Philip McKibbin: The Prophets of Love

One assumption that people often make about the Politics of Love – usually in criticising it – is that it is a religious framework. Often, when I’m discussing it with people, they’ll speak of love as if it cannot be divorced from religion. The assumption seems to be that because I take love seriously, I must have assumed a Christian worldview – or be about to!

I’ve felt the urge to defend the Politics of Love against this misunderstanding – partly because I’m suspicious of organised religion, but mostly because I think this characterisation of it is inaccurate, and that, as a result, the criticisms directed at it are misguided. I’ve sometimes deliberately avoided mentioning religion in setting out the Politics of Love so as not to suggest an association between the two, lest what I say be misinterpreted.

Read Philip McKibbin: Realising the Politics of Love

Nonetheless, religion and – more broadly – spirituality have informed my understanding not only of love, but of politics as well. As a teenager, I attended King’s College, an Anglican secondary school, where I was taken with Rev. Murray Bean’s sermons on love; and as a young adult, I completed my Master of Arts in Philosophy, looking at the relationship between well-being and spirituality from a political perspective.

Those who know me best appreciate the contradiction between my strong interest in spirituality, and my deep, often very vocal, opposition to religion. I remain uncomfortable with the anti-intellectualism that Christianity propagates as well as the pseudo-intellectualism it allies itself with – in both cases, to ensure its survival, whatever the cost.

I still see beauty in the conception of love expressed in the Gospels, though.

When, as adolescents, Jesus instructed us to turn the other cheek, to give up our cloaks as well, to carry that load even further; when he told us, ‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your friends, hate your enemies.” But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’ the truth in his words was self-evident. And when he admonished our hypocrisy – ‘How dare you say to your brother, “Please, let me take that speck out of your eye,” when you have a log in your own eye?’ – it was as if he was telling us that we should be good simply because to be unloving is incoherent, dishonest

“Those who know me best appreciate the contradiction between my strong interest in spirituality, and my deep, often very vocal, opposition to religion.”

I realised, eventually, that not everyone understood the reasoning behind Jesus’s words as I did – that, unless it were taken very figuratively, ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may become children of your Father in heaven’ gives a clearer, murkier reason for loving: because ‘God’ wills it, just as he could easily have willed us to be unloving. But insofar as Jesus does emphasise love above all else – and when I’m feeling charitable, I believe that he does – I consider him a prophet.

While the conception of love underpinning the Politics of Love has been informed by the New Testament, the Politics of Love does not justify itself with reference to religion. Love can be understood independently of religion. For this reason, it should be acceptable to atheists and agnostics like myself, as well as Christians and people of other religions.

Critical thinking – like other forms of intellectual engagement – has a central place in the Politics of Love, because it enables us to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of ideas. It requires that we analyse problems carefully, and develop genuine, lasting solutions to them. As individuals, we must also develop the capacity for intellectual honesty – we must learn to pursue the conclusions of ideas, however uncomfortable doing so is in practice, and have the courage to revise our beliefs when their implications prove false or inconsistent.

Which is to say, we must be willing to reject harmful ideas. When I think of honesty and what it requires of us, I think of George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, and Albert Camus, who were, initially, seduced by communism, but were later among the first to speak out against it when they realised that communism had become inextricably linked with murder. They had the courage to revise their views – very publicly – and at great cost to themselves.

“We must… have the courage to revise our beliefs when their implications prove false or inconsistent.”

When I think of the Politics of Love and those historical figures who gave expression to it, I think especially of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Te Whiti o Rongomai. Honesty has encouraged me not only to recognise these two leaders as spiritual figures, but also to acknowledge the role of spirituality and religion in their politics – and to explore the relationship between that spirituality and the loving dimension of their politics.

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. is regarded as one of the great moral and political leaders of the 20th Century. Although he is thought of by some – including myself – as a prophet, the spiritual dimension of his leadership is sometimes overlooked. But Dr King was, very famously, a Baptist minister, and his religion infuses every aspect of his politics.

