St. Valentine: A Reminder of Radical Christian Love

By Olivia Whitener 2-13-2017 | Series:
St. Valentine, kneeling in supplication.

And if you never speak truth, then you never know how love sounds
And if you never know love, then you never know God, wow
Where’s the love y’all?
Where’s the truth y’all?

Pulling inspiration from 1 John 4:8 (“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love”), the Black Eyed Peas penned these lyrics in the remake of their 2003 hit, “#WHERESTHELOVE?” Originally released in the aftermath of 9/11 as a reflection on the hopelessness that pervaded the America they observed while on tour, “Where is the Love?” captures a desperation for God to intervene, to stop the killing, to give guidance as to how to bring people together — a modern musical reinterpretation of a Psalm.

I remember singing a rendition of the original recording in a fifth grade chorus concert. The lyrics were ingrained in my adolescent brain — a chorus that provided a perfect prayer in times of distress at the news cycle: “Father, father, father help us / send some guidance from above / cause people got me, got me questioning / where is the love?.”

And in 2016 — amid the relentless killings of black men, women, and children, the continued destruction of native lands for the sake of oil, blind-eyes being turned on the thousands of refugees attempting to escape their war-torn homelands, and the lack of security felt by undocumented immigrants whose status in this country depends on decisions from a court — the group united with their friends to bring the same message to attention: Where is the truth in the post-truth narrative? Where is the love when everyone feels divided? Can we unbiasedly practice what we preach about love and the value of life? Can we turn the other cheek when tweeting a one-liner is so much simpler?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I read the latest news reports about ICE raids in cities across the country and I feel that love is lost. But then I see a gathering like the most recent Moral March on Raleigh, and my faith in justice and truth is restored and I am encouraged.

The memory of Saint Valentine — or at least the tales that are told of his legacy — also encourages a continued strong Christian witness for love in the face of danger and persecution. In a time when Emperor Claudius II persecuted Christians and forbade them from marrying, Valentine officiated over weddings and supported Christians seeking safety. For these acts of resistance, Valentine was beheaded, but not before trying to convert the emperor himself. Valentine lived out radical love in a radical way.

Jesus also knew a little something about this act of resistance called love — he was so deep in the resistance that he also was sentenced to death by the officials and citizens alike (a government execution, Shane Claiborne reminds us). During his time traveling and spreading God's love, he ensured that the lepers and the tax collectors and the unmarried women were included in his message: You are loved. And more than just saying the words, Jesus showed that love as he gathered the outsiders close to him, in his actions demonstrating how his followers should act when he was no longer there to do so.

The feast of Saint Valentine is a day of mourning for some, fear for others, cynicism for a few, and giddy hope for many (though the constant upbeat love songs playing through department stores decked out in pink and red want you to think it is a solely joyful occasion). As Nicholas Kristof reminded us in a recent opinion article for the New York Times, Husbands Are Deadlier Than Terrorists.” For many women (and men) around the world, partnership means abuse and violence and an obnoxiously superficial holiday like Valentine’s Day is painful. As some couples fear increased threats to marriage rights to any two people, there is hesitant celebration today, for their rights to love openly may be stripped away. Widows will visit graves today and long-distance phone calls will be made to loved ones in foreign places.

In all of these life circumstances, the love of God remains, even as we cry out to our Mother in Heaven to make it clear to us. St. Valentine’s act of defiance was not only of performing wedding ceremonies between two people, but of sharing the radical love of Jesus Christ with people around Rome. His feast day is not a time only for heteronormative couples to dine together, but for all who can share love with another to declare that “love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.”

Jesus did not preach, “Show love only to your romantic partner and only in the ways the state allows.” Jesus preached, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

As Christian witnesses, we should use the feast of Saint Valentine to care deeply for one another and especially for those who are persecuted by those in power. Flowers and candies and candles are nice — but this year, I’d much rather be smashing patriarchy, overturning the “refugee ban,” creating pathways to citizenship, and supporting high quality education for all children. And my valentine can join me in my ventures.

Sharing the love of God may have gotten Saint Valentine killed along with many other of the saints we honor, but what we learn from his witness and Jesus’ teaching is that love is ultimately a courageous display of freedom. In the words of Maya Angelou, “Yet if we are bold / love strikes away the chains of fear / from our souls.”

May today be a day of radical love that you show to others and that is shown to you.

Olivia Whitener is a former Editorial Assistant for Sojourners. You can follow Olivia's musings on Twitter @owhitener

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