Some time ago–10 years? 15 years?–I began to hear Evangelical pastors encourage their flocks to “love on” other people. As in, “Let’s make hot chocolate and sandwiches and go ‘love on’ those homeless people in the park” or “I know Brother or Sister X is struggling with their faith right now, but we’re gonna ‘love on’ them until they come back to Jesus” or . . . but you get the idea.
I’m sure the leaders that used the phrase had their hearts in the right place. They probably truly wanted to love people in the way that God loves them.
But “love ON”?
Of course I’m a Word Nerd, not because I enjoy grammar policing, but because I think words are important. And the insertion of this two-letter preposition into a phrase that has been consistent for many years before–why “I ‘love on’ you” instead of just “I love you”?–served as an early warning signal of something troubling at the heart of this expression of the faith. Loving “on” instead of just loving others places us in a wrong relationship with the thing we are saying we want to love.
Think about it: in order to put something “on” something else, you have to be above and looking down. I can’t put a book “on” a table if the book is underneath it. I can only put a book “on” the table if the book, and at least my hand, are above the table.
So when we say we are going to “love on” people, we are saying that we are above them, and that the thing we are carrying to them and placing on them–love–comes from “up” where we are, not “down” where they are.
“On” also carries a hint of coercion, of pressure. I’m going to lean this weight of love “on” you in order to change you, in order to make your life “better,” at least in my opinion.
Bad theology. Bad practice. And not at all what Jesus says.
An Evangelical catch-phrase from 40 years ago much more clearly captures the essence of what Jesus wants his followers to be about: “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” In other words, no one is any better than anyone else when they are truly standing in the Way of Jesus. No one is over anyone else. The rich and powerful, those who are winners in the culture wars, stand on the same ground as those whose lives are much harder and more desperate.
(Actually, I would argue that if there is a hierarchy amongst the followers of Jesus, the poor and oppressed are the ones “above” everyone else. Those of us who have a disproportionate amount wealth and success in this very unequal world of ours need to learn and be guided by the poor, who by their very lives know things that are difficult for us to comprehend. But that will be another post.)
If you ever want to “love on” me, I will not reject your gesture. But for my part, I will never “love on” you. Instead, I will, with God’s help, do my best to live in to loving as I have been loved.