By Janene Cates Putman
Janene writes: “I had the distinct delight of talking to ‘fierce Mama Bear,’ Susan Cottrell, about her newest book, Be the Love You Want to See in the World. She is a prominent voice for faith parents of LGBTQI children. An international speaker, acclaimed author, and theologian, she and her husband of 32 years, Rob, founded FreedHearts to champion the LGBTQI community and their families. Susan says, “We are fully affirming because of Jesus, because of our faith, because of Scripture, not in spite of it.” Join me as we talk about her work and her newest book.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Janene’s questions are noted by her initials, JCP, and Susan’s answers by her initials, SC.
“It’s really both/and.”
JCP: Let’s talk a little bit about how you came to write Be the Love You Want to See in the World.
SC: The response I got after the Ted Talk [link below] was so positive and overwhelming with love and appreciation for what I was doing and the message I was giving. And I thought, you know, just loving people is not that hard to do. You just accept them as they are, with room for whom they may become. That inspired me to write the book. People need to know that our job is to love each other, not to get all caught up in the details of whether they’re worthy of being loved.
JCP: From my perspective, as a reader, it seemed as though everything was absolutely flowing out of your heart. It was a beautiful read.
SC: Well, thank you. Thank you.
JCP: Thank you for writing it. You quote Brian Morton of the New York Times, who said, “personal and social transformation go hand in hand.” How so?
SC: Well, in other words, if we just look to the authorities to change, but we don’t change, it’s not going to work. We have to have that grassroots element. In the same way, if only the grassroots element is happening and we’re not speaking truth to power, systems don’t change.
JCP: Oh, that’s good.
SC: It’s really both/and.
JCP: It really is. Now, how would you recommend that we speak truth to power as it relates to loving each other?
SC: Since I recently spoke at HRC’s Time to Thrive, I was invited to speak to the NEA [National Education Association]. And I had some things to tell teachers about the need to protect kids from bullies. I was bullied and nobody stepped in, even though it was obvious I was being bullied. And if we’re not protecting “the least of these,” what are we doing?
Also speaking to counselors is important. The talk I was giving at Time to Thrive was about reparative therapy and how harmful that is. We’ve got to speak truth to counselors, to let them know not to do that. I know the Christian so called “counselors” that teach reparative therapy aren’t that willing to listen, but the grassroots part of this is making it unacceptable to do harmful things and pretend it’s love. We’re speaking truth to the power structures that enable these things to happen.
JCP: I want to talk about that a little bit more later, particularly as it pertains to the Christian and religious realm of what we’re talking about.
You say that our greatest needs are complete acceptance, love, and belonging. These are necessary for “full and authentic living.” What does that look like? What does that look like in your life?
SC: I did not get that growing up. I had a lot to deal with from a lot of trauma in my childhood, but I never felt like I wasn’t part of the family. Then I married my husband, who is the most loving person I’ve ever met in the history of the world. He is so kind and loving and affirming. He just massaged life into me, healing old wounds of childhood, and I did the same for him. By contrast, earlier today I was counseling a young woman whose father was so abusive that he wouldn’t let her eat if she hadn’t studied long enough. He wouldn’t let her get tutoring, but if she didn’t know an answer, he wouldn’t let her eat.
Having our basic needs for love and affirmation met is what allows us to blossom as human beings. Nothing else will do it. And then all of the beauty that we came to earth to blossom into flows out of that acceptance. Acceptance is the first key; acceptance and safety—that’s where it all starts.
JCP: Acceptance and safety, I would say, is part of loving well.
SC: Yes, yes, absolutely. That’s right.
“…be love looking for a place to happen.”
JCP: My favorite quote—and I have many, as you know—from Be the Love is, “Our job as humans is to be love looking for a place to happen.” Man, that is so powerful, Susan! How do we do that? How can I do that in my everyday life?
SC: When you walk in love—and that includes self-love, which we don’t do as well as we need to—when you walk in love, then you are an open place for people to be with you. What we’re conditioned to do is to be afraid somebody is out to get us and find us out, and we’re self-protective instead of confident in the human being that we are and being safe for people. When we love ourselves, it’s a natural next step to love others.
