Monday, February 14, 2011

St. Valentine's Day: Celebrate love and justice

A standard joke on American sitcoms is a single person, lonely on Valentine's Day, who says that the day is "nothing more than a bogus holiday dreamed up by corporate interests to sell greeting cards, candy and flowers." In fact, I once held this view myself (both when I was single and when I was in a relationship).

Obviously there is truth in this view of the holiday. Mass produced and overly sentimental "love" is largely what Valentine's day is in our commercialized culture. But - and I freely concede that being happily married to a wonderful woman has affected me here - I've come to see meaning and purpose in this holiday.

If we step back and think of this day as a day to set aside for the celebration of love, we shall see that it is well worth the observing. And I mean ALL LOVE. We love our family and friends, our lovers, and to some degree - when we are at our best - all of our fellow human beings. Having a day to recognize this love is important. Of course, the day loses meaning if we don't love the whole year around, but holidays serve as symbolic reminders that bring such truths to our consciousness.

Love is what is best about human beings. Yes, I know that we are also full of hypocrisy, hate, greed, and foolishness. And for this very reason it is all the more important that love be remembered, that love have the final say in our lives.

There are various legends and tales about a supposed St. Valentine. These tales come out of the later middle ages and the 19th century, and have nothing to do with any possible "Historical Valentine." Common to all the tales is the idea that either Valentine himself, or young people whom he as a priest married, were forbidden to love and wed by the forces of tyranny, oppression and empire. Valentine defies these powers and their laws, celebrating and sanctifying love. For his courage, Valentine is martyred.

The message in the tales of St. Valentine is that love liberates us. By loving each other we discover ourselves, and only then. This, in the legends of Valentine is why love is forbidden and why Valentine is proclaimed a hero for championing love against the power of empire.

Romantic love in particular is celebrated on this day. I used to hold that this was nothing more than a bias on our part. Privileging one kind of love over the others. Well, we do in fact misconceive and over sentimentalize romantic love (just as we do childhood). Nevertheless, romantic love unites two people like nothing else can.

Romantic love burns down the walls that separate us and compels us to grow, mature, and change in ways we never thought possible and never knew we could. I have come to see, however, that we cannot celebrate Romantic love, or even all love alone, we must also remember to celebrate justice.

The Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has often written that love and justice require each other. In The Greatest Prayer, he writes that:
Think, then, of justice as the body of love and love as the soul of justice [....] Combined you have both; seperated you have neither. Justice without love or love without justice is a moral corpse. This is why justice without love becomes brutal and love without justice becomes banal.
In short, love by itself is not always just or world-transforming, and there is a real danger it will degrade it to an empty and sappy sentimentality; and justice without love shows no mercy, heeds no compassion: we must have both together. And what is justice? For this Crossan has an answer as well:
The biblical tradition insists that God is a God of "justice and righteousness," that is, of distributive justice and restorative righteousness. Think, for example, of this divine claim:
"I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord" (Jeremiah 9:24). Furthermore, rulers are expected to participate in that same divine character. "Thus says then Lord: act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place" (Jeremiah 22:3). The most serious and far-reaching misunderstanding of that biblical tradition is to interpret divine justice as retributive rather than distributive, as if it meant a proper punishment for some rather than a fair share for all [....]

The biblical tradition got that vision of God from the most obvious source imaginable, from growing up in a decent home and a well-run household. Most children either experienced that normalcy positively or recognized its absence negatively. The Bible simply took that expectation of a decent household and applied it to God as the Householder of the World-House. Given their world's patriarchal prejudices they spoke of God "as Father" but God "as Householder" is what that title meant.

Think, for a moment, about the first-century world of Jesus and especially of that prayer which begins with, "Our Father in Heaven." There is an especially striking irony when God-as-Householder is called God-as-Father by Jesus. Demographers of the Roman world agree that, owing to the late marriage-age of males, one third of young people would have been fatherless by the age of fifteen -- across all strata of society. Women married around 12 or 13, men married around twice that age, general life expectancy was under 30 years, so that a father as actual householder must have been mostly theory rather than practice and nostalgia rather than reality. In other words, in a first-century household across the Roman world, hear "father," think "mother," but understand "householder." And, as on earth, so also in heaven.

If, in that first-century world, you entered a small family farm and its courtyard house, how would you judge the householder? Are the fields well administered, the livestock well provisioned, the family members well-fed, well-clothed, well-sheltered?? Does a sick child get special care? Does a pregnant mother get special concern? Does everyone get a fair share? Does everyone get enough? You would judge the householder not by the criterion of egalitarianism but of enoughism. That is how -- then as now -- you would assess the householder of any home. Is there a fair distribution of goods and resources, of duties and obligations?

But what if some of the children were starving and others were over-fed? What if some received food while others did not? What would you think of that householder -- then or now? That is the mega-model or mega-metaphor underneath the biblical tradition's understanding of its God. That is why the biblical God can demand of the powers-that-be, the rulers of this world, that they,

Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. (Psalm 82:3

So let us celebrate love today, let us celebrate each other. But let us celebrate justice as well, for we need to honor both, and the two must never be separated.

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