“Tough Love”: The Political Theology of Civil Disobedience

“Tough Love”: The Political Theology of Civil Disobedience

By Alexander Livingston, Cornell University

Love is a key concept in the theory and history of civil disobedience yet it has been purposefully neglected in recent debates in political theory. Through an examination of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s paradoxical notion of “aggressive love,” I offer a critical interpretation of love as a key concept in a vernacular black political theology, and the consequences of love’s displacement by law in liberal theories of civil disobedience. The first section locates the origins of aggressive love in an earlier generation of black theologians who looked to India’s anticolonial struggle to reimagine the dignity of the oppressed as “creative survival.” The second contextualizes King’s early sermons on moral injury and self-respect within this tradition to reinterpret Stride toward Freedom’s account of the dignity-enhancing effects of nonviolent resistance as the triumph of love over fear. The third considers the implications of these arguments for conceptualizing the moral psychology of the white citizen and its consequences for contemporary debates over the ideological uses of Civil Rights history. The call to respond to oppression with aggressive love illustrates the paradoxical character of civil disobedience obscured by legal accounts as well as by criticisms of the very idea of “civil” disobedience. This is the paradox of affirming civility while enacting disobedience in order to bind political confrontation with political pedagogy.