Radical Love in The Age of Critique

During the last two months of the 2016 US presidential election, I found myself increasingly frustrated with “progressives”. Note, I consider myself progressive. In recent years, progressives have led powerful discourse around ongoing injustice related to race, class, gender, and sexuality in America. While the discourse has been the most dynamic and engaged the US has seen in a generation, it was also divisive. The constant challenge to individuals and specific demographics to reflect on how privilege shapes perspective and actions didn’t seem based in malice. But, most of these calls for greater consciousness landed as pointed condemnations of those who hadn’t achieved enlightenment about the complex injustices and inequities built into our political, economic, and cultural systems. They rarely felt like invitations to collaborative exploration of societal challenges and how we each relate to them.

Since the election, the progressive movement seems to have shifted to a clear enemy in President Trump and any willing to associate with him. I get that. I do. The policy proposals and executive orders of these first two months are powerful challenges both to progressive values and – more importantly – to some of the core values of our nation. #Resist is a rallying cry, but it is also emblematic of a turn to seeing governance and community building in America as being us vs. them, good vs. evil. Progressives certainly aren’t the only source of the fear that feeds this position, but they have absolutely contributed to it.

I find myself feeling isolated and depressed, frightened for the future of our country, and for family and friends I love dearly. To address this, I’ve been reading about the life and work of Dr. King and other Civil Rights Movement leaders over these past few months. I went back to these familiar texts in search of the dream and vision of a just and equitable society. After feeding daily on the progressive voices on my Facebook pointing out our failures as individuals and society to treat all humans as humans, I was starving for hope. My feed rarely offered a vision of what realizing this greater humanity looks like. While this age of critique spurred the most active and dynamic discourse on justice and equity that our country had seen in decades, our nation feels further away from committing to making it real.

Dr. King and other Civil Rights Movement leaders were revolutionaries. They were militants. They ascribed to millennia of social justice theory that says wars are fought on battlefields, but revolutions are fought in the hearts and minds of individuals and communities. I feel called back to their work and philosophy because of their strident steps toward justice. Their methodology was rooted in calling each of us – the oppressor and the oppressed – toward recognizing and realizing the humanity within us. They balanced a persistent critique of injustice and inequity with a consistent belief in and articulation of the capacity of all to become more conscious wielders of our love and intellect. After all, these are the privileges we are each afforded that define our humanity.

There are key assumptions embedded in this approach to social justice work that I find challenging and inspiring. One is that injustice is the enemy, not those who commit unjust acts. Admittedly, I feel drawn to naming an enemy. Change is so much easier to frame as those who are good battling and silencing those who are evil. Yet, as the principles of nonviolent change state, violent confrontation of this type (even if it is violence rooted in emotion or policy rather than the physical) results in division. The goal should be unifying people — including those who may have oppressed previously — around a common pursuit of justice.

Another is that unearned suffering is redemptive. When an American born terrorist murdered parishioners in a South Carolina church in the name of White supremacy, many of the families of the dead parishioners forgave the attacker. They prayed for the sickness of the young man who committed this evil. They somehow found empathy for this human who had completely lost touch with his humanity, taking the lives of others in the process. Dr. King explained that wielding our greatest gifts as humans – our love and intellect – was the only hope of convincing those who saw and treated others as inhuman of own humanity. This revolutionary commitment to love by those who are oppressed – radical love – is redemptive for those who exercise it. It is also the greatest hope of redemption for those who have strayed from their humanity toward racism, oppression, and physical and structural violence. Said another way, responding to unearned suffering with radical love is our most effective means of persecuting hate rather than those who hate. The alternative — persecuting those who have fallen to hate — offers redemption for none.

What can we do to contribute to a more just, equitable, and sustainable society? We can resist injustice without resisting those who act unjustly. We can seek and articulate a vision of greater equity as a means of calling others to challenge inequitable systems. We can engage in conversations with inquiry, careful listening, and empathy for the fears that we each feel, not just the political positions we take. Progressives are not the only ones who feel fear in America today. Moderates and conservatives do, too. For most, it’s a fear rooted in a love of their families, concern about economic insecurity, and a sense of isolation in a country we all want to call our own. None of us deserve this fear we suffer. It is unearned suffering. If we believe our heroes, this moment offers an opportunity for redemption if we choose to realize it.


By Robin Pendoley (Founder, Thinking Beyond Borders)

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