“As many mothers know, love is sweet labor — a choice that we have to make over and over again, every single day. What would it look like to extend a fraction of that love, to ourselves, to others who don’t look like us, and even to our opponents?”
– Valarie Kaur
Valarie Kaur is a mother, lawyer, and progressive activist who is grounded in her culture and religion, much like Gandhi and MLK. She is the author of the upcoming book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, releasing on June 16, 2020. Here I am in conversation with Valarie Kaur, as she comments on loss, love, and the power of forgiveness.
GPJ: A lot of activists are seen as angry, yet you have talked about loving your enemy. How do you do that?
VK: I believe that revolutionary love is the call of our times. I became an activist after the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was a family friend. Since I was 20, for more than 16 years, I have gone from community to community working on a range of social justice issues. I began fighting hate crimes against Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, and other South Asian Americans, and soon realized that our issues were bound up with other communities of color. So I’ve worked with: Latino communities fighting immigration detention; worked with black youth fighting stop and frisk; on prison reform and solitary confinement; marriage equality and trans rights.
My son was born at the end of 2015, and we began to see hate crimes skyrocket, reaching levels just as high as they were in 9/11.
I had a small existential crisis — I thought, I’ve been a lawyer for 15 years — I thought with every campaign, we were making the country safer. My family had been in the country for 100 years and I believed we were making linear progress. I looked at my son and realized that I was raising a brown boy, keeping his hair long in accordance with his Sikh faith, in a country that was even more dangerous than the world that my grandfather lived in. I sat in a torrent of tears. I left my job. I took a period of deep introspection.
After so long, what actually creates change for the communities I serve? It always came down to a critical question: is there love here? Communities that received love in the wake of atrocity were able to respond with love and sustain struggles against institutions of power. I began to think about love as a revolutionary force and began to speak publicly about it.
When the elections happened in 2016, I was flooded with messages from people saying, “now more than ever, we need this message of revolutionary love.” When my speeches went viral, I felt I had a mandate.
We built the Revolutionary Love Project — the vision of the project is to make love a public ethic in American life, but also globally. I’m really thinking about how social norms take hold in 25-year cycles — what might it look like in education, criminal justice, politics, as well as our homes and schools. Our mission is to produce thought leadership, stories, and tools to equip people to practice love, particularly in the fight for social justice.
Activists are usually stereotyped as being angry, and there’s a reason for that. They traditionally work in the frame of resistance, and while resistance is necessary — it’s important to have a strong line of defense against the policies and executive orders that this administration is issuing — it is insufficient to produce lasting social change. When it’s all about resistance, we as advocates tend to mirror the dysfunctions that we are fighting. We tend to mirror the stress, anxiety, fear, and even hate that we are resisting.
So my call is instead to adopt a frame of revolutionary love. As many mothers know, love is sweet labor — a choice that we have to make over and over again, every single day. What would it look like to extend a fraction of that love, to ourselves, to others who don’t look like us, and even to our opponents? When love is poured in these three directions, it can become revolutionary.
GPJ: We seem to care a lot about people who look like us, but the leap to care about our oppressors seems difficult. How do we love our oppressors?
VK: To me, the ideal in the Sikh faith has always been that the warrior fights, the saint loves — hence, a revolutionary love. I see Guru Nanak’s path as one of revolutionary love. We’ve inherited a history of, not only martyrs, but also soldiers and warriors. What does it mean to adopt that religious imagination of warriors against political injustice in modern times?
The first Sikh woman warrior was Mai Bhago in 1705 — when 40 soldiers abandoned their post, she donned a turban, she took a sword in her hand, mounted a horse, and said, “We will return to the battle and I am the one who will lead you.” She became the one she was waiting for. She’s my inspiration, and I believe we need to become the Mai Bhago of our time.
That’s why I created the Mai Bhago Retreat, to bring together Sikh women justice leaders every year so we can see ourselves and reinterpret our faith in this way. This is fierce religious imagery — sword and shield — but I believe we do not need literal weapons to fight the war before us. We may have needed them years before, but not now with the institutions of democracy we have before us.
My sword is my law degree, my shield is my film camera. I look at my Sikh sisters using their pens, doctors’ scalpels, pocketbooks, as their shields. Nobody goes into battle alone, so it’s important that we come together to fight the good fight together. What does it mean to love your opponents? My core practice is to heal the wound. I have never come across anyone who I have seen as wholly evil.
Every perpetrator of violence or supporter of violence is doing it from their own sense of woundedness, fear, and insecurity. They don’t know what else to do with their insecurity but to aim it at us. They are wounded. We point our swords and shields at the cultural-political institutions that allow them to hurt us. I am less interested in unseating this particular president, and more interested in the social and political conditions that led to this presidency. That’s what I’ve battled against — it changes how we fight.
Whenever we focused on putting bad actors behind bars, it never changed very much. But when we focused on transforming institutions of power, or transforming a corrupt police department, or changing federal hate crimes policy, or winning net neutrality, that’s when we began to see systemic change. I believe that loving our opponents simply consists of tending to their wounds. Changing how we see them, from monsters to people who are wounded, opens the possibility of forgiveness, and even possibly reconciliation.
Frank Roque, who murdered Balbir Singh, was about to receive the death penalty when his sentence was commuted to life in prison. On the 15 year anniversary of 9/11, Rana Balbir and I stood at his memorial, and he said, “nothing has changed.” I asked him, who is the person we have not yet tried to love?
The last thing we had heard from Frank Roque was at his trial, when he had said he was going out to shoot some towelheads and their children too. So we called him up and asked him why he agreed to speak to us, and he began to tell us how he was sorry for what happened to our family but was also sorry for the lives of the thousands of people killed in 9/11. He failed to take responsibility, and I began to get angry, but Ranaji kept listening and wondering about the wound in Frank.
He says, “Frank, this is the first time I have heard you say you’re sorry.” And Frank says, “Yes, I’m sorry for what I did to your brother. And when I go to heaven to be judged by God, I will ask to see your brother and I will hug him.”
Forgiveness is not forgetting, it is freedom from hate. Then we can begin to see and challenge the cultural forces and the institutions of power that allow violence to happen. It took us fifteen years to make that call. If you are still hurting, and you can still feel that rage and pain and loss in your body, the best and most loving thing you can do for your opponent is to tend to your own wound. Forgiveness is really about freedom for yourself, and opening yourself to the possibility of reconciliation.
I don’t believe I will ever reconcile with Donald Trump, but I do believe that thinking about what drives his insecurity and fear, what makes him feel so alienated and lash out against all of us who look different from him, helps me fight him better and helps me to talk to those who support him, to understand why they are fearful, and hold up a vision of a country that includes them too. Loving our opponents is strategic, and savvy. It’s how we are going to build a movement that’s not just about resistance but about transformation.
Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is grateful to Kartik Jain for transcribing this unpublished interview with Valarie Kaur. When she is not writing or teaching yoga, Geetika can be found enjoying the great outdoors. She is currently working on a book called “50 Voices From South Asia.”