I recently attended a convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont with the theme “love heals.” The convention highlighted the work of Magdalene and Thistle Farms, located in Tennessee, and its amazing founding director, the Rev. Becca Stevens. According to its website,
“Thistle Farms is a powerful global community of women healing from prostitution, trafficking and addiction. We employ 50 survivors through our social enterprises: Thistle Farms Home & Body, Thistle Stop Cafe, and an Artisan Studio. Thistle Farms Global helps employ more than 1,500 women. Our national network welcomes more than 30 sister organizations. Started in 1997 by Rev. Becca Stevens under the name Magdalene, Thistle Farms includes a two-year residential program and advocacy services for hundreds of women yearly.”
The titles of some of Rev. Stevens’ books include The Path of Love: Walking Bible Study, Funeral for a Stranger: Thoughts on Life and Love, and Snake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth Telling. Knowing these things about Rev. Stevens and Thistle Farms, even without hearing her speak (which is a powerful experience), one can see how love, in conjunction with justice, informs her entire life.
While it is unclear to me where the Diocese of Vermont and our individual parishes will go after these convention presentations, I wanted to meditate on the conjunction of love and public policy, especially in light of the US election and the fact that millions of Americans continue to suffer economically. I have long felt that the concept of love in our culture is, in many ways, overblown, much too linked with sex and even violence, too individualistic, missing from too many people’s lives (and thus seemingly unattainable or abstract), and basically misunderstood.
But love is a pervasive concept in our culture and held dear, I suspect, by most Americans. Many of us have heard these powerful words of St. Paul, from I Corinthians 13, in marriage ceremonies (New International Version translation): “Love is patient, love is kind.… Love never fails. . . And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Without at all discounting genuine love in our lives at the individual, “feeling” level – romantic love, love between parents and children, love for our pets, love for friends – I’d like to explore how a more communal type of love might influence and shape public policy on behalf of US citizens. The late theologian Marcus Borg treated this topic in the context of compassion in The God We Never Knew, and Finnish author Anu Partanen offers us, in 2016, the “Nordic theory of love.”
Borg argued in the late 1990s that the American value of individualism affects our politics and economics in some unfortunate ways, “generating a society with increasingly sharp social boundaries based on wealth.” (Depressingly, conditions observed by Borg 20 years ago have become even worse by most measures.) The growing gap between rich and poor, he states, “is the result of social and economic policy. . . [S]ocial policy, not simply individual effort, is responsible for the distribution of wealth.” The individualistic ethos supports the widespread impulse to pay as little as possible in taxes: “we each have worked hard for what we have and ought to be able to keep all of it,” even though tax revenue underpins services that benefit all of us: public schools, infrastructure, libraries, and so on. Borg further argues that our particular national policies increase private wealth among the top 10 percent of Americans, while also increasing public poverty; our overall society thus is greatly damaged (pages 148-49).
The antidote, for Borg, is a “politics of compassion,” “not a particular set of specific economic and social policies but a social vision that is to affect all of our political thinking.” The strength of compassion, he proposes, “can be seen by looking at its opposites: hatred, abuse, brutality, injustice,” racism and other destructive impulses. Using compassion as a political paradigm “leads to seeing the impact of social structures on people’s lives, … [and seeing] that the economic suffering of the poor is not primarily due to individual failure,” as conservatives are wont to argue. A politics of compassion “seeks to create social structures that are stewards of nourishment for the society as a whole” (pages 150-51).
Borg does not draw on examples of societies (in Europe, for example) that might actually live out such a politics of compassion, and Anu Partanen does not seem to be aware of Borg’s work. But I would argue that they are both proposing doable, practical shifts in our national thinking from which we can improve people’s actual lives by crafting improved public policy. In The Nordic Theory of Everything, Partanen states, “For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community…. A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal…. [T]he goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children.” When individuals are thus freed, they can relate “unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free [and] completely authentic” (pages 51-53). Note the emphasis on the individual, the American ideal!
This seeming conflict between American individualism and the social policies of Nordic nations disappears upon closer examination. The Nordic theory of love has in fact influenced most major social policy decisions in these countries – around the family, education, health care, and more. Note that neither Borg nor Partanen is talking about individual feelings or emotions; they are not arguing that we have to have loving, personal feelings toward our fellow citizens in order to live out a politics of compassion or the Nordic theory of love. Rather, they are speaking specifically about the public, political sphere: social policies that positively affect both individuals and entire societies.
In the work of Thistle Farms, we see a stellar example of communal love in a religious context. Thistle Farms, a primary inspiration for the Diocese of Vermont’s theme of “love heals,” is founded on compassion and love and seems particularly American in its location in the non-profit arena. Thistle Farms and other non-profit organizations and charities are powerful and help millions of people in great need. But they are also limited in scope and targeted to specific populations.
The Nordic theory of love and Borg’s “politics of compassion,” in contrast, are all about the health and well-being of entire populations – “from cradle to grave,” as it were. Policies enacted under communal love and compassion are practical, sustainable, fair to all, and doable, as evidenced by most quality-of-life measures in the Nordic and other advanced nations. These societies are not merely utopian, unattainable cultures: the EU bloc, representing 28-30 countries and half a billion people, boasts the highest standard of living the world has ever known.
Without at all disparaging the tremendous, selfless, and dedicated work of entities such as Thistle Farms, would it not behoove us in the US to closely examine the “Nordic theory of love” and the “politics of compassion” in the context of national social policy? If we might not be able to envision such thinking in the current administration at the federal level (although surprises are always possible), could we consider it at the state level? Our future as a nation may well depend on our ability to change our thinking in ways outlined by Borg and Partanen, then take significant legislative steps wherever and however we can.
Borg, Marcus J. The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.
Partanen, Anu. The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.