Can love ever be a risk-free option?


Romans 13:8-14

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud was a French poet. He influenced modern literature and artists including Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. He inspired various musicians, and it was he who paved the way for surrealism. He started writing poems while still in primary school and stopped before he turned 21.

Noticing the plight of the underdogs and outcasts, he made a rather bold claim “Love has to be reinvented.” When Rimbaud looked around France, all he could notice is a presentation of love deprived of any real ethical substance. He noticed that the notion of love is solely reduced to overly meaningless romantic engagement among his contemporaries. As a result, he felt that the concept of love had lost its power, its quest for truth, its search for meaning. Love has become one good idea in the pool of other ideas.

Such an observation led him to claim, “love has to be reinvented.” The claim is unsettling, if not outright scandalous for a religious institution. After all, God is love and to claim that love has to be reinvented is to say God has to be reinvented and therefore implying Christianity has to be reinvented.

But Rimbaud was onto something. His claim on love may still stand true in our ever eclectic society where, on the one hand, we get an over sentimentalized version of love – one usually presented to us by Hollywood. On the other hand, we have a love that is privatized and sold in the market place as a commodity form.

A couple of years ago, I read an academic paper on the sociological analysis of the word “love” in marketing slogans related to couples dating sites. It noted various catchy slogans. One said, “Get love without a chance.” Another says, “Be in love without falling in love.” And yet another one, “Get perfect love without suffering.” And one more “coaching in love.”

What is implied in these slogans is a “safety first” concept of love. This privatized version of love is sold with comprehensive insurance against all risks. The implied message is simply this: you will have love, but you will have assessed the future relationship so thoroughly, you will have selected your partner so carefully by searching online – by obtaining a photo, his or her details, likes and dislikes, date of birth, horoscope sign, fashion tastes and so on. And finally, by putting it all together, you can take a deep breath and say: this is indeed a risk-free option.

But the question is, can love be a gift given or attained on the basis of a complete lack of risk? To put it simply: can love ever be a risk-free option? Can we be in love without the fall? Can we escape the fall? Can we have love without all the risky and dangerous moments?

This sentiment is well captured by Dostoevsky in his monumental novel The Brothers Karamazov. In the fourth chapter, “Rebellion,” Ivan (one of the brothers) is somewhat puzzled with Christ’s demand, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” So, he says, "I could never understand how one can love one's neighbour."

Ivan cannot get his head around the idea of actively loving one’s neighbour. That is not to say that Ivan is a bad person. By all means, the character of Ivan Karamazov has a loving nature. In fact, Ivan is portrayed as an extremely intelligent, logical human being. He is full of passionate love, even to the point of excessive sentimentality. He says: "Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky. I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why."

Ivan also repeatedly states that he has great love and sympathy for the human race. But when faced with the idea that human salvation requires human suffering (i.e., risk and pain on his part), he finds this exchange unacceptable: "I don't want harmony. From the love of humanity, I don't want it."

Though Ivan feels a general sentiment in an abstract manner for the welfare of humanity, he struggles to focus it concretely. And he recognizes this himself and admits: "I could never understand how one can love one's neighbours. It's just one's neighbours, to my mind, that one can't love, though one might love those at a distance". What Ivan is against is not love but the risk and pain and effort that comes with the neighbourly love.

As absurd as it sounds, there is a moment of truth in what Ivan Karamazov is saying. It is far easier to love humanity in the abstract than a concrete human being. At times, our immediate perceptions and (unconscious) prejudices make any kind of truly 'Christlike' love difficult, if not impossible. This is precisely the point Dostoevsky is trying to make that it is easier to idealize humanity and love them from a distance, in the abstract, because people to people contact can be challenging, it can be a rigorous struggle. But isn’t it precisely when the rubber meets the road?

And so, in the same vein, we can say that it is much easier to love God in an abstract sense. For Protestants, salvation is based on faith, not works (Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian). Spirituality is largely a personal issue, without the need for a proscribed ritual. In a way, Protestants mostly do not care how other Christians practice their faith so long as they accept certain central beliefs. Clinging to the right belief and confessing the right creed could be the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. “My faith and my spirituality is between my God and me”, I recently heard from a friend of mine.

But what if the truth lies outside, not in what we believe but in what we do? And maybe that’s why Christ never stopped simply with “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He adds to it with, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” i.e., true devotion and love go beyond me, myself and I. It goes beyond what is familiar, what is preferred, what is known, to experiencing the world from the standpoint of difference.

Love thy neighbour is not the love of the familiar but the love of difference. It is an invitation to experience the world from the point of view that may be different from ours. It is a call not into an inward-looking relationship, rather a construction of a new dimension of life that is being made from the perspective of not one but two.

This is the ethical demand of Christianity that one should take the risk and not be afraid of the fall because the risk factor can never be eliminated from the authentic act of love. The same love that inspired Christ to mix and mingle with the outcast, touch the untouchable, and embrace the powerless. It is the same love that drove him to face the demonic forces and outwit the manipulative. We, too, are asked to practice this love by Saint Paul simply because to love God means to love what God loves.

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