“I Say This In Love” (Christian Nonsense)

I say this in love, you are a powerful lady. Do you ever consider how some of your own responses might come across to folk?

Have you ever noticed that in Christianspeak, when someone prefaces something with “I say this in love”, they intend to insult you? It’s the churchy way of saying “No offense meant”–which always means that the person issuing the words (in speech or writing) is going to say something that is intended to offend, but you can’t call them on it because they’ve said that wasn’t their intent. “I say this in love” is the same kind of thing. I’m going to insult you, but I’m making it as hard as I can for you to respond in ways that are appropriate when an insult has been delivered. And so I can freely speak my mind while telling you my view is more valid than yours.

This bit of Christian Bullshit is brought to you by LinkedIn.

Of course, I have considered how my responses come across to “folk”. I’ve been admonished about that since before I started school. I’m not sorry that I’m a “powerful lady”, although even the word “lady” is a way of diminishing the power of the person being addressed. I usually don’t object to it, when it is issued by people who actually know me and can truly say something in love. I did respond that I realize that powerful ladies can often come across as obnoxious to weak or fragile “gentlemen”, especially those in so-called leadership positions in the church. That is more their problem than mine, however.

But yes, I know that knowledge, reason, creativity, and intuition can be very intimidating–I’ve always known it. I grew up when it was still okay to tell girls that “boys don’t like” girls who are smarter than they are, and that it was better not to show how smart you were. Technically, this is called “playing dumb“.

And it is seen as some kind of loving admonishment to tell me those things have little, if any, place in the church. Because boys really do not like it. And condescend to telling you so, by prefacing it with “I say this in love.”

Not that the women don’t do it, but I do get this piece of tripe more from men than from women. I’m sure it’s delivered within pairs of men as well but (not being a man myself), I have not experienced that.

“I say this in love” is, as far as I can see, the start of a linguistic game that only the initiator can win. I’ll break it down.

Someone wants to find fault with another person. Easy enough, because we all do this, all the time. Most of us have the good sense to keep our mouths shut (metaphorically, of course–more often, these days, it’s a matter of keeping our fingers off electronic devices and not hitting ‘send’, ‘post’, or ‘publish’).

But occasionally, the urge to offend, criticize, give advice where it is not requested, or put ourselves in the “one up” position, takes over. It is at this point where “I say this in love” is most likely to cross lips or keys.

The need to be in the “one up” position is strong. Especially when the speaker has never been put in the “one down” position by the person s/he is addressing. (I’ll use “speaker” from here on in, just for convenience. You know I mean any conversation partner, whether in person or otherwise.) And “I say this in love” is a “nice” way to do that. Claiming “love” prompts a criticism puts the speaker in a position which cannot be challenged, especially when there might be no relationship outside the conversational context.

A close relative or face-to-face friend can do this, but there is more give and take in those relationships, and “love” might arguably exist. There are less than thirty people on the planet with whom I have a relationship where “I say this in love” could be exchanged appropriately. And we would not say, nor have we ever said, “I say this in love.” Because in a relationship where it is valid, it does not need to be said.

But it is rare that people on an internet discussion have that. Even when it is issued by a pastor to a congregant, it is tricky–in that situation, it is reinforcing a perceived “one-up” position (or one that the speaker would like to establish). When it is uttered between two “equals” (such as two lay people in the congregation), it is tricky as well. It usually means that one person has more (unofficial) power than the other, or wants to take that power.

Outside the family or close friendship, “I say this in love” is not a benign way to level a criticism. It is a way of telling the person to whom the utterance is delivered that they are somehow at fault (in my case, by being “powerful”), knocking them down a peg, and putting them in their place.

Usually, because the speaker in some way perceives the person to whom they are speaking “in love” to be their superior.

The addressee has really very limited choices in the game. She can either apologize, take on board the “love” shown by the criticism, and be less of whatever the speaker disapproves of (in the case of the starting quote, I need to be less “powerful”). Or, she can call it as the nonsense it is.

I am not “powerful” in any measurable sense in the kinds of organizations the speaker imagines. I have no official standing in church or academy. Very few people see me as being influential.

I am smart, I am articulate, I am insightful. Sometimes, that pisses people off. But that is their problem more than mine–I don’t think the world (or the church) will be better off with fewer people who have those qualities. If I am wrong, all the more cause for despair.

“I say this in love” is pretty unloving, if you ask me. It’s also fairly un-biblical: 1 Thessalonians 5:11 says we should “encourage one another and build each other up.”

“I say this in love” is a way of tearing down those who have gotten above where we believe they belong. And they always belong lower than ourselves.

It’s bullshit. It’s never appropriate or necessary. It should stop this moment.

(There are now some further thoughts here.)

5 thoughts on ““I Say This In Love” (Christian Nonsense)

  1. Yes, it was the same during my time at seminary–although, as the only intentionally lay student, it was directed at me more than at others.

    As though it’s a right.

    Once, a parish priest who had “pastoral concerns” for my well-being spoke about what I had discussed with him to another parishioner who happened to be a psychiatrist–and made an appointment on my behalf! Not all pastoral boundary transgressions have to do with sexual misconduct…

    I left that parish. It was the first step out the door.

    1. As my training incumbent once remarked, the Anglican definition of confidentiality is only telling one other person (at a time)

      1. We’ve got to do better at respecting people. In today’s essay, I’ve raised the question about what might happen if we called these hurtful language games what they are, and refused to play.

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