Not-Love and The New Guy

By Don Rollins

Last I checked, religion is supposed to be in the love business. God is love. Love one another. Love, as Bishop John Spong suggests, wastefully. It’s good stuff, really. I mean, who’s against a little more love in this groaning world of suffering and injustice?

Love in your local house of worship is one thing, but introducing love into the arena of postmodern, petro-dollar geopolitics is about welcome as a cow in church; it just ain’t natural. I get that. Lord knows this country has a long and checkered history of flaming fundamentalists-cum-political activists who, when invoking love in a political context, usually spew some condescending crap about how God really does love you and, by the way, would much prefer it if you voted Republican.

Rabid fundamentalist guilt trips be damned. Me, I’m an unreconstructed liberal who still believes that religion is worth a bucket of spit, even if I have to explain myself when I suggest that love ought to have a say in political matters. (Midwesterners peg you for a Bible thumper; Easterners dismiss you as anti-intellectual; and the West Coast crowd looks you up and down for New Age fairy dust.) For real, suggest at your next pinky-in-the-air dinner party that love might have something relevant to say about the markets or US foreign policy, then wear a bib and stand back ’cause folks are gonna snort-laugh their Glenlivet and Perrier like Old Faithful in spring.

But, fellow progressives, have we forgotten that Gandhi gave the boot to the English and MLK took on Bull Connor in the name of love? Are we so guardedly secular as to think that justice precludes the kind of universal goodwill that kept Mandela alive in that rotting jail cell? Maybe. If so, perhaps we need to resort to understanding love as did some of the early church’s Latin theologians—they, who framed their religious arguments in via negativa form: What are the consequences when love is absent? In other words, they were asking, what does “not-love” look like?

I suggest that in today’s world, “not love” looks like tracers over Gaza. It looks like the world’s foremost military power bogged down in unnecessary and ill-conceived wars. It looks like the failure of a government to address unbridled greed in the name of the free market. What does “not-love” look like? Political refugees, body bags and laid-off workers.

Not-love is neither ethereal nor theoretical. It mocks justice and dehumanizes. It kills body, mind and spirit. Good religion will not abide not-love.

Now, I’m not myopic here; religion is by no means the only repository for political love. (To the contrary, need I even mention the blood that still runs in the name of one or other of the monotheistic traditions?) But we’re up a certain kind of creek without a paddle here, folks. Religion alone didn’t create this fix we’re in, and religion alone sure can’t get us out; somewhere along the line we—everybody who’s cast a vote in the past three-plus decades?—began settling for presidents who had neither the skills nor the inclination to think theologically, poetically or even metaphorically. More realpolitik, less reflection. More Boogie Man in them, less Boogie Man in us. The end result is a nation of elected and electors who are clueless about the kind of open-eyed love that has animated so many of this nation’s greatest agents for change. And so we scatter like Bernie Madoff at a stockholders’ meeting when somebody dares float the word love in a political chat.

(Drum roll…) And so all heads turn to The New Guy.

The New Guy is our current best shot at a modern-day leader that knows a little something about love and politics. (Okay, insert your own Bill and Monica joke here.) It’s not that we should expect him to start quoting Oprah episodes or doing the lotus position at press conferences; all we’re asking is that he not forget the lessons learned on the way up the ladder. If we’ve got his story right, he’s seen love and he’s seen the moral vacuum of not-love. His hippie mom showed him that. So did his hardscrabble grandmother. So did the ravages of Southside poverty. If we can resist the urge to make him into a human Rorschach for our dreams or, worse yet, a black Jesus, he might just prove to have the innate intelligence, introspection and moral credibility we think.

So, for some of us on the religious left, the nation’s political salvation depends, in no small part, upon The New Guy’s willingness to interject into the political world the principle of love. The tough, relentless kind. At home and abroad. And you know, as I think about it, he need not even call it love, really. For my money, all he has to do is to call not-love what it is, then lead us in the struggle to transcend and transform it.

Rev. Don Rollins is interim minister of the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bloomington, Minn. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Feb. 15, 2009

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