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Love and politics are usually seen as opposites (especially in Hannah Arendt’s influential work), yet ethical-political leaders from Gandhi to Aung San Suu Kyi have based their philosophy and actions on the marriage of these two forces. Martin Luther King called this “the love that does justice,” signifying the mutually-reinforcing cycles of personal and social transformation that eventually produce the “beloved community” of which he dreamed.

“Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice,” he said, “and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Ethical politics enjoins us to develop both the personal qualities that are required to practice politics in new ways, and the political institutions that nurture the values that underpin a successful, collective future. This may be the only way to liberate ourselves from the constraints of conventional politics and the use of democracy to impose majority views.

Unlimited love

Of course, King and others were not talking about romantic love, or love of and for our children. They were talking of unconditional or unlimited love (or agape in the Greek and Christian traditions), that knows no boundaries of kin or affiliation, expressed through non-violent moral action, radical equality, and a profound respect for others. In this sense, love can sustain political action without internalizing the fear and insecurity that underpins oppression in all its forms, and so starting the self-defeating cycle afresh – the source of a new form of politics that does not try to bury or distance its opponents but looks for opportunities to welcome and engage with those who have a different view, and to struggle with them towards some form of imperfect, continually-evolving consensus.

Love underpins equality-consciousness, breaks down hierarchies, and respects the self-empowerment of others. Love eschews paternalism for relationships of truth and authenticity, even when they move through phases of conflict and disagreement. Love releases us from our diminished sense of self and gives us hope, optimism, openness instead of closure. As Paul Tillich reminds us, the first duty of love is simply to listen, and deep listening would transform the practice of politics as we know it.

Spiritual activism

Gandhi, King and others were practicing ethical politics every day, and their legacy has been taken up by a new generation of ‘spiritual activists’ who know that they can ‘win with love’ as they put it, without sacrificing their goals or principles, a love that seeks not to accumulate power, even in the face of oppression, but to transform it so that ‘victory’ means more than a game of revolving chairs among narrow political interests. In their eyes therefore, love is the wellspring of ethical politics.

Those interested in ‘spiritual activism’ may want to visit Seasons Fund for Social Transformation. The speeches of Martin Luther King are also essential reading, particularly his last address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as its President in 1967, from which the above quotation is taken.

See also


Author: Michael Edwards