One thousand seven hundred and forty-seven years ago today, a man was beaten with clubs and then beheaded under the order of Marcus Aurelius Valerius Claudius Augustus. Known by his buddies as Claude and known by his deific title (yes, he was a god according to the Roman Senate) as Divus Claudius Gothicus, Claudius II was an epic military leader bent on restoring greatness to the Roman empire as it was coming apart at the seams. And, in the proud tradition of the apocryphal “divine” lineage, Claudius II is allegedly an ancestor to Constantine, the emperor who, a short 34 years after the martyrdom of St. Valentine issued the Edict of Milan in which the Roman Empire officially professed Christianity. When you’re sniffing your roses and eating your chocolates, ponder the paradox that you’re celebrating a clubbing and beheading of a proselytizing man who had the audacity to challenge the deification of military emperors.
The National Retail Federation estimates that, in the U.S., consumers will spend $19.7 billion this year on Valentine’s Day blasting through the previous all-time record of $18.6 billion spent in 2013. And, following the Pavlovian impulse of mercantile behavior, our collective caring impulse will enrich candy makers, greeting card publishers, restaurants and venues, florists, and jewelers. These, in order of gross consumer percentages, will be the winners of what society has deemed to be “love” in modern times. When one contemplates our iconography of “love” one can readily see a social commentary on the state of humanity that could benefit from a little socioeconomic historical review.
While most of the historical record of the Bishop of Terni, Narnia and Amelia was destroyed in the flames of book-burning impulses throughout the tumultuous demise of the Roman Empire, tradition states that St. Valentine was under house arrest ordered by Judge Asterius. During his impassioned conversations with the judge, the humble bishop reportedly laid his hands on the eyes of the judge’s blind daughter and miraculously restored her sight as proof of the power of Jesus. This miracle reportedly led to the conversion of the 44 members of the judge’s household to Christianity and the emancipation of Christian prisoners in the region. Emboldened by the conversion and – more importantly – the judge’s decision to smash all of his idols deemed a pagan affront to Christianity, the Bishop went on to Rome where he conducted Christian marriages in violation of Roman law. His actions were deemed treasonous by Claudius II and, after a failed attempt to convert the emperor, he was sentenced to death and executed. Claudius II wanted people to have faith in him and, failing that, he wanted to kill his opponents. St. Valentine wanted people to have faith in his belief. A few decades after his death, his prevailing view justified the killing of those who didn’t believe. In short, St. Valentine, Claudius II, and Constantine were co-conspirators in one of the most ruthless genocides of all time – all pivoting around the perversion of a very simple principle: love!
Anyone astutely watching politics in the U.S. right now can see the theater at the end of an empire. We’re bombarded with the subterfuge and lies of a former First Lady and Secretary of State who, together with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, know that they’re all co-conspirators on actions in North Africa and other parts of the world which were corrupt and antithetical to principles of transparent democracy; the brash xenophobia of a bloated icon of the worst of horded capital; the pandering proselytizing populists; and all other manner of superficiality and rather than allow this theater to indict our sense of callous neglect for the Unity of all peoples across the world, we turn to chocolates, greeting cards and faux tokens of “love” while we do nothing to evidence that love.
Ironic, isn’t it, that the two biggest commercial successes of the Valentine’s Day economics are two industries that are rife with inhumanity. The extractive industries that provide the glitter of jewelry have, over the centuries, involved warfare, genocide, torture, organized crime, yet we continue to return each year to them as icons of love. The cocoa industry – 70% of which is supplied from Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana – is so filled with labor abuses that a 2004 effort to expose the human rights violations in Cote D’Ivoire resulted in the state-implicated kidnapping, torture and murder of a journalist seeking to report on the conditions of workers in the cocoa farms of Western Africa. To insure that buyers can cheaply show their love for their sweethearts, the average cocoa farmer earns less than $2 per day. Sixty percent of Americans will spend 80 times that amount in this one day to show “love”.
This post is not an anti-love screed. This is not a plea to shun celebrations. It is, in the tradition of Future Dreaming, a call for us to consider the all-in-consequence of our chosen actions. In fact, I would like us to consider what WOULD be a celebration befitting the namesake of this holiday. While the Catholic Church demoted St. Valentine in 1969 and while I’m not, nor have I ever been, a fan of making martyrs out of those who try to argue for “belief” rather than simply living evidence of a better way of living, I would like to consider what a day of celebrating love would actually look like.
So what I’m doing to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day is simple. I’m corresponding with those I love and letting them know how much they mean to me. I’m redoubling my commitment to my work with people like Lawrence Daveona and Theresa Arek who represent some of my closest connections to the extractive and the cocoa production industries and, rather than buying gifts of fleeting value, I’m allocating my time and treasure to see them succeed in their efforts to bring humanity to industries that have historically abused humans to the point of death. And I am, for the first time in 30 years, choosing to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a light heart because I have now seen that love can actually emanate not from a cognitive agreement in my head but can be an effusive expression of my interconnectedness with ALL. Here’s to all you lovers out there! Celebrate unbounded, relentless, integrated love!