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Coercive Love

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who despite his popularity gave himself over to a life of obscurity in service to the physically, mentally, and emotionally disabled, was keenly aware of how rare love is in this world.  Struggling often to reconcile his own thoughts and feelings of abandonment and insufficiency with the love of God he wrote about something he recognized as “coercive love.”

One can speak nowadays of coercive love.  I’ll elaborate on that a little, to show how revealing are Jesus’ words:  “Love your enemies.”  The more constricted our self-confidence, the greater our need to be reassured.  A low opinion of ourselves reinforces our desire to receive signs and tokens of love.  In a world in which so many people feel lonely, isolated, and deserted, the longing for love can often take on “inhuman” proportions.  People come to expect more of each other than it is possible to give.  When loneliness and low self-esteem become the main source of the longing to be loved, that longing can easily lead to a kind of desperation.  Then it’s as though one person says to another:  “Love me so that I won’t need to feel lonely anymore.  Love me so that I can believe in myself again, at least a little bit.”
     The tragic thing, though, is that we humans aren’t capable of dispelling one another’s loneliness and lack of self-respect.  We humans haven’t the werewithal to relieve one another’s most radical predicament.  Our ability to satisfy one another’s deepest longing is so limited that time and time again we are in danger of disappointing one another.  Despite all this, at times our longing can be so intense that it blinds us to our mutual limitations and we are led into the temptation of extorting love, even when reason tells us that we can’t give one another any total, unlimited, unconditional love.  It is then that love becomes violent.  It is then that kisses become bites, caresses become blows, forgiving looks become suspicious glances, lending a sympathetic ear becomes eavesdropping, and heartfelt surrender becomes violation.  The borderline between love and force is frequently transgressed, and in our anxiety-ridden times it doesn’t take very much to let our desire for love lead us to violent behavior.
     When I look about me and see the many forms of coercion present in human relationships, I often have a sense of seeing here, there, and everywhere people who want nothing more or less than to be loved, but who have been unable to find any way to express that longing other than through violence…Whether we do violence to others or ourselves, what we long for in our heart is a nonviolent, peaceful communion in which we know ourselves to be secure and loved.  But how and where are we to find that noncoercive, nonviolent love?

While I don’t think I would narrow all of human depravity to essentially a deficiency in understanding and accepting God’s love, I think that Nouwen is rather illuminating.  I think so much of the bitterness we can have toward those we are supposed to love is often rooted in an instability within our hearts.  We long to be understood and connected in a way that is uniquely satisfying but we are always disappointed.  When we do find that satisfaction, it is usually temporary, fleeting, and leaves us wondering what happened.  In turn, we do violence to those around us.

We’re not so much an injured cat lashing out from its corner, because it is not simply the pain that drives us but the conviction that the only way for us to receive love is by force.  And so many of us have become masters of manipulation in order to obtain from others what we feel they will not give freely without our underhanded persuasion or outright authoritarian demands.  Or we position ourselves both consciously and unconsciously in the hope of ending up in the right place at the right time.

The truth is God is the only one who can love us perfectly.  Truistic, yes, but true nonetheless.  When we expect from those around us to cure our loneliness or to fill us up with self-worth, we actually place an oppressive burden on them.  Such a burden no one can bear and really no would want to bear because of its suffocating weight.  Such is the violence.

I wonder how different we would be if we spent the same amount of time exchanging loving glances with God — even awkward ones — as we do trying to coerce people to make us feel good.

Jesus states it so clearly:  “…love your enemies, and do good to them, and lend without any hope of return.  You will have a great reward, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.”
     There you have it:  the love of God is an unconditional love, and only that love can empower us to live together without violence.  When we know that God loves us deeply and will always go on loving us, whoever we are and whatever we do, it becomes possible to expect no more of our fellow men and women than they are able to give, to forgive them generously when they have offended us, and to respond to their hostility with love.  By doing so we make visible a new way of being human and a new way of responding to our world problems.


This is what I hope for myself.  I know this is what Jesus hopes for me.

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