Leadership Library Review: “Love in Action”

January 2020

“Love in Action,” Krista Tippett Interview of Congressman John Lewis (OnBeing.org, updated 1/26/17)

What is the relevance of this particular “On Being” episode at this moment?

I want to open 2020 by honoring Congressman Lewis and by lifting up the practice of “love in action” he described to Krista Tippett in this interview, which originally aired in 2013.  Born in 1940 in rural Alabama, John Robert Lewis – one of the “big six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement – has been serving Georgia’s 5thcongressional district since 1987.  Lewis was a Freedom Rider, organized sit-ins, and in 1965 led the first Selma march over Edmund Pettus Bridge on what became known as Bloody Sunday.  An advocate of nonviolence, he was beaten viciously and jailed many times.  Congressman Lewis was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last month, following a routine check-up.

“Love in action” is needed as much as ever right now, with our polarized culture collectively stepping into this fraught presidential election year under the cloud of an impeached incumbent.  By my understanding, “love in action” is an internal growth process by which each of us can, as the leader of our own life, approach the world inhabiting a radical stance of loving.  We can intentionally cultivate – and “be” – love in action via myriad pathways.  (For example, during the Civil Rights movement, activists studied and then actually trained themselves extensively in the practice.)  Congressman Lewis says, “It’s a way of being, yes. It’s a way of action. It’s not necessarily passive. It has the capacity, it has the ability to bring peace out of conflict. It has the capacity to stir up things in order to make things right. When we were sitting in, it was love in action.”

The heart of my blog entry this month will simply be the following excerpt from Congressman Lewis’s interview with Tippett, regarding his view of the entire Civil Rights movement as a work of love:

Ms. Tippett: So here’s a line from your book Across That Bridge: “The Civil Rights Movement, above all, was a work of love. Yet even 50 years later, it is rare to find anyone who would use the word ‘love’ to describe what we did.” What you just said to me illuminates that. I think part of the explanation of that is the way you are using the word “love” is very rich and multilayered and also challenging, challenging for the person who loves.

Rep. Lewis: Well, I think in our culture, I think sometimes people are afraid to say “I love you.” But we’re afraid to say, especially in public life, many elected officials or worldly elected officials, are afraid to talk about love. Maybe people tend to think something is so emotional about it. Maybe it’s a sign of weakness. And we’re not supposed to cry. We’re supposed to be strong. But love is strong. Love is powerful.

The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you. I know Dr. King used to joke sometimes and say things like, “Just love the here outta everybody. Just love ‘em.”

Ms. Tippett: Love the here out of them. Yeah. [laughs]. Gandhi was such an important figure for you, for all of you, for Dr. King as well. I also think that may be a little bit lost in our collective memory. I think it’s important to remember that, the very rich spiritual lineage that you were all drawing on and became part of. I was really struck by you. You often refer to one of Gandhi’s important terms, satyagraha.

Again, in terms of breaking open this word “love” out of the kind of superficial ways we talk about it, or nonviolence in a superficial way, the definition of that that you give is “steadfastness in truth,” “active pacifism,” right? Revolutionary love is another way to think about that. Not just an external stance, but a fundamental shift inside our own souls. It’s very powerful. It’s not the way — certainly not the way I hear people talking about public life or political action now.

Rep. Lewis: I think all of us in life, not just in the Western world, but all over the world, we need to come to that point. We need to evolve to that plane, to that level where we’re not ashamed to say to someone, “I love you. I’m sorry. Pardon me. Will you please forgive me? Excuse me.” What is it? Have we lost something? Can we be just human and say, “I love you?”

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

For another “On Being” episode about practicing love in action during the Civil Rights movement and how it relates to perplexing dynamics in our contemporary culture, I recommend Tippett’s profoundly inspiring interview with Vincent Harding, “Is America Possible?”

In a dramatically different tonal treatment of nonetheless similar themes, consider this fun and fascinating conversation, entitled “Vulnerability and Power,” between Russell Brand and Brene Brown from Brand’s “Under the Skin” podcast.  It’s a rollicking discussion of addiction, recovery, politics and spirituality, much of which is arguably about practicing love-in-action in everyday life (e.g., marriage, parenting, friendship, work and sobriety).

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