Valarie Kaur, a civil rights leader, lawyer, award-winning filmmaker and best-selling author, spoke about the power of revolutionary love in the joint Russell Lecture on Spiritual Life and Solomont Speaker Series on March 28.
The Russell Lecture Series is the oldest lectureship at Tufts, having been held annually since 1867. It invites distinguished lecturers to campus to speak about contemporary spiritual life.
In her opening remarks, University Chaplain Rev. Elyse Nelson Winger reflected on the COVID-19 pandemic and the joy of once again hosting the lecture in person. Nelson Winger said amid the grief and uncertainty of the past two years, Kaur’s work has offered hope and sustenance to the Tufts community.
“Members of the chaplaincy were already reading her book ‘See No Stranger,’ and in it, we saw what so many are seeing: a prophet’s vision for renewing, restoring, reconciling communities of love and listening, of justice and joy,” Nelson Winger said. “I was struck by the way students, staff and faculty alike found that practice so powerful.”
University President Anthony Monaco then welcomed the audience by remarking on the importance of Kaur’s practice of revolutionary love in a world divided by war, systemic racism, divisive politics and a pandemic.
“In the spirit of Kaur’s teaching, today’s lecture invites us to come together as a community to reflect, heal and focus on what unites us rather than what divides us,” Monaco said. “And, ultimately, to see each other as friends, not strangers.”
After being introduced by Curry Brinson, a senior and interfaith ambassador, Kaur expressed gratitude to be speaking in person after delivering 250 virtual lectures in the span of a year. Kaur gave her first lecture to a university audience at Tufts in 2006, following a screening of her first documentary film about hate crimes against Muslim and Sikh communities in the aftermath of 9/11.
“I found my public voice on this campus with this community,” Kaur said. “When I was here 16 years ago, I talked about hate. Fast-forward to today, I’m going to speak to you about love — revolutionary love.”
Kaur called the present period of instability and discontinuity — marked by climate disasters, misinformation, political violence and war — “the Great Transition.”
“What if this is not only the darkness of the tomb? What if this is the darkness of the womb?” Kaur asked. “When I call this era the Great Transition, it is bloody and convulsive and breathless and also pregnant with possibility.”
Kaur urged the audience to meet this moment of transition with revolutionary love, which she explained as a decision to labor “for others, for our opponents and for ourselves.” She pointed out that this idea is not new; its roots can be found in ancient spiritual teachings from Jesus, Abraham and Muhammad, to Buddha, Guru Nanak and indigenous practices.
“I think this is the moment like never before in history where we can put that awakening into practice, when we finally structure our societies on that truth,” Kaur said. “What if we loved others, our opponents and ourselves so that the communities around us became beloved communities? What if we could dismantle hierarchies of human value with our actions?”
As a civil rights leader who has spent the last 20 years organizing around hate, Kaur pledged to spend the next 20 years organizing around love. She identified wonder, empathy and compassion as the core practices of revolutionary love, which can be used to meet the challenges of the present social and political moment.
Kaur described what it means to see no stranger.
“Every time I am approaching faces on the street — even under the masks — faces on the street or on the subway or on the screen, I say in my mind, ‘sister, brother, sibling, beloved child,’ and in doing that I am retraining my eye to see them as kin, to see them as part of me. … You are a part of me I do not yet know.”
Kaur also asked the audience to grieve for the suffering of others, calling grieving a form of “frontline social justice work” because “there is no fixing grief, there’s only … witnessing.” Showing solidarity and attending to the struggles of others, Kaur said, is how individuals can begin to fight for change.
“Each of us has skills that only we have. Each of us has a sphere of influence … there’s always going to be a way for you to use what’s already in your hands to fight on behalf of communities in harm’s way,” Kaur said. “Wondering about others, grieving with that, fighting with and for them, this is what I call deep solidarity.”
Kaur admitted that her revolutionary form of love doesn’t always win her popularity in progressive circles, especially when she proclaims the harms of vilifying one’s opponents and, instead, tries to see their humanity.
“Resistance is so vital for our survival, but it actually doesn’t change the power structures,” Kaur said. “The only way to do that is to reimagine policies, institutions, norms [and] communities that set everybody free, our opponents too.”
Kaur also spoke about rage, an emotion she used to feel she needed to suppress as a woman of color. She said she eventually learned to embrace rage and harness it for change.
“The aim of divine rage is not vengeance. It is to reorder the world,” Kaur said.