JCP: I want to talk about chapter five, called “Love Includes You, Too.” You started with a Jon Stewart quote that says, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself. And if you hate yourself, maybe leave your neighbor alone for a while.” That’s really good advice! So why do we have such trouble loving ourselves? Is it conditioning from our childhood?
SC: Yes. And, unfortunately, a lot of the power structures do not reinforce self-love. You know, we have schools where bullying runs rampant and does horrible damage. Very often there doesn’t seem to be any recourse and often there’s no one being the adult in the room. Our church communities, unfortunately, are very often about perfection and behavior. They are often about behavior modification and not about full acceptance and love exactly as you are.
JCP: I think a lot of our faith traditions teach us to give sacrificially, which is a trait of Christ, but don’t teach that you have to have something within yourself in order to give. If you just give and give and give and never receive, you’re not ever taught to love yourself. And my parents were so good at that—they built us up and taught us that we have dignity and worth because we’re humans created in the image of God. Still, I had trouble as an adult reconciling that I’m supposed to be giving and loving and at the same time love myself.
SC: Yes. Many, not all, of our church traditions, in my experience, don’t teach safe and healthy boundaries. They teach self-sacrifice to a fault, as you just described, and not any caring or nurturing for ourselves in any meaningful way.
You know, Jesus said love others as you love yourself, not instead of loving yourself.
JCP: Yes. I think we leave the importance of that part out. We quote it, but we don’t really teach how to do it. What would you say would be the first step in loving ourselves? Where can we start?
SC: You need to fully embrace yourself where you are; meet yourself where you are and get the healing that you need. Go to counseling; get a good friend; somehow do the work that’s needed for self-acceptance. Sort through your relationships and your communities and divest yourself of unhealthy relationships as much as possible. As far as it’s up to you, don’t continually put yourself with unhealthy people in toxic relationships because it’s deadly. And micro-aggressions? Micro hurts and is deadly. It’s like the expression, “death by 1,000 paper cuts.” That’s what micro-aggressions are. They are little ways that keep you off your feet and keep you down.
JCP: They keep you “in your place.”
SC: Yes, and that’s not healthy.
“… rules don’t produce life.”
JCP: That leads me into the next thing I want to talk about. Another favorite quote; you said “Love supersedes rules” and talked about Jesus’ quote in scripture that says, “I’ve given you a new commandment and that is to love each other as I love you.” And then you said, “Do not use religion to understand love; use love to understand religion.” Part of the reason, in my opinion, that we don’t or can’t or are unwilling to accept someone, particularly someone who may be different than ourselves, is that we’re following the rules: “This is the rule. This is what I’ve been taught. This is what the Church says. I’m following the rules.”
SC: That’s right. And rules don’t produce life. You know, Paul said that. Rules are best viewed as support for us to love each other well in community.
JCP: Oh, Susan, that’s great!
SC: Driving on the right side of the road at a certain speed limit enables me to drive safely with other people, and them with me. That’s different from veering over or speeding; then I go to jail, or I’m injured. That’s the equivalent, very often, of any perceived transgression. The stricter the faith community, the more at risk you are when you don’t comply with their view.
JCP: It’s a way to draw the line: “Here’s the line and if you cross it, you’re not with us.” It’s set up as “us versus them.” You have to stay within this box that the rules have created, and if you don’t, then you’re “them” and not “us.” And one of our biggest fears is not belonging.
SC: That’s right. Its inherent in us. We must belong to survive.
Rules are a way to excuse us from loving well. We depend on rules like crutches, instead of digging into “What does it mean to love well in this moment?”
JCP: I think in some ways it’s easier to say, “These are the rules” and I don’t have to think about it, or I don’t have to consider whether I’m being loving, or I don’t have to consider what being loving would look like in this situation. I can just say, “These are the rules and that’s it.”
SC: The rules are very easy to hit somebody in the head with.
JCP: You’re preaching my sermon, friend! It brings me to my next question. What do you say to some conservative Christians who say they’re, quote, “speaking the truth in love,” when what they’re speaking is neither truth nor love? They’re talking about rules.
