The Daring Act of Public Love
Had I been born of different genetic stock, I believe the color would have drained from my face when I received the email asking if I would speak tonight under the rubric of the theme “DARE TO LOVE”. Not many men – least of all one still privately avowed to celibacy – care to speak about love before large crowds of people.
I thought I was saved when it became clear that they wanted me to base my talk on the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his way of love. But then I found that Dr. King had used this phrase “dare to love” on exactly one occasion – the lecture delivered in 1964 during the ceremony where he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I thought: “I do not have much to go on here!”
In 2004, a young Australian mathematician named Mary Donaldson married a dashing fellow named Frederick who just happened to be the Crown Prince of Denmark. The couple met first during the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. He was thirty-five at the time. Four years later – after giving up her native citizenship, her mother’s Tasmanian culture, her father’s Scottish heritage, and the daily use of English as her speaking tongue – she became the spouse of the man who will one day become Denmark’s king.
At the time of their engagement, Princess Mary was asked to describe the nature of the relationship she was forming with the man she intended to marry. She likened their coming together as a daring act: a choice to love in public. Her lover, she said, told her when he asked for her hand in marriage that their journey together would have to be a public one, that the future would be uncertain, its outcomes would be unclear and the path ahead daunting, to say the least.
Fifteen years later, on the occasion of her husband’s fiftieth birthday, in a hall packed with crown heads, diplomats and dignitaries from across the globe, with television cameras beaming her live image and words around the world, Princess Mary of Denmark laid bare the very intense and intimate nature of their love story, while making clear at the same time the irrevocable commitment she had made in choosing to live her love in public: something her husband had dared her to do years before. On that occasion, she made this declaration “You drew me into this because you said that to dare is to lose one’s footing for a moment; not to dare is to lose oneself forever.”
Now, what exactly did Dr. King say during his acceptance speech in Norway? “Here and there an individual or group dares to love and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity.” He was making reference, most specifically, to people who opposed war in general – and the Vietnam War in particular. On a larger scale, he was delivering a challenge for men and women everywhere to join his campaign of choosing nonviolence over aggression, peace over war, justice over oppression, love over hate. And it is to this matter of choosing to dare to love that – like the Crown Princess of Denmark and the American King from Atlanta – I want to turn our attention for just a few minutes tonight.
Only a few of you in this room will know that I spent much of the Summer and early Fall last year examining the life of the Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi in preparation for a celebration to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, which took place on a Sunday evening in October in a sanctuary not unlike this one – Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Eatonville. But most of you should know that it was Gandhi who discerned a new principle from studying the life of Jesus, the writings of Tolstoy, the philosophies of ancient Greek sophists, and the deeply spiritual poetics of Hinduism; a principle he honed and put into practice first on the streets of South Africa, then back at home in his native India.
The practice was demonstrated in mass actions where freedom marchers and people protesting injustice were trained to use nonviolent resistance if met with force or brutality. And it is those very actions that brought about so much change in such a short time after such long years of horror and darkness. The practice of nonviolent resistance to evil was both tactical and practical. Its aim was to disarm those who bore arms against you.
Here is what else I learned about Gandhi:
The Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi lived a life dedicated to truth, non-violence, vegetarianism, self-denial, simplicity and faith in God. Though he would be remembered forever as the man who fought for Indian independence, his greatest legacies are the tools he used in his fight for the rights of his people: Peaceful noncooperation. Resolute nonviolent protest. Steadfast resistance to evil. All of it based on love. When met by force, he stood and took the weight of it into his small frail body. When arrested, he went willingly to prison. When told of riots and uprisings, he begged for calm. He fasted as penance for things he had not done and for the sake of people he did not know.
These methods inspired so many others. We count as chief among the disciples who learned and practiced Gandhi’s way of nonviolence the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – America’s drum major for peace and civil rights hero, who taught a nation to fight for the renewal of its soul. Like Gandhi, Martin asked the hard questions. Like Gandhi, Martin spoke the unpopular truths. Like Gandhi, Martin leaned upon his God while reaching out to serve all of the people who worship gods of their own choosing or no god of all. Like Gandhi, Martin did not flinch, or waver, retreat or retire from the work of speaking Truth and practicing Love. Like Gandhi, Martin hungered for justice, yearned for peace, thirsted after righteousness.
