Of all the rousing and evocative songs in the musical “Oliver!” Lionel Bart’s lyrics to one song have haunted me for decades:
Where is love?
Does it fall from skies above?
Is it underneath the willow tree
That I’ve been dreaming of?
Where is she?
Who I close my eyes to see?
Will I ever know the sweet “hello”
That’s only meant for me?
Who can say where she may hide?
Must I travel far and wide?
‘Til I am beside the someone who
I can mean something to …
Where is love?
— “Where Is Love?”, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart
Presumably, the orphan boy Oliver Twist sings this song about his lost mother, but the lyricist has captured in these few lines one of the elemental mysteries of life.
Love is so basic to healthy individual and communal life that its mention in sacred texts goes as far back as recorded history. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs ranks love right after physiological needs (air, water, food) and safety. Some theologies regarding the existence of good and evil, known by the religious term “theodicy,” posit that all sin stems from the absence of love.
Eric Elnes’ podcast example of the German theologian Gerhard Kittel offers a perfect example of a man who achieved great works of scholarship, yet is forever remembered for the role he played in the Nazi extermination of some 11 million to17 million “inferior” peoples including 6 million Jews, along with varying numbers political “undesirables,” Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma (gypsies), and people with mental and physical disabilities. Among those arrested were some 100,000 gay men, more than half of whom were sent to prisons and mental institutions. Nearly 60 percent of those imprisoned died from starvation, disease, exhaustion, beatings, and murder, according to estimates from fragmentary records.*
If Darkwood Brew’s series on the Bible and homosexuality has shown us anything, it has shown us how anachronistic and culturally bound are the interpretations of scriptures that viewed for centuries as condemning homosexuality. The horror of the Nazi persecution of gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians, provides merely the most extreme example of the absence of love among those who claim to be Christian.
Love is mysterious. Love IS mystery, for there is simply no way to predict or determine who or how one will love. Love is far more than lust, far less than obsession, far beyond the satisfaction of physical needs for sexual intercourse. Love does not depend upon the shape of one’s body or one’s status in society. Love is the capacity to take abundant joy in the presence of the beloved, and to put that person’s welfare before one’s own.
What love is not, however, is even more clearly defined. Any relationship does not qualify as love when one partner dominates another, when one partner exploits or abuses the other in any way, or when the relationship lacks mutual, appropriate vulnerability. I assert this definition not as a journalist who has seen 40 years of the evil that men and women can do to one another, nor even as a seminary-trained spiritual director whose calling now is to accompany others on their journey toward God.
I assert this definition of love because I have been married for almost 37 years to a man who has been Christ to me on more occasions than I can count – and certainly more occasions than I deserved. Because of his loving me, I have become a more loving person, not only of my husband, but also of everyone else around me. Those who are not loved rarely develop the capacity to love, and those who love regularly find they never run out of love.
So where is love? Love can be found in the dozens of gay and lesbian couples who have take advantage of marriage where it is legal for same-sex partners to wed. Many of these couples have been together for decades without benefit of legal contract. Now they can make civil covenants that mirror the holy covenant they have lived out for years despite the church’s fear and society’s scorn.
For where love is, there also is God.
* United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-45, http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/hsx/