The Paradox of Crucified Love as the Pattern for Human Love

By Andreea Bălan

The beloved is giving as he appears to take away. ~ Rumi

Britney Spears’ latest song, “Criminal,” recently hit the radio waves. The catchy tune will do little to change the public opinion about Britney’s vocal and writing abilities, although it will most likely soar to the top of the charts, reinforcing her reputation as the princess of commercial pop music. Spears, used to all kinds of aspersions, will laugh all the way to the bank, leaving us with the task of trying to make some sense of the actual content of her most recent experiment. The video, unsurprisingly, contains quite a bit of nudity, the sex scenes with her real-life boyfriend Jason Trawick leaving little to the imagination. Unlike her previous efforts, however, “Criminal” portrays a considerable amount of gun violence, including a scene in which she threatens a store owner with a pistol while her partner purloins all the money from the cash register, for which she has been criticized not only on the home front, but also across the pond (the video was shot in the U.K.). The video and lyrics of Britney’s song build on each other. Images of guns and shooting are intertwined with ones of Britney and her felon in the bedroom or in the shower, while she intones such verses as, “But mama I’m in love with a criminal/ And this type of love/ Isn’t rational, it’s physical,” and “And he’s got my name/ Tattooed on his arm/ His lucky charm/ So I guess it’s okay/ He’s with me.” When asked to respond to the controversy that the video stirred after just one week of its release, the director, Chris Piliero, replied, “He’s a professional criminal, so it makes sense he has a gun. We shouldn’t censor ourselves.”[1] The vapidity of Piliero’s answer is somewhat dizzying, although not altogether unexpected. After all, few in our society can tackle controversy in a thoughtful manner or engage in contentious activity based on convictions that disclose a great deal of learning and reflection rather than on popular clichés such as freedom of expression, which, in the minds of many, automatically exonerate one from any responsibility that he or she does bear to God, the public, and to oneself.

While Britney is not guilty of being the first or the only one to display such images with no second thought, “Criminal” points to a trend in our culture: sex and violence are increasingly linked together. The more intense violence started being portrayed, the more meaningless the sex became. Which came first may be a matter of semantics, but there seems to be little doubt that the two are connected.[2] Theologically, this is no accident: both depersonalize the other and reduce him or her to one dimension, namely the body. As Susan Sontag astutely observes,

All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic. But images of the repulsive can also allure. Everyone knows that what slows down highway traffic going past a horrendous car crash is not only curiosity. It is also, for many, the wish to see something gruesome.[3]

The appeal of the appalling is by no means a modern invention, since even Plato recorded in The Republic this inability of the human being to avert his or her eyes in the face of the violent destruction of the other. When coupled with sexual imagery, though, this cocktail proves to be poisonous to our understanding of what love is. The sense of danger that inevitably accompanies an illicit union with a stranger that is based more on good looks and less on character and personality (to say nothing about God), paired with the sinister desire to behold violent images, whets the audience’s appetite for the disturbing, while erasing almost entirely any idea of sacrifice that love invariably encompasses. Britney’s “Criminal” bears witness to this. As the lyrics explicitly or implicitly state, love seems to be based solely on an irresistible physical attraction, akin to the bond between hydrogen and oxygen (a molecule of water is the hardest chemical bond to break), the gun violence only witnessing to the power of this animal magnetism and enhancing the thrill such an attraction offers to the lovers. Freedom of expression, then, is not what is under attack in the criticism directed at Britney’s video, as Piliero’s comment assumes; what is at stake for the Christian (at least in part) is the very meaning of love.

The Scriptural Vision of Love

In the clamorous climate of our world, the Scriptural vision of love is relegated to the periphery of our consciousness. Few seem to want to bother reading the Bible and deeply engaging with the message that it proclaims. Such an endeavor would require a considerable amount of time and effort (mentally and spiritually), and, perhaps the hardest of all, the ability to keep quiet rather than participate in verbal gymnastics with members of the dark side of the Force (which, invariably, is the other side from where I am standing). Despite our lackadaisical efforts when it comes to delving into the wisdom of the Holy Writ, it is here that we find a meaningful alternative to the popular understanding of love.[4] The picture with which Paul and the rest confront us that best exemplifies God’s love for his creation centers on the crucified Messiah — and, ironically, it is in this violent act that we find the model on which to pattern human love. It is Christ’s self-emptying on the cross for the life of the world that we must emulate in our relationship with our significant other.

"It is Christ's self-emptying on the cross..."

According to Genesis, God set out to create the world. His last act of creation is the human being, a creature he put in charge of tending and keeping the Garden of Eden. This concludes God’s work, who then rests on the seventh day and admires his handiwork. Yet the story does not end here. According to the Gospel of John, it is not until Christ utters from the cross, “It is finished,” that creation truly reaches its apex (John 19:28). Jesus Christ is the completion of God’s creation; he is the human being, following his Father through the vicissitudes of his earthly life, one that ends in a death that, as John narrates earlier, gives life to the world (John 6:51). It is no accident that Christ makes such a pronouncement from the cross. It is in the cross that the ultimate mystery of the divine is revealed: an incarnate God crucified for and by his creation in an act of unparalleled, self-emptying love. For this scene, John leans heavily on Paul, whom we hear preach that Adam was “a type of the one who was to come,” that is, Jesus Christ (Romans 5:14). Moreover, since Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and humans are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), it follows that we are made in the image of Christ. Jesus, then, is the real prototype in the creation of human beings, and his sacrifice on the cross becomes the paradigm that Christian partners must imitate in their love for one another.

