Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What If We Choose To Do It With Love?

Racial Justice Requires a Choice That Seems Hard to Make

As social justice activists, we rarely speak of love. Oh, sure, it comes up with close friends and, yes, with loved ones, but rarely in the workplace and rarer still in the context of our activism.

There is good reason. We tend to think of love as an emotion, which of course it is. Emotional love feels good, almost blissful. But it is also fleeting and fickle and, even at its best, somewhat resistant to reason. We love (emotionally) despite whatever logic might exist, not because of it. There is a reason we say that we love with our hearts.

Choose love over fear

Love is a choice. We can make it at any time.

The notion of choosing love may seem paradoxical, but it isn’t. As anyone who has been in a long-term committed romantic relationship knows, emotional love eventually fades. When it does, love becomes a choice, a choice to be with someone not because our organism demands it so strongly that we cannot resist but because we recognize our common humanity 1 . Martin Luther King elaborated on this kind of love in his Pilgrimage to Nonviolence essay (see full text here )

We speak of love which is expressed in the Greek word Agape. Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all men. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is the love of God operating in the human heart....

Another basic point about agape is that it springs from the need of the other person - his need for belonging to the best of the human family....Agape is not a weak, passive love. It is love in action. Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community. It is insistence on community even when one seeks to break it. Agape is a willingness to sacrifice in the interest of mutuality. Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community. It doesn't stop at the first mile, but goes the second mile to restore community....He who works against community is working against the whole of creation. Therefore, if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love....

In the final analysis, agape means recognition of the fact that all life is interrelated. All humanity is involved in a single process, and all men are brothers. To the degree that I harm my brother, no matter what he is doing to me, to that extent I am harming myself.

In just this way, we can CHOOSE to love friends and other non-romantic acquaintances. In just this way, we can choose to love each other, even if we have not yet met, or even if we have and the meeting went poorly.

Does this sound fantastic? Far-fetched? Unrealistic?

Perhaps, but only because we have been socialized to believe that there is not enough love to go around, that if we choose to love people we don’t know, we will wind up having less love for our family and friends. But is this true?

Bus mural: Choose love, its superior to hate

But, as Elie Wiesel so aptly articulated, love is not the opposite of hate.

The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.

Gandhi similarly said, “where there is love, there is life,” and also reminded us that “when the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.”

MLK quote: Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.

But, in the context of racial injustice, simply choosing love is not enough. The 400 years of racial injustice requires that we attend to a few more details. Doing racial justice work requires that we choose the kind of love that connects us at eye-level. No matter the specifics of our work, I believe we have to engage with each other, to help each other, and to love each other, as equals --like friends -- rather than paternalistically, like we love a child, or with idealization, like we love God, though certainly I believe we ought to strive to see the divine in each other.

Image of a Black and a White face looking at each other

Love requires wholeness. We can love only the whole person, not some fragmented part that we happen to be willing to both recognize and embrace.

As well, we have to find ways to love our whole selves, because if we are unwilling to acknowledge our own dark sides and recognize and embrace all aspects of our own being, how can we possibly hope to do so with our allies…or with those who don’t yet recognize us as allies?

Mural: All you need is love

Love: It may not be all we need, but we do need it.

It seems, as well, a way to connect the mind and the heart.

None of this is a criticism of other emotions or other sources of motivation. There is room in this work for anger and outrage, for sadness and grief, for any authentic response, including fear and distrust. To the degree that these emotional responses are authentic, they are all essential in our ability to honestly identify the problems and find constructive ways to move toward solutions.

Still, there is, I think, a special case for love. Criticism is a way of naming the problem and outrage a way to mobilize a response. Both are necessary but neither actually supports us in moving forward. Love points us in a particular direction. It orients us toward connection and relationship-building, toward healing and wholeness, toward beauty and goodness, toward the discovery of a shared humanity. It doesn’t necessarily tell us how to get there – and certainly there is a long road that needs to be traveled – but it helps to know which direction to walk.

Sign: Justice for Trayvon

There is another way to do justice

No, love is not all we need, but we do need it. Let’s follow in the footsteps of Gandhi, King, Wiesel and so many others who made this discovery much earlier. Let’s do our activism without compromise but with compassion. Let’s do it with love.


1 This sentence about our shared humanity and the M.L.King quote that follows were added 7/28/2013, following several valuable comments from my PsySR colleagues. More generally, this essay was inspired by a PsySR retreat on race and its contents have been shaped by many contributions from multiple individuals at the retreat.


For more racial analysis of news and popular culture, join the | Between The Lines | Facebook page and follow Mikhail on Twitter.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License .