Art by Peau Porotesano
Somewhere in Santa Monica, two green skeletons appear on a video screen passionately caressing one another. It is not immediately obvious to the crowd watching who these two people are, but the image of love between them is easily recognized by the crowd. The two mystery lovers come out from behind the screen to reveal themselves to the crowd: they are a lesbian couple.
The ad is part of a new campaign called “Love has no labels” created by the National Ad Council. Its message is an emotionally powerful one that is infinitely relevant to the conflicts going on today in public policy and civil society. The video addresses all kinds of bias pertaining to race, sexual orientation, age, disability and religion. I knew the video was likely to cause a controversy.
Coming from a Christian home with strong evangelical roots, I was taught that romantic love was not allowed between people of the same sex, and marriage was definitely out of the question. This process of belief formation created a bias in me that one day fermented into a personal crisis for truth.
One night while conversing with a group of Christians at a Bible study, the issue of same-sex marriage came up. I talked about my experience of having a roommate who was gay and my daily meaningful interactions with him. I expressed my dismay about the fact that although he was a great person, if he didn’t change his lifestyle, he was going to hell.
Most of the heads in the circle bobbed in agreement, and some even recognized the intended sensitivity of my story, but one individual grew upset and explained to me that I was not the authority who decides who gets into heaven or hell. The atmosphere was intensely awkward, and so we changed the topic and acted like nothing happened.
Later, the guy pulled me to the side and explained that his mother was a lesbian. He asked me if I knew for sure his mother was going to hell. I was faced with a crisis: tell this guy his mother was going to hell, or relinquish the certainty of my beliefs.
I had no response. It was at that moment that I realized the answers were not as simple for me anymore. This was not abstract theology. This was real life: intimate, awkward and raw. I was taught that God loved everyone and that people were going to be punished for their bad choices, but how did I know if being gay was a choice or not, and how did I know who was really going to heaven or hell?
I still don’t know the answer to my friend’s question, and I can’t expound on the possibilities because I am not God and human empirical practices don’t allow us to confirm or refute the existence of an afterlife.
As human beings, we abhor internal disharmony or dissonance and constantly long for a sense of meaning in the universe. We all subscribe to some kind of programmatic belief about life. Even absurdism and nihilism are considered systems of belief. In the end, everyone can claim their beliefs to be true, but no system of belief is beyond doubt or argument. So conflict remains among humanity about the nature of truth and meaning.
My comfort in this tension comes from the life of the religious leader Jesus. During his time on the earth, the application of labels was probably even more rigid than it is today. The Gospels tell stories of Jesus constantly crossing the lines created by societal bias and engaging with tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, Samaritans and others considered nefarious by mainstream society.
I think Jesus saw past the bias created by the societal system and labels of his time and saw the intrinsic value of every human being he interacted with during his earthly ministry. This intrinsic value led him to actions both loving and punitive, but with the overall intention of love. I think this is the place we all should start.
Love is not so much an emotional state as it is a command or an action connected to duty. Jesus taught that the greatest command of all was to love God and love others. While the nature of the Ad Council’s new campaign is controversial to some, the ad illustrates a point that I think defines the essence of justice and love, recognizing all human beings intrinsic value.
I don’t believe the ad is pushing anyone to relinquish their own beliefs. I think it is encouraging us to recognize that labels can often dehumanize others and lead to unintentional harm and marginalization. Race, gender, sexual orientation, age or disabilities alone are never grounds for injustice.
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