Love is Our Fixed Address
A few days after Nelson Mandela’s December 5 passing, I checked out his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom from the local library. This morning, I turned the last page. The book was, of course, inspiring, illuminating, heartbreaking, stunning, rage inducing, hopeful, profound and a whole host of other superlatives. Given the subject matter and the nature of the story, how could it not be?
But I expected all of these things as I opened the book. I was struck, rather, by the more ordinary, human parts of this man, this life. His extraordinary personal discipline, for example. The fact that he did 100 push-ups and sit-ups and jogged for at least 45 minutes most days, even into his later years. Or his incredible capacity for reading and writing. Or by the methodical, logical, pragmatic way in which he approached every aspect of his life. Mandela was no dewy-eyed utopian; he was politically astute, highly opportunistic, and willing to use a wide variety of means to achieve his ends. I was struck by the obvious regret and sadness that he felt for the fact that his devotion to the fight for freedom and equality came at the cost of his family and two marriages.
As I read the last few pages this morning over breakfast, I encountered a number of the more reflective, poetic, and quotable passages that predictably made the rounds on social media following his death last month. One reads these passages a bit differently when they come at the end of 500+ pages of political machinations and overwhelming struggle and sadness, but they are no less beautiful or memorable for that. This one, for example, just exudes ooey-gooey Facebook-able goodness:
I never lost hope that this great transformation would occur…. I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
I pushed my breakfast plate aside and probably sighed audibly as I read this passage. “Yes,” I thought. “So beautiful. So true.” I even raced downstairs to read it (loudly) to my wife as she was blow-drying her hair. But after the warm glow of this passage began to wear off, I thought about it some more. No one is born hating another person… Love comes more naturally to the human heart. It sounds so lovely. But is it true?
The seventeenth century philosopher Thomas Hobbes would likely have something to say about this, as would countless other thinkers who have followed in his wake. For Hobbes, to be born human is to be born into the war of all against all. Life is little more than a nasty, brutish, and short competition for scarce resources and limited power. We are not born to love but to enmity. It is inherent to the human condition.
And, of course, the famous biologist/atheist evangelist Richard Dawkins popularized this understanding of human life at the genetic level in his book The Selfish Gene. The natural world is little more than one enormous survival competition. We are, at our most basic level, driven by selfishness, by the biological imperative to pass along our genetic material. Of course, Dawkins and many others are aware of the unflattering portrait of humanity this paints, and have gone to great lengths to demonstrate that group cooperation and reciprocity are part of the means by which human beings seek our selfish ends. At the end of the day, though, whatever genuine goodness we manage squeeze out of a naturalistic understanding of human beings is instrumental at best. We are not born to love, but to seek our advantage. If acting in loving ways works, fine. If trampling over our neighbour works, equally fine (few are bold enough to state things this baldly, but logical consistency would seem to demand it). At the most fundamental level, we’re not “born to” anything but ourselves.
But enough of philosophy and science. What about basic observation? I look at my own children and I recall that it took little effort on my part to train them in the art of acrimony. They weren’t born hating people who were different from them because they were different, but they seemed quite capable of generic hostility and selfishness without my intervention or tutelage. I did however have to teach them (and am still teaching them, as I am still learning) about the Golden Rule, about turning the other cheek, about the difference between genuine love and the many cheap and easy imitations out there. Love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite? Well, maybe. Sometimes. Or, maybe not.
So, is this beautiful sentiment of Mandela’s nothing more than a bit of poetic excess, a sentimental rush of blood to the head in an unguarded moment at the end of a long life of struggle? I don’t think so, and for one very simple reason. Here are a few more well-known and oft-rehearsed words from 1 John 4:7-8:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
God is love. Human beings bear God’s image in the world. Therefore, even though hatred and selfishness are part of our story, even though we are enormously conflicted creatures whose tendencies and desires and passions can be inflamed in all sorts of horrifically evil and destructive ways, love—true love, not love as a strategy for other ends, not love as necessary fiction foisted upon us by our clever DNA—does, in fact, come naturally. We want it even when we don’t know what we want or how to want it. We pursue it even as we wander down all kinds of false and damaging trails. It shows up in us and in others when we least expect it. It is the deepest and truest part of who we are because it is the deepest and truest part of the One who made us.
So Nelson Mandela is right, after all. Beautifully, hopefully, powerfully, profoundly right. Love is what we were made for; it is our fixed address. And love never stops beckoning us home, however stubborn and inventive our means of resisting its call.
The image above is taken from the 2011-12 Christian Seasons Calendar. Among other themes, Carolyn Coolidge Brown’s “In the Beginning” portrays the mystery of humanity bearing the image of our Creator God.