it. While the Kasses’ association with the First Things crowd might be somewhat off-putting, I can assure you they are the real deal, and the book is a real treasure, especially for anyone contemplating the nature of romantic love within the Abrahamic tradition (the Kasses are Jewish). They drawn on authors from Homer to Thomas Aquinas to Erasmus to Tolstoy to modern essayists. Fiction, non-fiction, prose, poetry, you name it. While one might not agree in totally unambiguous terms with every source in the collection, it is an amazing resource for reflection and well worth the money.

    http://undpress.nd.edu/book/P00604

    Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  9. J A Frazer Crocker, Jr. wrote:

    Another writer on ‘Theology of Romantic Love’ was Charles Williams. His book “The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante”
    is great. A useful exposition is Mary Shideler “The Theology of Romantic Love.”

    Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 7:50 pm | Permalink
  10. For the unregenerate, possessive love is the epitome of romance. Ayn Rand’s depictions of passion all resound rape, with pleasure experienced by both partners in the possessing of one another. Each seeks their own satisfaction in the other, not treating the other as a god, but assuming themselves to be a god, and the other to be and end to their own satisfaction. Sex resembles a commercial transaction where both parties to the deal perceive themselves to be better off.
    In Christ we give the rights to ourselves to Him. Union among believers then is His to create. He gives stewardship of each to the other, in order to satisfy the other. Only those with a regenerate nature are capable of this giving in love consistently.
    I’m not sure why the Eldridge books present such a challenge to this view. Inasmuch as masculinity and femininity have been damaged by the world and by bad teaching in the church we need to redeem them.
    Giving in love need not be androgenous, or only feminine, or only masculine.
    Ironically, the possessing of the other Rand illustrates never legitimizes a claim of the life of the other. Christian marriage on the other hand is a wholecloth transfer of rights to Christ and then to the other.
    We each have rights in the life of the other.

    Sunday, August 17, 2008 at 5:12 am | Permalink
  11. james wrote:

    I don’t see why a particular fellow giving a woman a “hard sell” should be considered violent. Romantic pursuit shouldn’t be demonized as though it could happen “peacefully” for Christians. I don’t see any alternative to the mating and courtship rituals (fancy gill colors, feathers, dances) passed on for eons by evolution. Short of rape, I think we are all just passing on genes. You must give an account of that somewhere in your theology. I suppose you put it under “powers” That seems much too bleak.

    Sunday, August 17, 2008 at 9:14 am | Permalink
  12. William wrote:

    I enjoyed this post, but I am having trouble figuring out how these principles of pacifist romance would appear in a present-day narrative. That is, you’ve done a great job providing a number of examples of coercive romance, but do you have a present-day song or story in mind that illustrates the pacifist ethic? Can it be read in Song of Solomon? Just curious.

    Sunday, August 17, 2008 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  13. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    This is wonderful, Halden, thanks.

    Sunday, August 17, 2008 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  14. Chris wrote:

    Wonderful, indeed. To state the obvious, self-absorption is too much with us in the West, as I think you capture poetically in the following: “To live within the contemporary myth of romantic love is to live within the economy of rape.”

    Alas.

    Wednesday, August 20, 2008 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  15. bapun wrote:

    once often i fil in love but i cant do like him but whAT CAN DO

    Monday, October 6, 2008 at 3:03 am | Permalink

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