06/08/2010 07:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Non-Coercive Approach to Loving Others

The late psychiatrist Alice Miller, who died in April of this year, describes in detail injuries to the dignity of children through behaviors that are allegedly motivated by love "for their own good": manipulation, threats, beatings, derision, neglect, and other forms of mistreatment. She traces the development of Hitler's pathological psyche to a rationalization of abuse rooted in his childhood.

This speaks to a pathology whereby one may genuinely care for or otherwise feel an emotional attachment to another person, but express it through means that are actually hateful or damaging.

I'm reminded of the popular aphorism that we are to love sinners but hate their sins. Too often, affecting love for a person while hating her sin objectifies the subject, then, per Miller, allows one to unleash hidden resentment, anger, hatred, and other repressed emotions upon her in the name of love, all for the supposed eventual betterment of everyone involved.

Corrupt love is expressed through coercion that manifests itself theologically in certain strains of Augustinian and Calvinist thought. The idea is that God must overpower the human will through regeneration of the spirit before anyone can even have a desire for God. There is no human freedom in this story, only the volition to act according to one's own nature -- whether it remains dead and in opposition to God due to original sin, or is "born again" through the mysterious choice and election of God. Those whom God loves, he elects; those whom he hates, he either refuses to elect or chooses for damnation. Love is not ultimately a free movement of call and response between distinct personalities in communion with each other -- chiefly the human person and God -- but is rather initiated and fulfilled solely by God. Even the human response is conditioned by him. Love is an imposition that changes an individual's nature, according to God's sovereign election and predestination.

It isn't any wonder that many, following what they take as the heavenly ideal on a human scale, would feel that it is likewise an act of love to coerce others for their own good, even if they are incapable of changing anyone's nature. Self-righteousness and arrogance lurks in the sentiment that one might love the sinner but hate his sin, and therefore may feel justified in seeking to correct the sinner's behavior through all sorts of unloving means -- accusations, appellations, abusive rhetoric, emotional manipulation, and bitter vitriol. There is a whole host of bad behaviors consequent to a coercive notion of love, ranging from child and spousal abuse to corporate policy and war.

A love that is non-coercive is truthful and genuinely concerned more for the subject of love than for its owner, and it may be vehemently rejected by those who are incapable of its reception, either due to addictive pathologies rooted in self-centered habits of thought, or due to a simple resistance to love rooted in a hatred that is the consequence of fear.

Hatred is not the opposite of love but the absence of love. It may or may not exist in tangent with familiar emotions we often think of as hatred. It could simply be the lack of desire of communion with or commitment to an object, idea, or person. We may hate someone without wishing them any ill will. We may hate God while profoundly believing in God. Due to the disorder of the soul -- where everything is out of whack and the body or the emotions or appetite often rule the spirit, or due to some additional injury and its attendant pathology (i.e., the lack of parental love, or other abuses we have suffered), we may simply be incapable of love. The injury to our psyche, the inability to love as an act of the will without contingencies, without derailing into an infantile game of punishment and reward whereby pure self-interest masquerades as love, may result in a life totally absent of love: in other words, a life and soul filled with hatred, which manifests itself in profligate passions, addictions, high drama, manifold insecurities, a condition in which the human person becomes a plaything of its own fear. Or worse, as Thomas Merton writes, hatred unfolds into the world as tepidity, a lack of emotional warmth or enthusiasm:

"Those who are not grateful soon begin to complain of everything. Those who do not love, hate. In the spiritual life there is no such thing as indifference to love or hate. That is why tepidity (which seems to be indifferent) is so detestable. It is hate disguised as love."

Love that is tenured in fear, that is manipulative, filled with self-centered expectations, or built on the fulfillment of personal conditions is love that fails and ends in bitterness, divorce, estrangement, emptiness and lack of feeling. These are the more subjective consequences of coercive love, an interior affection whose stamp is "love me", concerned more about its own lack than the health of its subject.

A more authentic understanding of Christian love insists that God does not hate anyone, and we see this when Christ dies in order to redeem and remake the whole world. The courage and power of self-sacrifice and empathy is proven to the point of death. The ancient tradition of the Christian church rejects the notion that there is an expression of divine wrath against Christ on this point, but rather, Christ identifies with us organically not only in life but in willful suffering and in death. While this remains love that is initiated and fulfilled by God in Christ, there is no implication of coercion. God does not force his love on us, or force us to love him.

Authentic love involves reciprocity. Evoking the existence of freedom through His Word, God allows human beings to love Him personally as a free moral act. The notion that I can hate a person's sin and correct him through means of violence or exploitation, while likely fulfilling my more subversive and less transcendent desires, implies that my own state of being is somehow set apart from moral flaw or the necessity of "self-hatred". One must hate his own sin in the sense of seeking discipline over one's own character and life, and through humility if the need arises may correct others in love, and without judgment, manipulation or coercion.