Now, I wonder how many of you caught the single most importance thing buried among all that I just said about Gandhi and his influence upon King? It is what most inspired the American civil rights leader – the thing that drew King under the spell of Gandhi and caused him to surrender his career ambitions, his young family, his reputation and his safety to a single principle that went far and away beyond and above his commitment to Christian ministry. It was the simple principle that all of what one chooses to do for the cause of uplifting others must be based in a peculiar and particular kind of love.
Martin understood that Gandhi’s actions were based on a love that was not romantic, certainly not sexual, not merely platonic, not emotional, not even spiritual, really: Gandhi’s choice was for existential love. Love of real people, love of all people, love of the human race, of the inviolable dignity of the human condition. Love applied and demonstrated in extreme but practicable measures taken to better human lives, uphold human worth, defend human rights. Gandhi’s choice was to exercise that love in public and unreservedly – always and everywhere.
Martin came to believe, as did Gandhi, that even though the daring act of existential public loving bore the risk of private and personal sacrifice, it was the only way. And Martin came to believe that the phrase “God so loved THE WORLD” – not just the Christians or the Jews, the Muslims or the Buddhists, the wealthy or the poor, the voter or the politician, the employer or the laborer, the Negro or the Caucasian, the Democrat or Republican, the liberal or the conservative, the sinner or the saint – But The. Entire. World. – this loving of THE WORLD was a stronger clause than its antecedent statement suggesting that ONLY those who believe in Jesus from Nazareth shall have either [everlasting] life, or a decent life here on earth.
Martin thought that God loved the human creation too much for that. And Martin knew that the need for human beings to learn to love in exactly this way was a far, far more demanding thing than even the irrevocable love of a foreign Princess for her dashing Prince.
So it came to pass that Martin, speaking in a hall before crown heads and dignitaries and diplomats in Oslo in 1964, laid bare his soul and made mention of individuals or groups who might dare to love in this most extraordinarily Gandi-like way. And because Martin’s God had called him to be among that number, he was dead on the balcony of a motel four years later.
And why tell you all of this? Because there is still room and reason to love.
At the same time as I studied the life of Gandhi and drew my conclusions about his impact and influence over Martin Luther King, I was curious to know how many other called or so-called chosen leaders had fallen under this same spell. So I turned to Google – the greatest soothsayer of them all – and searched for images of public figures who might have occasion to demonstrate existential love for other human beings. What I learned was to look for it in their eyes.
You see, there are moments when the eyes of men and women become the windows to their souls. And a camera trained on them will capture such moments when they have fallen under the spell of their existential love for people they hardly know. It is hard to describe the look, exactly, but you know it when you see it – It’s there in the eyes. There is such care, often such sorrow, such a desire to make it better mingled with such helplessness, such distress; all of it translating into a kind of utter, complete love of humanity for which there are no words, really.
Some of those who bore this look are dead: Think of Martin. Of Bobby Kennedy. Of Israel’s Golda Meir. Chief James Wilson. Dorothy Day. Reverend Fred Maxwell. Oscar Romero. Sister Kathy Gorman of Apopka. And some are living: Think of the Dali Lama, or of Malali Yousafzai addressing the United Nations. Of Barack Obama singing over dead bodies at Mother Emmanuel Church. Think of John Lewis rebuking the defenders of Charlottesville. Emma Gonzalez speaking at the Young People’s March For Our Lives. You see images of them, and their eyes tell exactly the same story; that they love the human race. Do not take my word for it: Check it out for yourselves.
But take my word about this: There is still room and reason to choose public existential love. It is what the world needs. It is what the world deserves. It is what all the Gods of every tradition demand of all their disciples: to so love the world that one might risk giving oneself away for the sake of others who dwell herein. This is what Gandhi taught. It is what Martin lived and died to gain – followers who would choose to love, who would dare to love the public, in public.
I will end with a favored hymn from my childhood:
Come down o Love divine; fill thou this soul of mine
And visit it with thine own ardor glowing.
O Comforter draw near; within my heart appear
And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.
O let Love freely burn; till earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming.
And let thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.
And still the yearning strong, with which the soul shall long
Shall far outpass the power of human telling.
For none can guess Love’s grace till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling.
I thank you.
(Fr.) Rudi Cleare is the Development Director for the “Negro Spiritual” Scholarship Foundation and a member of the Executive Committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.