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The Table Video

Chanequa Walker-Barnes

Loving Me, Loving God

Associate Professor, Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology
June 15, 2017

A hallmark of Christian theology is its assumption that the fundamental sin of humanity is pride, that is, preoccupation with the self. As Christians, therefore, we are to seek perfection by embodying Christ’s example of self-emptying. But what if we don’t have a self to give? In this talk, Chanequa Walker-Barnes articulates the dangers – especially for women—of the church’s excessive focus upon self-sacrifice as the paradigm of love. She draws upon Luke 10 to demonstrate Christ’s expectation, perhaps even command, that we love ourselves.


I have to admit. When I was preparing for this I had some difficulty trying to figure out what exactly I should say about love. You see, I wasn’t sure about what exactly to say about love to a Christian audience. Especially a predominantly white Christian audience. Especially when I am deeply suspicious about the way that Christians talk about love. You see most Christians tend to use words in ways that I find to be highly problematic.

Some of them we’ve heard people talk about over this past day. This idea that love is an abstract feeling. That it is a general sense of good will towards others that’s not actually related to how we live. Ryan Syder told us yesterday that, “Love is an action verb not a feeling.” But very often i find that that’s what people mean. When they talk about love they mean that they generally feel well towards other people. The other though problem that I have with the way that Christians talk about love, is that very often we equate love with politeness. The sense that to be polite, to be loved, means to be civil.

A lot of the buzz words we’ve heard over the past day. Civility, humility, niceness. One of my friends Rasheeda Graham Washington, from the Communities First Association say that within Christianity there is an idolatry of niceness. And when we talk about love as just politeness it again reduces it to how we feel but it doesn’t actually change how live, how we interact with others, how we relate to others, the impact we have on others or the degree to which we let others impact us.

And Iglesias said, “Love as politeness can be a tool of coercion. A tool of social control especially when we start talking about issues of justice and people want to cover over anger. Want to cover frustration with politeness and niceness and can’t we all just be civil.” But the other reason I am really deeply distressful of the way Christians talk about love is because of this view that we have in Christianity, that love is self-sacrifice, self-neglect and martyrdom. Now this is a view that is especially targeted towards women. Particularly women of color. We are taught that love requires us to sacrifice ourself for other people, to put our needs…put other people’s needs ahead of ours, and to neglect ourselves in this sort of endless quest to serve family, church and God.

We are taught that our love is always to be directed outward aimed at everyone else except ourselves. Now I’ve spent the better part of 15 years trying to rid myself of this notion of love. I spent almost as long trying to teach women that love is not the same thing as martyrdom. That taking up the cross is not the same as getting on it and that it is okay to love ourselves even in the midst of a Christian culture that does not. Now this is very different from the way we typically think about love because we have been taught that to think about self love is to be prideful.

And one of the hallmarks of contemporary Christian theology is understanding that the fundamental sin of humanity is pride. We can blame Augustin and Ryan Hopney Barry and a whole host of other male theologians for this one. [audience laughs] So Niba said, “The problem is that humans we don’t really know what to do with the freedom that God has given us. and we misuse it. We misuse it by turning away from God and by turning inward towards ourselves our own interests, our abilities, our own projects. We let those things become the center of our universe.” Pride in other words is the result of loving ourselves too much. The antidote to this of course is humility. More and more humility.

And this is good right? Because after all, in the ultimate act of love and humility God became one of us. This is what Philippians tells us. “But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” This has been our predominant model for Christian love. Christian love is to be entirely self-giving, self-sacrificing, devoid of concern about the self. Self-love is selfish. Or is it?

In 1960, there’s a theology named Valerie Serving and she wrote this article in which she critiqued Niba’s understanding of love. She pointed out that there is a distinctly masculine bias inhered in understanding love as self-sacrifice. She said, “In essence the problem with understanding the fundamental sin of humanity as pride, loving the self too much, is that it assumes that a person has a sense of self to begin with.”

