Love in Practice

Prof. Stephanie Paulsell
Sermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, November 6, 2016. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



When I was growing up, my family always watched the election returns together until the bitter end. Once we knew the outcome, my mom would tuck my little sister into bed, and my dad and I would go to our town’s one all-night diner for French toast. We always brought powdered sugar in a Tupperware bowl to sprinkle on top — because that’s the way my mom made it. My dad and I would sit together under the diner’s florescent lights, in the first hours of the morning, talking about what had happened, and what might happen next.

Having French toast with my dad on election night is a sweet memory for me. But not because the elections were sweet. The one first one I remember well was in 1972, when I was nine years old, George McGovern vs. Richard Nixon. I remember that my parents’ support for McGovern was a source of tension with my grandfather, and when my mom and dad put a McGovern sticker on the bumper of our Volkswagen Beetle, someone vandalized the car while it sat in our driveway, and cut the fan belt in two.

There was a lot of ugliness in the elections of my childhood. In the Democratic primary that produced George McGovern as the nominee of the party, George Wallace, the segregationist who had stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama, trying to prevent African-American students from enrolling, came in third. Growing up in North Carolina, I remember how Jesse Helms’ racist campaigns poisoned our common life every time he ran. When Helms finally retired from the Senate, Washington Post columnist David Broder called him “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country.” If only that had been true.

It’s nothing new to encounter the politics of hate in an American election. If this election feels different, I think it’s because the daily assaults on human dignity have not been communicated in the coded language past candidates have sometimes used: instead, the disparagement of refugees and immigrants as sinister interlopers, the reduction of women to sexual objects to be used, the hatred directed towards Muslims and Mexicans, the ridicule of disabled people, and the resentment directed towards African-Americans and the caricaturing of Black life in this country have flooded into our public and private spaces at full strength, undisguised. During our election night French toast outings, my father would decode the racist languages of the campaigns, show me how greed could be draped in the flag and made to look like something else. This year, any nine-year-old could do that work on her own.

These blatant attacks on immigrants, women, and minorities are not shocking because they’re new; they’re shocking because they’re not new, because they are the fulfillment of a cynical politics that has been bringing us to this place with increasing speed, election after election — a cynical, resentful politics that tells us that life is a zero sum game, and if we, as a society, create more space for more people to flourish, we and our children will lose out.

This politics is fundamentally at odds with the teachings of any religious tradition you’d care to name. Certainly it is deeply at odds with Christian faith. This morning we are celebrating All Saints Day, and thank God for it. Because, on the threshold of this election, we need to remember that our common life stretches beyond our place and day and time, that we are part of a community that includes the living and the dead. The saints bear their wisdom lightly through our world: it comes to us through the lives they led, passing from person to person like breath, often unnoticed and yet unmistakable. Some saints’ names are known but most are not: the forgotten saints are those who moved human history forward through their generosity, their honesty, the sacrifices they made for others. Occasionally a saint leaves a book for us to read, and when that happens the message always returns to the one thing that Martin Luther King, Jr. believed was “an absolute necessity” for human survival: love. King knew that some would dismiss love as too weak a response to unchecked power, so he made himself clear. “When I speak of love,” King wrote a year before a white supremacist assassinated him, “I am speaking of that force which all the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.” For King, love was a force. And without it, he believed, the juggernaut of racism, poverty and war would plow our civilization under.

Can there be a politics of love in these dangerous times? I think King would ask: how can there not be a politics of love if we hope to survive? Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement and another of our saints, loved this sentence from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared to love in dreams.” Anyone who has loved knows this. Day and King were both talking about love in practice, not love in dreams. It’s a force to which we must attach ourselves, King says; it’s a practice that we have to work to learn.

We get glimpses of love in practice in our readings this morning, hints of how we might forge a politics of love.

Our reading from the Song of Songs opens with a question, and it is love’s question, one that must shape our practice of loving. The question is: who is this? Who are you? “Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?” This question animates so much of the Song of Songs, a love poem about two lovers who are always looking for each other, delighting in each other, praising each other. But no matter how well they know each other, no matter how intimate they are, the question, “who are you?,” is never fully answered. Because it can’t be. We are all full of mysteries, vast spaces unexplored even by ourselves. The lovers in the Song of Song reverence that mystery, love it, are drawn to it over and over. Our reading this morning is from the last chapter of the poem. By the time we get to this chapter, every inch of these lovers has been described: hair, teeth, breasts, necks, bellies, navels. We have seen the lovers’ beautiful bodies and smelled their fragrances and followed them out into the fields and through the streets of the city as they seek one another. But even knowing all of that, the poem prods us — and them — to keeping asking: who are you? Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?

