Friday, January 02, 2015

"Unconditional Love" and Leelah Alcorn

Let’s talk a bit about “unconditional love.”

First, why don’t we start with John Wesley’s pithy definition of love: “…to desire and pursue their happiness as sincerely and steadily as our own….” This definition appears in Sermon 139, “On Love,” focusing on 1 Corinthians 13:3 as the text. (You may read the text here if you wish.) This is my favorite definition of love, in part because it is active. In this definition, love isn’t just “the way I feel about a person.” It means that I want them to be happy, it makes me happy to make them happy, and will do all that I can to ensure that happiness.

Now let’s apply the word “unconditional” to that idea. This phrase appears nowhere in the Bible, by the way. In fact, if you look online, there are plenty of articles that reject the idea. However, I believe the concept is certainly present in Scripture. For example, Jesus removes the conditions for “love” by asking his followers to love those who do not necessarily love in return (Matthew 5). Paul affirms that God’s love is not conditional to our behavior, but rather is proven in that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5). Even in the Hebrew Bible, no conditions are placed on the idea that God has chosen the Hebrew people. Of course, having been thus “unconditionally chosen,” behavioral expectations are applied. But no conditions are placed on God’s initiative in their lives.

So that would mean that “unconditional love” means that I want that the one I love to be happy and I act and speak in such a way that the one I love will be happy, no matter what they do, who they are, what they say, how they act … right?

Okay, now, it gets tricky.

What if my loved one’s actions are harmful? What if their words are hateful? Would expecting them to change these actions or words be placing a “condition” on my love?

In general, I don’t think so. In fact, expressing my desire that they change may in fact be an act of love, if it prevents harm from being done or hate from being expressed.

So how far can I take that? Where’s the line? If a parent believes that being gay is sinful, and their child tells them he or she is gay, could it be considered an act of love if the parent insists that the child change? If a child is born a girl but her body is male, but her parents do not accept her transgender identity, would their continual reference to her as a boy be considered “loving?”

These are not hypothetical questions. This is real - Leelah Alcorn is dead now because of how real this is.

My own belief is that being gay is not sinful in any way, shape, or form. If you peruse my blog you’ll find plenty of posts describing why I believe the way I do. However, for the purpose of this post, that isn’t the question.

The question is: What does unconditional love really look like? If someone you love comes to you and says, “So, I’m gay,” what does a truly loving response look like?

However you personally answer this question, I hope you would agree that a loving response wouldn’t be one that itself inflicted harm or expressed hate. A loving response would support and encourage and lift up. A loving response would listen and affirm and validate. A loving response would seek to know and understand and empathize.

Unconditional love never says, “I love you, but...” Unconditional love says, “I love you, and…”

And so EVEN IF you think being gay is a sin, if your response to another person’s sexual identity causes them harm, it is NOT unconditional love. You can't say, "I love you unconditionally, as long as you are straight." That's actually a "condition." If you really love them, your response will be to listen to them, to respect who they are, and to affirm that you’ll be with them no matter what.

I grieve for Leelah Alcorn, even though I did not know her at all. I grieve for a sacred life that is no more, and I grieve for her parents whose pain must be unbearable right now. I cannot imagine what it must be like to experience the death of your own child.

At the same time, it breaks my heart that the response of other people, her parents included, likely led to her death - and that response was falsely labelled “unconditional love.”


mandyc said...

Beautiful, Andy, as always. I would just like to clarify that being transgender is not the same or really even related to being gay. While I believe your sentiment still holds true, it's a common misunderstanding that because we talk about "LGBT" people (lesbian, gay, bisexuals and transgender) that all of those things are related. Just as you expressed, being transgender means that you don't feel in your mind that you match your biological sex - thus the commonly used psych term "gender dysphoria." A person can be trans and still may be attracted to someone of the same gender or opposite gender. That is, transgender is about identity and homosexuality or bisexuality is about who you are attracted to. The story of Leelah Alcorn is heartbreaking, but I don't think we know (nor does it matter) what her sexuality was. As a church, gender dysphoria is something we could probably stand to talk about more, so that the initial response from parents isn't "God doesn't make mistakes." While yes, we need to love unconditionally, we also need to work on understanding.

Andy B. said...

Thank you, Mandy.

Cynthia Astle said...

Excellent post, Andy. Picking up for this week's UM Insight. Keep up the great work!