Martin Luther King often described his moral vision as one of “agapic love.” Agape is Greek for “distinterested love”—to King it was “a love in which the individual seeks not his own good,” but the good of his or her neighbor. Agape “does not discriminate between worthy and unworthy people”—it is about “discovering the neighbor” in every person it meets. It is not “weak, passive love” but “love in action.” It seeks to “go to any length to restore community.”
King’s vision of overflowing love—beyond worthiness, beyond borders—reminds me of one of my favorite Catholic symbols: the bleeding heart. The writer Lewis Hyde calls the bleeding heart “the image of the Christian era.” If tribalism was about keeping the spirit of community (the tribe’s lifeblood) flowing inside the boundaries of one’s tribe, Christianity was to be about welcoming all into the community. Hyde summarizes the promise of Christian grace in these terms: “If we only open the heart with faith, we will be lifted to a greater circulation” and “the spirit may cover the world and vivify everything.” In the Christian heart, all Others are to become Brothers—our compassion, not our genetics, is to connect us.
The bleeding heart was a revolutionary symbol, and the plea for agapic love was a revolutionary call. I say revolutionary because the idea of loving beyond the boundaries of your tribe ran counter to common beliefs and practices. People were used to loving their Brothers and fearing the Others. Whole systems of law and exchange and war were set up to differentiate how you treated neighbors from how you treated strangers.
And yet, for many, the revolution of the bleeding heart took hold. For some, it came directly through religion. For others, it came through the universalist politics of classical liberalism or socialism. For most, it came through the revolution burrowing into daily life, through ideas and practices in music, science, books, and commerce that aimed to turn strangers into neighbors.
Despite all of the ways in which we fail to live up to this revolution, its core idea remains the dominant creed in our country today. You can tell that it is because everybody pays lip service to it. No matter what our leaders do, most still feel compelled to justify their actions in terms of bringing people together, loving across divides, and seeking solidarity in mind and heart rather than in blood and soil. Universal love remains America’s professed state religion.
And yet, of course, we are not practicing what we preach. Despite the politicians’ applause lines and the dreamers’ song lyrics and the greeting cards’ cliches, love has not held sway in 21st-century America. We are not discovering the neighbor in every person we meet. We are not going to any length to restore community. We are not trusting that grace will lift us up if we open our hearts. In fact, we are often doing the exact opposite: treating our literal neighbors as threatening strangers, spending our energy affirming divides, and letting fear be the doorman of our hearts.
And worse over, we have baked our apostasy into our institutions. We have built and tolerated laws and markets and customs that reinforce our loneliness, heighten our anxiety, and estrange our most vulnerable neighbors.
In our culture, the bleeding heart’s status has shifted. What was once a powerful and inspiring symbol now represents, Hyde observes, a person of “dubious mettle with an embarrassing inability” to limit his or her compassion. It is now considered foolish and sentimental to have a heart “that does not keep its own counsel”—that “touches others with feeling, not reckoning.”
And yet, this is not what we preach in public. When we talk about who we are—when we teach our children who to be—we still celebrate building bridges and lending hands and opening up our hearts. That is what is especially disturbing about our time—the eerie detachment between what we say we believe in and what we actually do.
How did we let this happen?
Well, we need to remember that the revolution of the bleeding heart was never supposed to be easy. All revolutions of society are also revolutions of the soul. You transform the world, but you also transform yourself. And transforming ourselves is just as difficult as transforming the world—often, it is more difficult.
Discovering the neighbor in every person we meet is hard. Going to any length to restore community is hard. Opening up our hearts to others in the face of fear is hard. When part of our soul remains tribal, doing any of this feels unnatural. The easy way of dismissal and division and hard-heartedness is appealing. But the revolution is appealing, too. So we try to have it both ways.
One way we do this is through “carve-outs.” We say “we love all people” but then mess with the definition of “people.” We open our hearts up to some people, but come up with exception after exception after exception as to why other people don’t deserve our love. “But they’re criminals.” “But they’re terrorists.” “But they aren’t pulling their weight.” “But they knew what they were doing when they made that choice.” We are full of love for all people, but we let our conception of “people” become swiss cheese.
Eventually, when we carve out enough exceptions, we forget the original message. The message becomes so disfigured that we no longer recognize what we once believed. We start resenting having to genuflect to the revolutionary creed—“why do we have to keep talking about compassion?” “Why do we have to pretend those kids are as worthy as our kids?”
Soon, preachers from the old creed of tribalism rear their heads. They not only don’t practice what we preach—they don’t even preach it either! They are here to free you from the burden of the bleeding heart. They celebrate closed-heartedness. Their heresy is tantalizing. “Instead of twisting yourself into knots carving out exceptions, why not just give up the faith?”
Many of us hold strong against both the temptation to give up and the temptation to carve up our love. We know that messing with the definition of “people” is against the spirit of the law. “Everybody in, nobody out,” we affirm. And still we find another way to have it both ways. We say “we love all people” but then mess with the definition of “love.” In this second way, it’s less about carving up and more about thinning out—lowering our standards for what it means to love someone.
Deep love is about encountering real people—being vulnerable, entangling ourselves in relationship, making commitments. But deep love is scary, so we often substitute shallow love in its place. In lieu of real encounter, we offer money or votes or often just sentiment. When we put up yard signs or send monthly checks or post the right thing online, we might be doing something useful, but we are not engaging in the deep love that our revolution calls us to engage in. We are opening up our hearts, but we are hardly letting any blood out.
Some might say that the call for deep love is all well and good, but the money and the votes and the sentiment are what really get the job done. But as of now, there isn’t enough—there isn’t enough money and there isn’t enough votes and there isn’t enough sentiment to get the job done yet. When we don’t practice deep love, our shallow love dries up as the excuses pile on. “I just don’t have time.” “It’s all just too much to think about right now.” “I just feel like nothing really makes a difference.” And furthermore, when we don’t practice deep love, our criticism of those who carve up their love is neutered, for the battle appears to be just between those who implicitly limit their love and those who admit to doing so.
I mentioned that America’s uneasiness is caused by the disjuncture between what we say we believe and what we actually do—between the revolution of the bleeding heart and our routine apostasy. Built into this uneasiness are two ways out: to change what we believe or to change what we do.
The sales pitch of those in the seat of power today is the former: to give up on the revolution of the bleeding heart. No more need to thin out your love, no more need to carve up your love, they say . . . we can give up on the revolutionary project. For America’s unvulnerable majority, this is indeed a path out of our uneasiness. If we gave up, there would be no longer be a disjuncture.
But we know that’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable because we don’t want to leave our vulnerable neighbors behind. It’s unacceptable because we know walls lock people in as much as they lock people out. It’s unacceptable, because after experiencing how open-heartedness has enlivened us, we can’t imagine going back.
So that leaves us with the second path out of our uneasiness: changing what we do; turning what King would call a “weak, passive love” into a “love in action.” It is to reject carving up our love, but it is also to reject thinning it out. It is the path of not only pushing for the revolution of the bleeding heart to further transform our world, but also pushing for it to further transform ourselves. And in so doing, our message will ring truer, our tools will be more abundant, and our task will feel attainable.
This is a hard path, of course. If it wasn’t, we would have already taken it. But that’s where grace comes in—here to help us, when we’re ready, to be lifted to a greater circulation. Long live the bleeding heart.
Pete Daavis is a civic reformer from Falls Church, Virginia. He is the co-founder of The Democratic Alternative, a project aiming to raise up democratic ideas and leaders in American politics. Read more @PeteDDavis on Twitter and at PeteDavis.org.