More Than Candy Hearts

Valentine’s Day tends to evoke strong emotions from folks. Those who are romantically attached often appreciate its sentimentality, while lonely singles sometimes see it as Singles Awareness Day (SAD). I’ve always enjoyed Valentine’s Day, but I have a beef with its current form and all that it could be, particularly in the interfaith movement.

On Valentine’s Day, we’re encouraged to tell those we care about how we feel, and to spend time with loved ones. We’re also left with a commercialized view of one very specific type of love (the romantic variety) that is all pink, frilly, and warm and fuzzy. Our religious and secular traditions speak of a love that is far more profound than any cardboard valentine can convey (though I will own up to enjoying these Downton Abbey valentines). What if we spent Valentine’s Day seriously discussing love, in all its glory and challenges, instead of settling for the cute but unfulfilling sweetness of Russell Stovers?

Dorothy Day, a Catholic activist and interfaith hero to many, once said, quoting Dostoevsky, “Love in action is harsh and dreadful when compared to love in dreams.” She knew what she was talking about. Born into a middle-class family, Day chose to spend her life with and among the urban poor. Her cry for justice, rooted deeply in her Catholic faith, prompted a hunger strike as well as her arrest during several protests for workers’ rights. She suffered physical and emotional hardship, as well as a sense of isolation she later came to call “the long loneliness,” all for the love of the poor, and of God.

It’s a far cry from our typical Valentine’s Day flowers and chocolates, but it’s a far more powerful, authentic testament to agape, or radical, self-sacrificing love as embodied by Jesus. It isn’t pretty; it is harsh and dreadful, as Dostoevsky claims. How much easier it is to rhapsodize about love on Valentine’s Day, than to live it out!

If Valentine’s Day is dedicated to love, it should be to the kind of all-giving selflessness that faith heroes like Day represent. That kind of love isn’t exclusive to Christianity. Martin Luther King called love a “Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality,” “the force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.” Our faith and secular traditions attest to a powerful, prophetic love, though in different terms and coming from different perspectives.

This Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to ask yourself, “What does love, in all its different forms, look like in my tradition? And how do I live it out every day?” A day dedicated to love should be as profound and demanding as love itself; we don’t have to settle for the shallow, restricted commercialism to which we’re accustomed.

On Valentine’s Day, PBS is screening The Interrupters , a documentary about gang violence in Chicago and peacemakers committed to breaking it up (one of whom is an African-American Muslim woman who wears the hijab). The grit of the story couldn’t be further from traditional Valentine’s Day sentimentality, and it couldn’t get closer to the heart of true love. I can’t imagine a better day to watch the film than Valentine’s Day.

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