What is revolutionary love? Is it a theological, religious, ethical, philosophical, or political form of expression, or is it perhaps all of these? When does love become a revolutionary act? Is revolutionary love the kind of love that is required in order to change the world? Where does the love revolution begin?
What happens to us when we feel, express, are touched by, or are empowered by revolutionary love?
The answers to these questions may depend in part on whether the kind of fundamental change produced by revolutionary love is psychological, moral, political, social or institutional in nature.
There may of course be many kinds of love: romantic, parental, filial, sisterly, and brotherly. There may also be love of one’s family, love of one’s friends, love of one’s community, love of one’s country, love of God, love of self, love of one’s neighbor, and love of the stranger. Can each of these kinds of love be in some cases revolutionary? If so, then there may be many kinds of revolutionary love.
Revolutionary love, as described in the New Testament, is the kind of love that teaches us to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). It’s also the kind of love that teaches us to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another…Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:14-21).
Revolutionary love is also the kind of love that changes others when they see that we have only love, and not bitterness or hatred, in our hearts. It reconciles us with others, and others with us. It enables us to overcome our differences, and it motivates us to promote social harmony and cooperation. It’s also a kind of love that may be so powerful that it changes our whole way of looking at the world. It may also encourage others to reciprocate with kindness and understanding.
Denise Levertov’s poem, “Prayer for Revolutionary Love” (1975), begins with the lines:
“That a woman not ask a man to leave meaningful work to follow her.
That a man not ask a woman to leave meaningful work to follow him.”1
Thus, Levertov suggests that love may be revolutionary insofar as it fully allows for and respects the personal autonomy and moral agency of those who share it.
Thomas Jay Oord (2017), a professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University, describes revolutionary love as a kind of love that promotes overall well-being, not only individually or locally, but also collectively or globally. He argues that “revolutionary love works to overcome, overthrow, and oppose structures, systems, or authorities that undermine overall well-being. Revolutionary love seeks justice in the face of evil.”2 He also argues that “We need revolutionary love when the status quo and the established systems disenfranchise, oppress, and degrade our lives and our planet…Revolutionary love opposes the status quo whenever the status quo does harm and evil, whether at the local, national, or international levels.”3
Revolutionary love is also the kind of love that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. describes in a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,” which he delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, on Nov. 17, 1957. Dr. King may in some ways be described as a revolutionary, and his preaching, ministry, and civil rights activism may in some ways be described as an effort to promote revolutionary love. What he explains we must recognize is that
“Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it…
And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see…what religion calls “the image of God, you begin to love him…Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them…
and...there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. That’s why Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” Because if you hate your enemies, you have no way to redeem and to transform your enemies. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption.”4
Serene Jones (2017), a professor of theology and President of Union Theological Seminary, explains that just as there may be many kinds of love, there may be many kinds of revolution. Thus, there may be “revolutions of loves.”5 She explains that great harms may sometimes be perpetrated under the guise of “love,” and that revolutionary love must therefore be committed to telling the truth about social inequity and injustice. Revolutionary love
“recognizes our fundamental interconnection and interdependence as human beings with one another and with our planet. It affirms the fundamental equality and value of every human being…and the fundamental value of the planet in which we find ourselves. It also goes beyond a justice-based, distributive understanding of equal value and steps into the space where we imagine how to actually care for one another, how to have our lives invested in the pursuit of the well-being of the other.”6
Jones also explains that revolutionary love is not simply or exclusively a Christian theme or concept, and that love, justice, and promotion of overall well-being are at the center of a variety of religious traditions. Revolutionary love is also a theme that has secular or nonreligious meanings and implications.
John J. Thatamanil (2017), a professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary, also argues that revolutionary love is not a narrowly Christian category, but rather an interreligious comparative category that may be useful in comparing the Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. Thus, for Engaged Buddhists, revolutionary love may be a political expression of karuna (compassion) or metta (loving-kindness), and for Gandhian Hindus, it may be an expression of ahimsa (non-injury or non-violence).7 Thatamanil quotes the words of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Aware of suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I vow to cultivate loving-kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.”8
Thatamanil also quotes the words of Mohandas K. Gandhi:
“I accept the interpretation of ahimsa, namely, that it is not merely a negative state of harmlessness but it is a positive state of love, of doing good even to the evil-doer. But it does not mean helping the evil-doer to continue the wrong or tolerating it by passive acquiescence. On the contrary…Non-cooperation is not a passive state, it is an intensely active state—more active than physical resistance or violence. Passive resistance is a misnomer.”9
1Denise Levertov, “Prayer for Revolutionary Love,” in Selected Poems (New York: New Directions Books, 2002), p. 106. Online at https://books.google.com/books?id=h9FX2cgifcMC&pg=PA106&lpg=PA106&dq=denise+levertov+prayer+for+revolutionary+love+selected+poems&source=bl&ots=TxErzsJ0yv&sig=8WwRF7oxR7jG3deOrjBQnJme0Nw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjZlY7Jh6baAhWIvVMKHcgVAC8Q6AEIRTAD#v=onepage&q=denise%20levertov%20prayer%20for%20revolutionary%20love%20selected%20poems&f=false.
2Thomas Jay Oord, “Revolutionary Love,” March 22, 2017, online at http://thomasjayoord.com/index.php/blog/archives/revolutionary-love.
4Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,The Martin, Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, Stanford University, online at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church.
5Serene Jones, “Revolutions of Loves,” in Toronto Journal of Theology, Vol. 33, No.2, 2017, p. 159.
6Ibid., p. 161.
7John J. Thatamanil, “Revolutionary Love as Shared Interreligious Comparative Category: Christian Engagements with Engaged Buddhism and Gandhian Nonviolence,” in Toronto Journal of Theology, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2017, p. 169.
8Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007), p 93.
9M.K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance (New York: Schocken, 1961), p. 161.