by: Philip Cox
I used to believe that romance was a part of human nature. As long as men and women existed in the same place, people would get to know each other and fall in love. But conversations with young people in Rwanda revealed some realities.
First, it was common for young men to reach a point in their lives where they would simply decide that they should be married, find a good candidate, get their parents to arrange things, and settle the deal all in the span of a month or two. Second, divorce is less common. Third, "love" between partners was hard for them to define.
Rwandans seemed to see marriage as more of a social and economic partnership, than a spiritual and emotional union. In a society where gender and age prescribe economic role, adult singles pose a significant (for poor families a single adult can be a dangerous) drain on the family economy. So the western concept of what it means to “fall in love” is not a given in every culture, certainly not in Rwandan culture.
My initial reaction was distaste. I thought this was one more way in which African culture was less developed than our North American culture. I was convinced that as African Christians read their Bibles more, and allowed the gospel to transform them, their perspective on marriage would become more like ours. I no longer believe that.
Here in America, we forget that our western Christianity carries a great deal of cultural baggage. For instance, we still tend to see romance and violence as the great powers that can be used to create change in the world. This view has led to the myths of redemptive violence and romance.
And these myths are powerful. While I have a lot to say about the destructive effect of the myth of redemptive violence in our culture, it is the myth of redemptive romance that has been on my mind recently. What I am calling redemptive romance is the essential belief that a romantic relationship could give life meaning. It is the idea that our broken lives, out of sync with each other, with ourselves, and with creation, would be made happy, meaningful, and productive through a romantic (and usually, but not always, sexual) relationship. Redemptive romance is an object of our worship, and not only do we worship it in song and story, we also appeal to it, and recommend it to others as a solution to their problems.
I don’t know how many times growing up I heard that “God had someone out there for me” (a promise not found in any Bible I’ve ever read). But this idea comes out in more subtle ways as well. It is frequently present in our youth programs, and especially when we teach sexual morality. For example, the idea that God wants us to “save sex for marriage,” has an underlying implication that God wants us all to get married and eventually have all of our saved-up sex. This is part of why so many Christian kids believe God owes them a healthy marriage and a great sex life. Perhaps more significant is the way in which we often treat singleness as a problem to be solved rather than as a gift to the church.
Humans need community. We have a human need to know that we are a part of a story that is bigger than ourselves: one that existed before us, one to which we will contribute, and one that will continue on after us. We need to know our lives matter.
And this, I think, is the point of love. While “keeping no record of wrongs” is undoubtedly a good practice for married couples, Paul was not talking about married couples when he wrote the passage. Instead, the famous love chapter is really giving us a “more excellent way” for church communities to function in order that they might accomplish their purpose: to love each other, to do what is best for one another and for the rest of creation. Both marriage and singleness find their true meaning in people who are wholeheartedly devoted to advancing the Kingdom of God in the world.
As I continue to learn about how churches might value and engage singles, I would welcome your help. Is anyone doing this well? Let the conversation begin