Comparative Love

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

—Jesus Christ (Luke 14:26, ESV)

This passage from the Gospel has always given me pause: Why would Jesus, who commands us to love our neighbor and our enemy, here suggest hatred of our family members? The most common explanation is that Jesus hyperbolizes: He doesn't really mean you should hate them, he just means your love of them should appear as hatred next to your much greater love of God.

This interpretation has never quite satisfied me, as it suggests that a love of God and love of family are set in competition with one another, and that loving your family "too much" would mean loving God less. This interpretation, as I am now coming to understand, is based on a common and deeply flawed understanding of love, in which love exists insomuch as an equal and opposite hatred (or apathy) exists to prove it by contrast. This "love" is what Jesus addresses in Luke 14:26.

Now, I doubt anyone would consciously admit the belief that love exists only in balance with hatred, but examples are innumerable.

In October 2006, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a man stormed an Amish school and killed several girls. The day after the shootings, many Amish people visited the shooter's family to say they had forgiven him. That sort of forgiveness is incomprehensible to the world; because of it, people have even accused the families of being bad parents, of not dealing properly with their anger, of living in denial.

—Francis Chan, Crazy Love

In this case some thought the Amish parents loved their daughters less because they refused to hate their daughters' murderer - as if love for the children and for the murderer were on opposite sides of a see-saw, and an increase in one would diminish the other. In other words, these critics believed in a divisive love proven by hatred.

Likewise romantic love, in the world's eyes, is proven by an equal and opposite lovelessness:

I don't know if we're in a garden
Or on a crowded avenue
You are here, so am I
Maybe millions of people go by
But they all disappear from view
And I only have eyes for you

—I Only Have Eyes For You (lyrics by Al Dubin)

Here the singer declares, "I love you so much that I don't care about anything or anyone else". Apathy (a form of hatred) toward "maybe millions of people" proves the depth of devotion to the beloved.

Break-ups provide another common example. Friends gather around, comforting with words like "He's an asshole! He doesn't deserve you," and shunning the dumper, in a demonstration of love and loyalty for the dumped.

Many people demonstrate their "love" for Christ by hating other religions and worldviews. The depth of their devotion is proportional to how little respect or consideration they give any idea stemming from explicitly non-Christian sources. They feel that someone who seriously grapples with, say, the scripture of another religion, or atheist writings, must be lacking in faith. (Those with "faith" don't entertain other worldviews even for a moment.) This attitude is fallacious, loveless, and faithless in so many ways (more on that in a future post) but for now it's sufficient to say that here, a love for Christianity is proven by hatred for all other worldviews.

Such comparative love is the way of the world. But the love of God, and thus also true Christian love, holds all Creation in its embrace - friend and enemy, son and bully, spouse and ex. It's a love proved by love: The selfless love of your wife proves the selfless love of all women, and vice versa. The selfless love of the earth proves the selfless love of humanity, and vice versa. All love proves the love of God, and the love of God proves all love. All love exists in symbiosis.

One example of Christlike love comes from the period film Sweet Land. Olaf and Inge initially dislike each other, and the whole community dislikes Inge (who is German). But as Olaf works to save his friend Frandsen from foreclosure, he and Inge fall in love, and the community begins to welcome her and their marriage. In this film all love is symbiotic with all other love: Olaf's love for Frandsen nourishes Inge's love for Olaf and the community's love for Inge. No love is defined by a corresponding hatred.

And so, while the love of the world is divisive, the love of Christ is reconciliatory. Comparative love sets all things in competition. Christlike love calls all things into harmony. As we approach the likeness of Christ, the possibility of loving anyone "too much" vanishes.

But the inexhaustible, all-embracing love of God is hard to grasp, and in fact, sometimes appears as hatred or apathy. ("The greatest love seems indifferent", says the Tao Te Ching.) Thus Christ warns that you must be willing to "hate" your family - to be as bad a parent as the forgiving Amish - to become his disciple.

Further example: Comparative love and self-justification

When we fail to love indiscriminately and even to understand indiscriminate love, we project our perverse comparative love onto God. Under the influence of comparative love, we can only believe God tolerates us if we can convince ourselves that there are others whom he does not tolerate, and that we are sufficiently better than they. We can only believe we're good enough for Heaven if others are bad enough for Hell. Thus, in this sickly state, we rejoice to see others sin, thinking it improves our own standing. We become giddy at the idea of our enemies going to Hell. Just as we believe our family and friends love us in proportion to their hatred for others, we believe (usually implicitly, seldom explicitly) that God only loves us if he hates others - and can only save us if he damns others. We insist that for God's forgiveness and grace to be legitimate, they must be discriminate, dividing humanity through judgment of faith or deeds (or by some other means, e.g. election).

Implication: God's love of parasites

If we take seriously the all-encompassing love of God, we must reckon with the notion that God loves our enemies, just as he loves us. Not only our human enemies - terrorists, say - but also mosquitoes, viruses, harmful bacteria, weeds, crop-destroying pests, and parasites. We must be willing to accept that God delights in quack grass and guinea worms, not to mention cancer cells. If God loves humans, how could He possibly love cancer cells? Because God's love is not comparative and discriminate. Thus, learning to love all things - treating weeds with reverence as we pull them, for instance - brings our own love nearer to the love of God.

Question: Exclusivity in monogamy

The inclusivity of God's love seems to stand in contrast to the exclusivity of monogamous relationships, defined by choosing one person and rejecting all others. On the one hand, it seems possible (as mentioned above) to love all people through fidelity in marriage - that is, your devotion to your spouse is a blessing not only to your spouse but to all. On the other hand, the manner in which people choose a significant other most often severely lacks anything resembling the love of God: They award love on the basis of merit, excluding all those less merited. (Whether the filtering criteria are "shallow" or "deep", it's still a comparative, merited love and thus, very unlike the love of God.)

Surprisingly, the Bible doesn't forbid polygamy. Christian tradition does, and the examples of polygamy in the Bible seem to suggest that it wouldn't necessarily improve the condition of the heart, which is the root of the problem anyhow. (Old Testament law includes protections for wives who are less favored, and several examples exist of polygamists who played favorites with their wives, exercising the same comparative love as a monogamist choosing between suitors.) Besides, the Old Testament polygynist model of marriage seems to lend itself well to dehumanizing women.

So, how best can sexual relationships become a vessel for the inclusive love of God?

Contradiction: Jesus' dualistic teachings

This thought process was inspired by the above teaching of Jesus, but there are many more along these lines:

And someone said to him, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" And he said to them, "Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able."

—Luke 13:23-24

This teaching and many others like it suggest that God will divide the population into two groups: some people will be saved, most will be destroyed without hope of reconciliation. Such passages are impossible to ignore or dismiss, and seem to contradict the whole point I'm making, that the love of God is universal and not based on merit. So, while my new understanding of Luke 14:26 is helpful and probably an improvement over that which I was taught, it can't be the final word.