Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Photo by Raffaele Nicolussi on Unsplash

A call to public love

January 12, 2023

Martin Luther King, Jr., was insistent: to serve our communities—to give ourselves over to something larger than ourselves—we must have a “soul generated by love.”[i]

Dr. King’s call to us to step forward was a call to love. Now more than ever, we need to answer his call.

Today, our public discourse and public life is being hijacked by those at the extremes who seek to tear us down and tear us apart. They’re stoking conflict, mistrust, hatred, and fear. And they’re miring us in contentious debates that steal the focus from what really matters to people.

Amid the tumult, people have gone into fight or flight. We’re separating ourselves into smaller groups or retreating from civic life entirely. We’re failing to hear and see one another and to afford one another the basic human decency of dignity. People tell us they trust only themselves, God, and those they know personally.

The result is a dangerous vacuum in civic life: our public square has been left open to those who are the loudest, most divisive and inflammatory, and who work overtime to rouse our fears. I wonder if these people have lost sight of love—maybe they are so fearful themselves, so filled with hate, so bereft of hope that they cannot find the ability to love. But without love, our civic fabric frays, it gets ripped apart, we become untethered from one another.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as we revere Dr. King, let us remind ourselves of a public love that is rooted in a patriotic devotion to creating a more perfect union. Public love is a call to concrete action, or as King said, “a willingness to go to any length to restore community.”

Let me be clear. As Dr. King said, “In speaking of love, we are not referring to some sentimental emotion.” Nor are we speaking of personal love. Instead, Dr. King was referring to love as a verb: an action. Public love is “a willingness to go to any length to restore community.”[i]

I have written extensively about public love as a kind of civic devotion. That we love something—our nation, our community, our fellow citizens—so much that we stick with it when we no longer like or support what it is becoming, or especially when we no longer like what we see. Such devotion is at the very essence of a genuine, deep, profound patriotism.

Far too often, patriotism has been co-opted by those who seek to exclude and divide, suggesting that America’s promise is only for some of us, not all of us. In times of national or community struggle, patriotism has come to mean demanding lockstep agreement: “You’re either with us or against us.” It can give us license to believe that anyone different from ourselves is not welcomed.

This is not patriotism. Public love is extinguished, squashed, killed off by such misdeeds.

The challenge before us is to exercise a devotion to public life—a kind of deep public love—even when we no longer like the direction our public life is going. This is no simple task.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as we revere Dr. King, let us remind ourselves of a public love that is rooted in a patriotic devotion to creating a more perfect union. This will require each of us to find others of good faith who are willing to try to work through our real differences, who want to find ways to marshal our collective resources to improve society, who seek to re-instill a sense of belief that we can get things done together. Only then can we reimagine and recreate new possibilities for moving forward.

But let us never mistake the stoking of conflict, mistrust, hatred, and fears for public love. No, restoring public love—growing it, embracing it—means that each of us must step back into the public square and reclaim it for something larger than ourselves.

Public love is a call to concrete action.

Richard C. Harwood is president and founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, a nonpartisan, non-profit organization located in Bethesda, MD.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Martin Luther King Jr., “Drum Major Instinct.” Sermon delivered February 4, 1968.

[ii] King, “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.” The Christian Century, 1957.

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