When You Try to Change People That’s Not Love, It’s Domination

Friday, October 27, 2017 - 3:44 pm

When You Try to Change People That’s Not Love, It’s Domination

In an interview conducted nearly thirty years ago, social visionary bell hooks had this to say about love and domination:

“I want there to be a place in the world where people can engage in one another.”

While hooks was discussing racial and gender representation in film, her statement can be broadly applied to relationships at home, in neighborhoods, in cities, and across whole societies.

To say “I want there to be a place in the world where people can engage in one another’s differences in a way that is redemptive” is to exercise one’s moral, social, and theological imagination. It is to pray and think expansively, imagining a world yet unborn into being. It is to recognize that difference need not be an occasion for brutality, but an occasion for mutual enhancement.

“I want there to be a place in the world” is the line poets, musicians, and storytellers utter before composing and what first-time parents pronounce while staring at their sleeping newborn: the desire to see one’s significant other or child or close friend given the space to flourish as themselves, not as someone else.

Qualifying “I love you” with “In order to love you, I must make you something else” is to use love as a pretext for domination, not as a springboard for generative companionship. To say, “In order to love you, I must make you something else” is to blur the good news that a loving God and community receive us as we are, not as we want to be or pretend to be. Much of Christian preaching and formation emphasizes the latter — the pretending — which feeds the pious-sounding quip:

“God loves you just the way you are, but too much to leave you that way.”

While well-meaning, that statement plays into the assumption that God will love us more as we become something or someone else.

Domination is the attempt to change others, recast them, remake them, possess them, control them. Domination is what took place in the Canadian residential schools. Masterminds of the schools thought they were being loving toward the indigenous people they enrolled, but they were actually practicing a logic of colonialist domination.

Domination is an uncreative, if convincing, imitation of love. Love says, “I receive you as you are and want to imagine a world in which you are received as you are,” exposing domination as a failure of imagination; love is imagination when it is given permission to meditate on endless possibility. Like planting a seed, watering it, and watching it become the tree you always knew it was. The seed isn’t being made into something else, but is living out its fullest potential, the way a sculptor discovers her subject in a block of stone. This is one way of seeing the life of love, or what the Rev. Marcus Halley calls “episodes of grace,” a series of moments in which we are awakened to the unique ways in which we are loved by God; not possessed, recast, or remade by God, but loved.

It is difficult for many of us to discern the difference between love and domination because so much of what we’ve been told was love throughout our lives was actually domination. This was apparent to me in a coffee shop conversation I had with a person who had recently disclosed to their closest family members that they are transgender. After two years of conversations with those family members, that person was given an ultimatum by a sibling:

“We will always love you, but either you allow us to refer to you by the pronouns and name we grew up using for you, or we will be forced to end our relationship with you.”

This friend went on to say that nothing hurt more in that conversation than their sibling’s “but.” “That single word negated every word that preceded it,” they said. The sigh of relief my friend needed to breathe would have come had they heard they are loved and received as they are, full stop. No caveats, fine print, or need to pretend that they are something that they aren’t.

When Christians celebrate and receive the presence of God in the bread and wine of Eucharist, we hear what my friend so desperately wanted to hear from their family. This doesn’t mean that my friend, or any of us, is looking to simply feel good about ourselves, but that we yearn to be fully known, seen, and loved.

Public theology is at its best when it creates the space necessary for people of various gender identities, religious affiliations and non-affiliations, ethnicities, and economic levels to be known as their full selves, not pushed into a mold not meant for them. It is being less concerned about finding surface-level common ground than about holding space for people’s unique experiences of divinity and humanity.

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is canon precentor at Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver where he directs liturgy and oversees ministry with people in their 20s and 30s. He occasionally offers lectures and facilitates conversations related to the interplay of culture, theology, and justice. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Teen Vogue, and The Washington Post.

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  • Gabby

    This is all so true. It is a great mystery to me that it is so hard for some people truly to love, which is to say to embrace another as is and without reservation. More accurately, there are many who naturally love only an intimate circle of their children and perhaps- but not necessarily- a few others.
    Robert Sapolsky of Stanford in his recent book Behave writes, for example, that oxytocin, the hormone that creates the natural strength of feeling and bond females have with their newborns, is also correlated with intolerance of “the other.” Said differently, research shows that people who have the highest levels of oxytocin, which drives their intense love of their own children, tend to find it more difficult to embrace people not like themselves than people with lower levels of oxytocin. I am still trying to understand this robust scientific finding.

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  • timothycolman

    Patience. Love is patient, love is kind… I have a dear friend whose son was her daughter. Incredibly disruptive to her. As heart breaking to her as it is liberating to her son. That “but” you write about is painful but not a period or an exclamation point.

  • I agree with the title, OK? 🙂 I also feel the need of some space to say that the rest of the piece has nuances that I would like to see explored more deeply. For example doesn’t this depend on what (the various) people mean by “love”? It’s perfectly understandable (to me) for people not to be able to *feel* love for someone in a particular shape, or displaying a particular undesirable behaviour. It is a gift to be able to love them nevertheless. It’s not OK by me to blame people for not loving those people they don’t feel love for. It’s sad, but equally it is human nature. It’s how they are now, and can we love that? Or, I could say, “God is the person who loves us for who we really are, in our hearts”, but I wonder if that would communicate its intended meaning? It’s hard to spell out, but I’m trying to say that is is divine to be able to love people just as they truly are, and human to find that hard.

    The other nuance that I long for here involves the question of what is, exactly, the way that someone is, here and now? Personally, I recognise myself, and other people, as immensely complex mixtures of the light and the dark, the pleasant and the unpleasant. There are often conflicts going on inside ourselves; and if so, which side of the conflict is the “who I am”? That’s only a rhetorical question, as I see the question as essentially mistaken. This begs all the hard questions of what human nature is, and I’m not buying into any suggested solution that ignores or bypasses these fundamental questions.

    All I can do in the end is answer for myself. I want the parts of me that I most deeply value to be loved. I want myself as a whole to be loved as someone engaged in the growth and development processes of inner struggle. I don’t want people siding with, say, the parts of me implicated in behaviours that hurt others. I want people siding with the parts of me that bring good fruit to others and to the world — indeed the parts of me that come from beyond me. I want help and support to become the person that I aspire to be, not limited to the person that I currently am.

    And I can imagine that (some) other people may want something similar. On the other hand, I can also imagine that there are people who have been so ground down, so deprived of approval, that what they need right now is acceptance of themselves just as they are right now. That doesn’t mean that we have to feel love for everything that they do.

    I can hope (or pray if you prefer) that by treating people with love, that will enable the love in them to grow, which is, I guess, what most of us want. But, please, can we treat this whole topic with the humility and respect it deserves?

    • Cate

      I love this nuanced, thoughtful, honest response; the third paragraph, especially, resonates for me. Thank you.

  • Cate

    A beautiful piece: wisdom and lyricism. The distinction between love and domination is crucial, especially because we can muddle them so unconsciously (having been taught this confusion). Loving everyone in this way is a wonderful aspiration, but far from where I am now. After time and effort, I sometimes abandon the attempt to love another if the way s/he is seems crazy, harmful or just too provocative to handle. Trust is a prerequisite to genuine love; its lack is an invitation for dominance to step in and try to create the missing and necessary sense of sanity and safety. Everyone loses in that scenario, and bowing out is the most loving thing to do. Thank you, Broderick!

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