1: YOU SHOULD (BE MORE) LIKE ME
The area of the Midwestern USA where I grew up is predominately Mennonite and other Anabaptist Christian, home to two of the major Mennonite colleges in the United States. Anabaptist faiths are organized along a spectrum between fundamentalist concepts of isolationism and pure/closed community, in the case of the Amish, and on the other end of the spectrum, in the case of more progressive “college” Mennonites, around “tolerance,” expansion of the fold, and missionary work/Christian colonization and assimilation.
* Anabaptist denominations hold baptism in adolescence, as a coming-of-age ceremony that marks an individual’s “love-driven” choice to join the church (this is called “believer’s baptism”), as opposed to the automatic infant baptisms of Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and other sects. Anabaptist sects include Mennonites (a range of schisms stemming from the teachings Menno Simons), the many denominations of Amish and Conservative Mennonites (Old Order are the ones with the buggies), Brethren, etc. These sects are generally pacifist (joining the church comes with legal “conscientious objector” status in terms of military drafts) and separatist, focusing on ideas of “humble living” (including some legal exception from compulsory public education, taxes, etc), altruism, and compassion.
Across this “private to public” spectrum, unlike other contemporary Protestant sects which attach salvation to personal and internal faith (sola fide), Anabaptists focus on “good works,” recognizing the apostle James and his emphasis on acts of service and forms of life following paths of righteousness. To be a “good Mennonite” is to live and behave in certain ways.
When we are talking of “love,” I don’t think first about sexual or romantic or even philial love but rather about love as a “way of life” that forms our ways of cultural being and behaving.
I think first of these bright-eyed young Mennonites, because they talked endlessly about “love,” with no sense of humor or irony about it. I think of them in the sunlit summer camp chapel, singing with their arms raised about love, about how much they love being alive, how much they love God and the “Mennonite community worldwide.” I remember how they changed the lyrics to that Beatles song, so that it went all you need is God’s love, ba dum da dee dum…
My father is an agnostic/atheist Anabaptist (Church of the Brethren) while my mother is a secular Jew. Because we were homeschooled, and because homeschooling was (is) very common amongst more conservative, “Beechy,” and “Fundamentalist” Mennonites (headscarves, sugar cookies), I often found myself engaged in bike rides, board game parties, and church-basement sleepovers with young followers of Jesus and James. These youths—too young to go on proselytizing “service trips” in other countries—saw me as a kind of special Pokemon that could be collected; if I could be made Christian, they would be so much closer to heaven (and, more importantly, have a self-justifying story to tell in Sunday School, oh how that frizzy-haired little Jewess wept when she first took Jesus into her heart…).
(Then I do think of that former interpersonal kind of love; I think of these Christian kids throwing pinecones and screeching “eeew lesbians” at my camp friend Naomi and I when they found us on a the tawny bed of pine needles at the base of the hill.)
Despite my rejection—then and now—of the smarmy, sticky, and pseudo-philosophical discussion of love facilitated by Christians, a sense of “service” and “paths of righteousness” as embodiment of “(God’s) Love” remains with me. This sense is not so far removed, I am told, from many contemporary Muslim, or Jewish faiths either, though I know less about “ tzedakah” (charity) and mitzvoh (in the multiplicit sense of commandment/duty, law, and “good” deed) than I do about the history of Jews and Muslims as secular/political accomplices to the Black Panthers, for example (for a while I obsessively sought out information about this, hoping to find ways of dealing with whiteness in the USA in terms of how to justify love for “others”).
All forms of “love” are tangled up together, in faith and rage and sex and desire to consume, in failures to make decisions, in politics and social mores, in fears and trust, in desire to belong, and desires to be free.
Perhaps, in resistance to an ontological survey of “love” as a religious concept** we can first frame “love” as a kind of tension, or energy between bodilies. Not just between two individual human bodies, but also between any defined or projected entities, perhaps especially between bodies and non-bodies. This tension describes and reifies the involved entities, substantiating their existence.
Without love, we are not persons, and without love, there is no God (and vice versa), or other “higher purpose” to live towards.
** Many theologians across cultures see God as the “source” of love, a life-force embodied by humans and expressed as power by their own love for each other, for God, and for “nature.”
Last year, a prominent art blogger attended a collaborative “performance art dance opera” that I was a part of and tweeted about it that “everybody here just loves everybody too much.”
This is a fair criticism of “performance art communities” in Brooklyn and beyond; there does seem to be a kind of unreasonable bond, or faith-based practice, of love when all else fails. Like Bertrand Russell famously said, love is an “absolute value,” transcending and often revolutionizing “relative values” like salability, rationality, scientific factuality, and empiric existence. Yet, “absolutism” is a dangerous location, and claims to transcendence or revolutionary identity are often myopic and coercive.
Such “absolutist” love is also disgusting to others, problematically exclusive, naïve, even cult-like, far too similar to Mennonite missionary service: when we express universalist, even “liberal” love, we are essentially saying only that we want others to “be like us,” or we (falsely) imagine that “everyone is already the same.”
Feeding directly into neo-liberal hegemonies, certain universalisms and kumbayah circles of the faithful can easily (and usually do) reinforce the extractive modes of reproduction dependent on white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalist democracy.
Thus, love is not of much help to us if we seek complex, agonistic, respectful, and relative modes of (e)valuation, ethical collaboration, and responsive community healing.
Yet, in many ways, love drives our last-ditch efforts to keep going when all other “practical” justifications and rhetorics have failed. “Love” is the word we use for unreasonable and illogical loyalty to artistic practice, when it makes no money, when it earns us no accolades, when forms-of-life are deemed dysfunctional by everyone else, love is all we have left.
THIS IS OUR LAST CHANCE
Behind the contemporary conservativism and absolutist coercion of Midwestern Mennonites, is a history of oppression and exclusion from European cultures. Mennonites were once refugees themselves, and continue to conflate the housing of refugees and the welcoming of “other” cultures (as well as being some the first Christian congregations to welcome LBGT members and have women and LGBT pastors) with “doing good.” A bundle of nerves is exposed here, flaying bare some strains of cultural assumption, in the costume of a “do-gooder,” who indeed has ulterior (dangerous, unseen-by-the-agent) motives behind their seemingly-altruistic behaviors (i.e. feeding the zombie power of Jesus with the bodies of the living).
We must ask ourselves how our behaviors differ from those of missionizing Christians; how we can claim “goodness” without any dominating, colonizing, and coercive values?
By “ourselves” I mean anyone interested in or currently reading this essay, solely.
3: LIBERATION ECONOMICS AND LABORS OF LOVE
I wanted to discuss how capitalism is most threatened by any re-assignment of forms of value. It is, in short, threatened by “values” that drive human action outside of existing markets without that market’s consent.
Here indeed, “love” may be framed as a contagion of the hegemonic body politic, infecting functioning metabolisms of coercion and extraction with “embodied” desires and subjectivities. By making decisions based on “love over money,” we fail to maintain the structural integrity of universal/homogeonizing systems of value.
I wanted to write, as Adriana once recommended, about awe.
Emily Oliviera’s performance: “radical queer love is the antidote to global capitalism”
I wanted to need others, but I am always afraid they are going to try and convert me, if not to their ways of seeing, then to their ways of loving. What if I can’t do it right? What if I don’t believe? What if what is felt by one as love, is felt as repression by another? What if love suffocates us in a flammable grey felt of feel and we can’t reasonably see ourselves enough to know when we are rolling right into the fire?