The relationship between his religious and political views is especially evident in his sermon ‘Loving Your Enemies’, which is collected in his beautiful book Strength to Love. Here, he declares that loving one’s enemies is key to solving the problems of the world. ‘There will be no permanent solution to the race problem,’ he tells us, ‘until oppressed men develop the capacity to love their enemies.’ And he is very clear as to why we must love our enemies. It is not simply because doing so will solve our problems; it is ‘because only by loving them can we know God and experience the beauty of his holiness.’ Whatever your take on his religious views or his politics, he saw the two as inextricable.

Another spiritual leader whose politics is loving was Te Whiti o Rongomai, the man of peace who was born in battle. With his whanaunga Tohu Kākahi, Te Whiti founded the Māori settlement at Parihaka, in Taranaki. There, he led his people in passive resistance against the unjust confiscation of their land. He instructed them to plough land that had been taken from them, erect fences, and remove surveyor’s pegs. The village of Parihaka suffered for its stand, but the words and actions of its people continue to inspire those who work for peace today.

Te Whiti was identified in his youth as a prophet, and he used spiritual language to bring people together. ‘Come to me all those who have understanding and faith,’ he said. He compared his people to the tribes of Israel; and in the days leading up to the invasion of Parihaka, he echoed the words of Jesus: ‘I am here to be taken. Take me for the sins of the island. Why hesitate? Am I not here? Though I be killed I yet shall live; though dead, I shall live in the peace which will be the accomplishment of my aim.’

But Te Whiti was also a critical thinker. Dick Scott’s book Ask That Mountain recites the prophet’s response to accusations that his people had forsaken religion:

We have been blamed because we have no church and do not pray but I say that prayer is useless and resultless and no man was ever benefited or healed by prayer. Given two men, one of whom shall spend the night in prayer and the other shall sleep with his wife notice the two results in the two cases. The first’s efforts are entirely without tangible results whilst the latter, without mentioning the pleasure that accrues, has a prospect of an increase in his family for his reward. We are all in the same hole and the rain wets the praying and prayerless alike.

While I am not a religious person, I would describe myself as spiritual. I recognise in the words and actions of these prophets something of what I have experienced since I was very young. I have had experiences which are not easily describable, which I believe to be significant, and in which I have recognised something of what love is. I have described the sensation as ‘a feeling’, knowing that this descriptor is inadequate. When I have tried to explain it in more detail, other people have told me that they have experienced something similar.

I remember experiencing this when I was a little boy. And when I listened to Rev. Bean’s sermons in the King’s College chapel, I felt the same sensation, more powerfully. It was only later, however, as an adult, that it occurred to me to think of it as spirituality. What is this ‘feeling’? What, exactly, does it ‘feel’ like? Perhaps you, too, have experienced it. It is empowering, energy: it tells me that there is something to be done, that I must do it…

I think that spirituality can inspire loving politics, and I think that the words and actions of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Te Whiti o Rongomai prove this. Their politics was loving because it sought to remedy injustice, because it rejected violence, and because it expressed a commitment to inclusive solutions. In both cases, their politics was also underpinned by engaged spirituality. It would be dishonest not to acknowledge this.

We must still be prepared to critically evaluate spiritual insights before we act on them. In order to avoid being misled by charismatic liars or fanatical demagogues, we must ‘corroborate’ – we must find other reasons for – the courses of action that they advocate, and be prepared to explore other solutions if we cannot, in honesty, locate them.

But if we are committed to doing this, we shouldn’t fear spirituality.

As bell hooks writes in her wonderful book All About Love,

there is a realm of mystery that cannot be explained by intellect or will. We all experience this mystery in our daily lives in some ways, however small, whether we see ourselves as ‘spiritual’ or not. We find ourselves in the right place at the right time, ready and able to receive blessings without knowing just how we got there. Often we look at events retrospectively and can trace a pattern, one that allows us to intuitively recognise the presence of an unseen spirit guiding and directing our path.

Rather than rejecting this intuition, we should accept it alongside other forms of creative thinking, recognise its inspirational value, and trust that critical thinking will protect us from its excesses, as we expect it to in other areas of our lives.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand. He holds a Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Auckland, and is learning te reo Māori at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. Find him at www.philip-mckibbin.com.

Photo credit: Victoria Hollings.