so many many asterisks!
Reading Time: 7 minutes (Rod Long. Edited.)
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Really awful, authoritarian groups often redefine big important words to give themselves permission to act out. Possibly none of those words is more important than love. Over the years, one of those groups — white evangelicals — have carefully redefined abuse and boundary-violation as ‘Christian love.’ Today, let me show you how ‘Christian love’ works and why so many Christians reach for it — and the messages they convey when they do so.

so many many asterisks!
(Rod Long. Edited.)

(I don’t normally use scare quotes. In this post, though, I have suspended that custom temporarily. “Christian love” is always a scare quote. Everything else is from original sources as noted. Also, some related posts: Redefining Love; “Christian Love” Follows Joshua Harris Announcement; These Students Are Learning About Christian Love; “Christian Love” Follows Jen Hatmaker Divorce; Dan Foreman of Idaho Shows Off His “Christian Love.” There’s lots more though!)

A Guide to Stalking.

Christians often call the ideal form of their treatment of others “Christian love.” By this term, they seek to convey the impression that it is a kind of super-love — a love that is literally only accessible to TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like themselves) and far superior to anything anybody could ever have outside of their faith. So in this way, “Christian love” functions as a boundary marker for right-wing Christians.

In truth, though, nothing about love is unique to any belief system. Take this little list of three supposedly-totally-unique facets of “Christian love.” I chose it because it’s very representative of Christians’ indoctrination on the topic. You’ll see this teaching everywhere.

The listicle’s author thinks these traits belong only to TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like herself):

  • Christian love is supposedly “sacrificial.” It gives without taking or expectation of reward or reciprocation. Often, Christians offer love without its target even asking for it.
  • It is supposedly “demonstrated.” Others can detect it through actions, not just words.
  • And it “is initiative” [sic]. Christians extend it before their targets do. Indeed, they extend it in the utter absence of reciprocation or even goodwill.

Anybody looking at this list could easily mistake it for being a guide to stalking! Nobody healthy wants anything this extreme in their relationships. If that’s what Christians want to cultivate in themselves, it’s going to break them eventually — and it’ll certainly and rightly creep out emotionally-healthier targets.

Luckily, we don’t have to worry about too many Christians going overboard on this redefinition of abuse as love. Almost none of them come close to living up to it anyway.

“Christian Love” Isn’t Unique.

Away from its creepy stalker extremes, Christians’ idealized kind of love isn’t unique to Christianity at all.

Literally every religion and atheism contains people who love like this. All it takes is a little time away from Christianity, and a Christian encounters any number of people who demonstrate these qualities. Worse, they display this love all without the slightest bit of regard for Christians’ favorite imaginary friend. It doesn’t take long to realize that all the marketing Christians do around “Christian love” makes them look really bad in comparison to their declared enemies.

For my own part, I can tell you for 100% fact that the people I encountered outside of Christianity were more loving, using Christians’ own idealized definitions, than almost every single believer I met within it. It’s impossible for me now to connect “Christian love” to anything but abuse, but it’s equally impossible for me to see Christians, as a group, as genuinely loving people.

That’s because of the other, subtler definitions of “Christian love” that make this redefinition of abuse so insidious.

The Other Definitions of “Christian Love.”

Look at that 3-item listicle that one Christian wrote. Consider what that listicle says to Christians. Indeed, it tells them something important — something that they’ll perceive immediately, something that outsiders to their culture simply can’t. Here are the three shadow traits of “Christian love.”

  1. Your targets often won’t be able to identify what you’re doing as loving. They may even define it as hateful or stalker-ish. Indeed, it may look a lot like vicious retaliation or cruelty for its own sake. Just tell those meaniepie critics that they don’t know any better because they’re heathens who don’t know Jesus. (That retort will plant a seed that will convert them one day, for sure!) Always remember: you are the only one who may define your own behavior as hateful or loving. If you happen to think you’re being loving, then by definition you are.
  2. You always know better than your targets do. That means that they might not realize they even needed someone to do X for them. Ah, but you know. So don’t worry if they get angry that you did it. Does a god live inside of them? No? Then obviously, they don’t know what they really need. A god lives inside of you. That’s totally where you’re getting all this information. Ignore them.
  3. Your need to do X for your targets right now overrides whatever else they say they want or need. Not a sliver of distance exists between your desires and those of your imaginary friend. Don’t worry about figuring out if you just want to do X because of your own selfish desires. Of course, your targets are also morally liable for your displays of “Christian love” — whether they wanted them or not.