It is good to remember, at this point, that the cross does not encompass merely suffering for the sake of the other. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann so often emphasizes in his writings, Christians, and by extension Christian partners, should most of all possess joy, Christ’s joy (John 15:11). Authentic joy, however, is not a superficial happiness, rooted in the belief that God’s Kingdom will turn things “right” — which, incidentally, nullifies, in the minds of many, any reason to become dejected in the face of the all-too-apparent destruction and violence in our world, and prompts them, tragically, to explain suffering in rather simplistic terms. As Rowan Williams writes,

The Gospel is that Jesus’s God is King, that the source of all things and the meaning of all things is what Jesus calls Abba; that his reign is at hand, that the manifestation of beauty and significance in the world is always possible and always close; and so, that we can live now under the Kingdom, in readiness and hope, alert for the vision of the Father, without abandoning the world or trivializing history.[5] (second emphasis mine)

Escapism, a withdrawal from the world in fear, which inevitably turns into pompous self-aggrandizement and suspicion of every joy and pleasure, best exemplified by Dostoyevsky’s Fr. Ferapont, is contrary to the message of the gospel. As Williams suggests, the joy of the Christian is not apart from the world or from its painful, idolatrous, and bloody history. Joy is related to the healing touch of Jesus and his Kingdom, which never denies history but always transforms it, renewing everything from within, giving new possibilities to what had been regarded as long dead or beyond hope. Furthermore, joy does not allow for stoic behavior and the hardening of our hearts in the face of our trials or our partner’s, but ensures that our hearts will remain of flesh, ready to suffer for Jesus but also easily able to participate in the celebrations of human life and the delights that accompany each season. By bearing each other’s burdens we do indeed fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2), but these burdens need not become onerous to the point of excluding joy from our life.

Unfortunately, this magnificent vision lies forgotten even by many in the church, as the theology of fear takes over, dictating much of what is preached to young adults about romance and dating. We exhibit such alarm at the prospect of premarital sex that we forget that we can never control other people and their freedom — nor are we called to do so. What we are called to do is to guide people in the process of understanding and accepting their freedom, and learning to use it in a manner befitting Christ. Since we are not a nation of ideologues, but of priests (Exodus 19:6; 1 Peter 2:9), and if of priests then of pastors, we cannot issue encyclicals and lists about what love “ideally” looks like or when it “ideally” needs to happen. Dating per se should not be shunned. Least of all should we teach that a relationship might result in heartache and so postponing dating until after college is the desired course of action, as if a greater number, in terms of age, is proportionate somehow to less suffering or points to the capacity to handle suffering better. Such a position begs the question, If God was not spared violence, how can we expect ourselves to escape it or delay it until we are “ready”? And are we ever truly ready for it? Pastorally, the emphasis should always center on Jesus Christ. Only a deep and intimate knowledge of the Lord, a pursuit that undoubtedly spans one’s entire life, can provide the right emphasis and perspective in a commitment, be it short term or long term. Since no one can predict with absolute certainty when the appropriate time to enter a relationship is and thus write a doctrine that can be enforced on everyone indiscriminately, discernment on our part is what is required if we are to mentor people who seek advice on such matters. A pastoral mind does not deal in absolutes, but in particulars.

It is somewhat stunning that, instead of preparing our youth for a life of witness to Christ, we pander to them to such an unhealthy degree, forgetting to teach them responsibility and discipline in the Lord — something for which, incidentally, they yearn. We seem to have fallen into a state of spiritual amnesia, neglecting that the gospel is applicable to people of all ages. Our young adults should be trained for martyrdom, and for many the arena where this will take place is not the Colosseum of the Roman Empire, but marriage. Martyrdom, understandably, has come to be identified exclusively with gruesome torments and public executions. At its root, however, the word literally translates as witness (from the Greek martyr). The term’s immediate denotation is linked to the courtroom, where a witness testifies on behalf of a party as to the veracity of the claims on trial or of events that transpired. To be a Christian witness is to give evidence to the world on behalf of God, to testify to the faithfulness of God and his promises. More precisely, it is to embody the life of Christ, his Passion, crucifixion and resurrection. It is to relate to one another in a new way, attesting to the transformative power of Jesus and his Kingdom. Marriage is not only supposed to reveal this, but also make visible the greatest mystery of all: the marriage feast of the Lamb described in Revelation, where the heavenly Jerusalem comes down to earth to meet the bride, i.e., the Church. Marriage, in a special way, brings to light Abba’s greatest plan: to marry his creation.

That love requires sacrifice is a novelty to no one, including our entertainers. However twisted, this notion is present even in a song like “Criminal.” What Britney seems to be asking her audience is a relinquishing of the intellect in favor of following one’s “instincts” and pursuing a relationship that makes little sense but that feels good from a purely physical and (bio)chemical perspective. She even has to reassure her mother of her wellbeing in the face of the overwhelming evidence that this type of relationship is simply detrimental from whatever angle one views it. The consequences of such a union, beyond a four-minute video (or a two-hour movie), are left up to an enthralled audience to work out, a task that is rather difficult when there is so much ennui in our quotidian lives that we literally pay money to escape it as often as we can. The sacrifice that Jesus Christ asks of us does not demand a split between our minds and our hearts, but a bringing together of the two in faithfulness to him and to our partner. Jesus does not take us away from life, but plunges us back into it with renewed vigor each time. It is the daily grind that we are asked to transform with our presence and our witness.

[1] Jocelyn Vena, “Britney Spears’ ”˜Criminal’ Director Talks Gun Controversy.” October 12, 2011 <>.

[2] It is beyond the scope of this reflection to analyze in depth this phenomenon. With the reader’s indulgence, these casual observations will do for now.

[3] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 95-96.

[4] To be sure, the way that love is portrayed in the media is multifaceted. This reflection has only drawn attention to one aspect, but it is by no means an exhaustive study of the hypotheses that are on the market, so to speak.

[5] Rowan Williams, The Truce of God, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 80.