SC: That’s exactly right. It’s not truth and it’s not love. You said that well. You’re just speaking rules, and Jesus overturned rules, replacing them with love. When the religious leaders brought him rules, he showed them the rules to show them how they were fooling themselves. He showed them what love looks like. And he showed them how they were not loving.
It takes a lot out of us to love. It’s much easier to just say, “The rules say if the Roman soldier wants you to carry his equipment, you only have to go one mile, not a step farther.” Jesus said, “Go two miles.” What? Who’d do that? It’s the rules that keep everybody bound. But love opens up a whole new way of being.
JCP: It sets us free.
SC: It sets us free. There you go. You’re preaching my sermon now!
Love, not fear
JCP: I grew up in a strict “these are the rules” kind of way, and it seems to me that there is a lot of fear around stepping outside those rules. What if I step outside the rules, and then—oh, my gosh—maybe I have to burn in hell for all eternity? I think that in a lot of our religious traditions, we don’t live our lives in love. We live our lives in fear. And the scary thing about that is we don’t recognize that we’re living our lives in fear.
SC: Right. Fear is the linchpin of many of our faith communities, of our religions. Now, Jesus was not about fear. Jesus was about dismantling fear; he was about freedom. “It’s for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Galatians 5:1. But many of our traditions, our theologies, are operated based on fear.
JCP: Well, it’s a way to keep people in the box. It’s a way to keep people in line.
SC: Yes. And it’s a way to keep authority over them. It’s a way to bring in money. It’s a way to maintain control. Too many religious leaders really like to maintain control. But if you look at how Jesus treated them in the New Testament? It’s not a good thing.
JCP: He turned that whole system of power and control on its head when he said, “If you want to be great, be a servant.”
SC: Yes, yes.
JCP: You said it in a different way, but I often say, “If I have to choose between being loving and being right, I will choose loving every time.” And you say, “If you have to choose between love and what you’ve been told is right, pick love because love is always right.” Going back to the fear that we were talking about, how would you address the fear that some people may have in doing this? How would you advise someone who says, “This is what I’ve always been taught is the right thing to do and it doesn’t seem very loving to me. I don’t know how to bridge that gap”?
SC: Here’s my favorite passage, 1 John 4:11–21:
Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us. And God’s love is brought to full expression in us. And God has given us God’s Spirit as proof that we live in God and God in us. Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent the son to be the savior of the world. All who confess that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us and we have put our trust in God’s love. God is love, and all who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them. As we live in God our love grows more perfect that we will not be afraid on the Day of Judgment, but we can face it with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
This is the part I always quote:
Such love has no fear because perfect love expels all fear. If we’re afraid it is for fear of punishment. And this shows that we have not fully experienced God’s perfect love. We love each other because God first loved us. If someone says, “I love God” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar. For if we don’t love people who we can see, how can we love God who we cannot see? And God has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters.
The standout part for me is “Such love has no fear because love expels fear. If we’re afraid it’s for fear of punishment and this shows we have not fully experienced God’s perfect love.” Perfect here means whole and complete. People who are afraid have not experienced the full and complete love of God. God loves them fully and completely, but they haven’t experienced it. And so my word to them . . . I just realized that I’m now doing a sermon.
JCP: I love the sermon; keep on preaching!
SC: So those who find themselves really attached to the rules can be sure that they are afraid. And it is for fear of punishment. That is not from God.
JCP: I think people fundamentally come at life through a lens of fear or through a lens of love. I don’t think you can have both.
SC: Yes, I agree. You can go back and forth, but usually there’s an overriding way that you make your decisions. And it’s often not transparent to us. We don’t always know when we’re operating out of fear. But it’s not helpful. It’s harmful. It’s insidious.
JCP: Tell our readers how they can learn more about FreedHearts.
JCP: I just love your ministry and absolutely adore you! I was so thrilled to be able to meet you in St. Louis (now I’m going to burst into song from the musical)! I love the book; I devoured it. It was a refreshing read, and I really appreciate it, Susan! Thank you so much for talking to me today!
SC: Thank you so much for the interview. And it was a joy to talk to you.
Susan’s TEDx Talk on YouTube
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