In a lot of very real ways, Christians’ redefinition of abuse as love completely pares away the feedback and opinions of their targets. It writes them a permission slip they can use to behave however they wish — all in the name of “Christian love.” If their targets don’t actually recognize “Christian love” as loving at all, that only reinforces these toxic Christians‘ self-definition!

An Expression of Tribalism.

When I talk about right-wing Christians as tribalistic, or refer to them as a tribe, I’m using the sociological definition of the term. Tribalistic behavior is not good — even within the tribe. Tribes put themselves on a pedestal as the bestest group ever, then define their biggest competitors (their outgroups) as inferior and maybe even subhuman. They do everything they can to destroy their outgroups and recruit for their own group.

Tribes are intensely focused on dominance. Thus, tribalistic groups tend to be really defensive. Often, their defensiveness manifests as aggression. Tribalistic groups often reserve their very worst behavior for those they view as their greatest threats:

  • Heretics: ingroup members who challenge the tribe’s self-image, leaders, and rules.
  • Apostates: ingroup members who leave the tribe and then speak of their experiences within it.

And oh, I mean, obviously tribes want to silence any critic or dissenter. But these are the biggest dangers. Heretics and apostates know the tribe too well; they’ve seen too much. It is of the utmost importance that tribes silence these two types of people quickly and effectively.

That’s where “Christian love” comes in. It functions as a marvelous social control tool. Really, it’s damned near perfect. The victims of “Christian love” can’t object to it on the grounds of hypocrisy or hatefulness because the tribe has already taken care of that objection by self-validating it to the hilt.

(Wait, isn’t self-definition one of these Christians’ big objections to trans people? Ah, why yes it sure is. Weird how it’s okay with “Christian love.” And miracles, for that matter. And Christianity itself, really. The only moral self-definition is their own, I guess!)

“Christian Love” as a Control Tactic.

“Christian love” is meant to shut Christians’ victims up and take control of them as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

In this way, “Christian love” is a control tactic. It is designed to gaslight victims by making them uncertain about their own boundaries and even their own internal definition of love. Victims of “Christian love” are not certain if they even have the right to object to it or to feel mistreated. That’s because they’re typically indoctrinated since infancy to accept this boundary-stomping, rights-obliterating, paternalistic, disrespectful, consent-violating behavior as “love.”

I bet more than a few people reading my words right now could talk at length about this. I know I sure could! It’s just insidious, and its effects can last for years past deconversion. After I left Christianity, I had to learn from scratch what love is and how to tell if behavior is loving or not.

Also, watch how “Christian love” flows. Typically, “Christian love” flows from people with greater perceived power toward people they perceive as having lesser power. A tribalistic Christian who hasn’t been outed as a rulebreaker will always feel entitled to slather “Christian love” on those who have been discovered breaking the rules. In fact, this slathering is all but required. If they were to hold back, the tribe would assess them poorly as well, and they too would face it.

“Christian love” of their own. Attacking dissenters is a great way to gain power, in tribes. But it’s also a mandatory group activity. Tribemates virtue signal their good standing with the group by doing it.

And a Potent Warning.

The second function of “Christian love” is its great usefulness as a warning. And that warning is simple:

You see what we’re doing to this person? That’ll be you, if you act out similarly.

This second characteristic can be incredibly powerful. So much of how Christians behave in groups is meant to impress potential dissenters with the need to stay quiet, compliant, and obedient.

With Christianity’s sudden and sharp decline, of course, the tribe doesn’t have the resources to fully persecute and destroy all of their dissenters. Only very small, insular groups can manage that, as high-school atheists in tiny Southern towns know all too well. So Christians must usually reserve the worst of their worst retaliatory behavior — er, sorry, “Christian love” — for prominent Christian heretics and apostates.

Every single time a prominent Christian speaks out bigtime against the tribe, or worse yet just leaves the tribe entirely, we can expect to see “Christian love” in action right afterward. I’ve written about this behavior many times, but this might be the first time I’ve ever laid out exactly why evangelicals in particular act in such a deeply hypocritical way.

To them, it’s not hypocritical at all. And that’s really one of the sharpest criticisms we could make of their entire ideology.

Amusingly enough, Jesus was right. We do, indeed, know his most fervent followers by their love: their “Christian love.”

NEXT UP: How Christian love led to Beth Moore’s defection from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), and how it followed her afterward. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...

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