She agreed that pride is a form of idolatry in which the self is overvalued but she said that for women that’s not usually the primary problem. “For women, the most common problem is not the sin of pride. It is the sin of selflessness.” A form of idolatry she said in which the self is underdeveloped, undifferentiated and undervalued. Now, that may be little bit challenging to understand if and to wrap your head around if you have kind of built your whole sense of theology and your whole sense discipleship around understanding. Around struggling with pride. The sense that what you have to do as a disciple is to release your pride. But I want to give you an example. Toys. Now. if you look in the toy section of any toy store, you’ll notice that infant toys are relatively gender neutral right?

You kind of get the same toys for newborns regardless of their gender. They all have the same primary colors right? It’s like they’re all the same. But the pre-school years though there are some really strong gender differences. Go in any toy store, go in any target wall mart, walk down the toy arrow it becomes very obvious which toys are being marketed for girls and which toys are being marketed for boys. Boys get trained sets and trucks. Action figures and building kits. Toys that get them to thinking about who they want to be in the world. To get them to have a sense of power and strength. Girls on the other hand. Dolls, doll houses, kitchen sets, craft kits. Toys that train them in the skills of grooming and cooking and house keeping and socializing. All of these are relational in care giving skills.

We even see these differences in the way that we parent. We let boys be boys. To go through the world and just kind of do what they do and not really give a lot of concern for the impact that they have on other people. Girls though are trained to be hyper sensitive to the feelings, moods and opinions of other people. So it’s no wonder they end up… by the time most girls are adolescents, they understand, we understand that our identities are defined through our relationships with others. Our service to others.

We understand that self sacrifice, giving up who you are, repressing who you are is necessary in order to maintain relationships with others because that’s where we derive our sense of self worth. And the church adds to this. The church celebrates women often for marriage and child bearing but very rarely for their educational and career achievements. When I talk to a lot of my single sisters they would say, “I got my doctorate and my church didn’t say a word. The only way I can be celebrated in the church is to get married or to have a baby.” The church also does this by making women’s positions in church dependent upon their relationships with men. Men get to be pastors and deacons and trustees. Women get to be pastor’s wives and deaconesses and church mothers. Positions where women are honored only because of their caregiving.

So what Valerie Serving says is that, “For women and girls the critical issue is servant-hood at the expense of self-hood.” We don’t really have to teach girls about service as a Christian responsibility because by the time most girls are adolescents they already know how to serve others. And she also talked about motherhood and the way in which women intrinsically know through our experience as mothers that’s giving of ourselves. Self-sacrifice needs to have limits. Women know what it means to literally share your body with another person and to need some space from that other person sometimes.

So this idea that we just want to go after self denial and pouring ourselves out and emptying ourselves. Women know that this is not necessarily a good thing. Pastor Theologian Brita Gill Austern she describes it this way. She says, “Women often behave in self sacrificial ways because they believe that they are less important, less valuable and less essential than men. Low self worth is endemic to people socialized in structures of domination and subordination; and they come to believe that they will fell better about themselves if they give. Because women do not feel often lovable, they settle for being needed.

Women often feel they are worth something only if they do something for others. Renita Weems, a biblical scholar, is even more pointed. She says, “Early biblical scholars, writing largely to male audiences, extolled self-denial over egocentricity, humility over pride, poverty over wealth, sacrifice over self-preservation. But it was women who would take these teachings to heart. And the church has benefited. The male hierarchy if the church, that is. As much as they bewail the relative absence of men in the church, male leaders enjoy having armies of humble, guilt-ridden women at their disposal who feel it their Christian duty to deny themselves, take up their cross and sacrifice for family and the church.”

When we understand love solely as self-sacrifice, we risk a sort of theological masochism in which women especially but not just women. Anyone who comes from a background of abuse. A background of neglect poverty can have the same issue. So we prepare them for a form of theological masochism where they learn to accept, submit to and even welcome unjust suffering because such suffering is thought to be our divinely ordained role. I must admit, I cringed when I heard next years theme because as an African-American woman I can assure you. Our suffering is not redemptive.