A politics of love would never stop asking that question: who are you? What do you care about? What are you afraid of? What hurts? If there is any hope of mending our broken country, we are going to have to resist thinking that we understand everything about each other — even why we voted the way we did. We are going to have to learn that there is always more to know in another person. Always. A politics of love would not just celebrate what we know and admire about each other; it would reverence what we don’t know about each other. Because only then can we leave each other room to change, to be transformed, to live into an ever more expansive vision of what this democracy could be.

This passage from the Song of Songs also reminds us that, in the midst of all that divides us from one another, all that makes us different from one another, there is one thing that we all genuinely share. Last week, when our beloved Harry Huff—now one of the saints in light — was in the hospital, Ed Jones came over to the Divinity School to be with us and to fill in for Harry at the piano at our weekly Wednesday noon service. Everyone was in shock — only a few days before, Harry had been busy, working, laughing, living. As we prayed and sang together, the sense stole over me that any of us could suffer a catastrophe at any moment. This is something we know, intellectually, but, at least for me, I’m usually moving too fast to really know it. But the saints offer us their gifts, and this was one of Harry’s, in life, especially in the music he made, and in death, as he gathered us because we loved him: he revealed our shared vulnerability, our shared humanity. We’re so different from each other in so many ways, but in one way we are all alike: we are embodied creatures, vulnerable to all kinds of illness and harm, certain to die. As we sat together in the chapel, sad and scared and fragile, I looked around and everyone, friends and acquaintances and strangers alike, was so beautiful.

In the Song of Songs, one lover says to the other: remember when I woke you up under that apple tree? It was the apple tree under which your mother labored to bring you into the world. I love the ground your mother lay on, the lover seems to say. I love your humanness. I love that you were born from a woman, just like me, just like all of us. The lover reverences all that we share that makes us human: even the labor by which we came into the world. When she sees her lover, she sees more than his body, more than his possessions, more than his job, more than his education, more than his political affiliation. She sees all the way back to his birth, all the way back to his laboring mother, all the way back to the tree under which she pushed until he entered the world. What would it take to see everyone in this country — citizens, refugees, immigrants — as someone’s child, as made of the same stuff we are? It would take practice. Love in practice. But if we could do it, our politics would have to change.

Love is a force, Dr. King taught, a force that unifies. The Song of Songs agrees: love is strong as death, the poem says. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.

Love is at the heart of Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan as well. Jesus tells the lawyer that love is at the heart of the law. And it is what eternal life is made of. Love God and your neighbor, Jesus tells him, “and you will live.”

But the story he goes on to tell the lawyer, who wants to know exactly who his neighbor is, shows that the point of loving God and our neighbor is to be formed for love in practice. If we are always asking, who are you, even when we think we already know; if we see each person as made of the same fragile stuff as we are, vulnerable to harm, as we are, we might become the person who stops on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho because we see someone suffering even if we’ve been told that person is our enemy. We might become the person who cleans their wounds and brings them to a safe place to recover.

But even that is not all a politics of love asks of us. For as Dr. King wrote of this same parable, “the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life.” Love in practice would care for the beaten man to be sure. But love in practice would also create a Jericho Road in which, as Dorothy Day would put it, it is easier for people to be good. A Jericho Road with jobs that pay a living wage so that no one has to harm another in order to survive. A Jericho Road with good schools for all children. A Jericho Road whose religious communities are spaces of grace and schools for love whose leaders would rush to help a man lying beaten in the street no matter what his ethnicity, or religion, or politics.

Making the Jericho Road a place where everyone can thrive is something none of us can do alone, no matter how much we love. We need a community of people who can work together. We need a country with a vision.

Where do we start? We start by participating, by not letting the hatred that has been pumped into the veins of our culture this election season so disgust or discourage us that we isolate ourselves from each other. We have to practice participating and well as loving. So, if you haven’t already, please vote. And then let’s be about the work of shaping a new politics, one that finds its energy from a force stronger even than death.