There is a difference between suffering that’s meant to temper the spirit and suffering that is meant to crush the spirit. And a lot of what happens in the name of sexism and racism and classism crushes the spirit. So I hope you all ask some women of color to come to next years conference and talk about their issue of suffering. [Audience applauses] This view is so dangerous to women’s health. To our spiritual heath, to our psychological health to our physical health. It’s consequences include being out of touch with our own needs and desires, losing our sense of voice, having a continued outward focus that leads to a loss of self esteem and self worth, lacking capacity for genuine relationships that are built on mutuality and reciprocity. and biggest one maybe is that it hinders our ability to live into our God-given gifts.

There are so many women who have been called by God but who cannot; will not respond to the call of God because of this idea that they have to step back. That ‘that might be too prideful’. That they aren’t secure enough in their call to step out into it. This view is even more dangerous for women of color because where women in general are believed to be the servants of men, women of color are believed to be the servants of all.

The servants of the servants. I could provide all sorts of evidence to show how dangerous this belief is. I could tell you the stories of women who remain in abusive relationships. Not just romantic relationships but abusive work and ministry relationships because of this view. I could point to research that links to links of sacrifice with health problems such as binge eating, obesity, hypertension and even sexually acting out among women of color. But this view is really more than dangerous. It is wrong.

The idea that love can only be understood of self-sacrifice is plain wrong. Now that’s not to say it never can be but that is not the only way that love can be understood and is not the only view that we get in scripture. When the scholar in Luke 10 asked Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to gain eternal life?” Jesus knows it’s disingenuous question and he responds with a question of his own. forcing the scholar to concede the answer. We’ve already heard it earlier today but what I want to point out is that the great commandment presumes self-love. It assumes that we can only love our neighbor to the extent that we love ourselves.

But it does something more than that. It implies that self-love is connected to our salvation. The legal scholar didn’t ask, “Teacher, what must I do to live a good life?” He said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And when he includes self-love in his response Jesus doesn’t correct him. Jesus affirms him saying, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.” Love for self then is a biblical injunction and it is not to be equated with sinfulness or selfishness. The critical issue is how we understand the self. Unfortunately the passage in Luke 10 tells us a little bit of something about that too.

The scholar goes on to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds with a parable of The Samaritan. Now we usually see this scripture as an example of neighbor love and it is that but it is also about self love. You see, The Samaritan responds out of compassion. Not guilt, not self-sacrifice or self-denial. Compassion is rooted in self love. Compassion happens when seeing myself as created in the image of God I love myself and I connect to you because I also see you as created in the image of God. I understand that we are connected and so it is out of that love that I respond to you. That I see your problems as my own. A thing that is coming up in the helping profession’s is that of compassion fatigue and we have learned that when we act solely out of self-denial or this eed to sacrifice ourself, that is not compassion.

That is a dangerous sign to burn out. So compassion is not about valuing another person more than ourselves. It is about identifying with the humanity of another and the sense of care and concern that arises from that feeling. It is self-love, not self-denial, that empowers The Samaritan to be moved with compassion to help the stranger. And one last thing I want to point out. This is the other amazing thing about this text that we often overlook. The Samaritan was on a journey when he encounters the beaten and broken man.

He had his own destination in mind. We don’t know what it was. But what we do know is that he does not allow his care for others to distract him from his journey. It interrupts it momentarily. It delays it but he calls upon the community to help him in caring for the man so he can continue on his destination. He does not allow the love and care for another to diminish him. For women that is what we often do. We let our care and concern for another diminish us because we don’t have enough love for ourself to stay the course.

To know where we are headed and to go there no matter what life throws at us. I have for the last 15 years been on a journey to self-love. I love myself. Unabashedly, unashamedly and for me that is a subversive act because as a woman. Especially a woman of color. Everyday the society bombards me with messages that I am not made in the image of God. That I am not beauty. That I am not loved. So for women, especially women of color, loving ourself is holy.