The Politics of Force and the Strange Work of Love

Our current politics trouble me profoundly, and I have not always been able to articulate why.

Recently, I have been reading a book called Love, Power, and Justice by the German theologian Paul Tillich. This book has helped me to articulate my fear while also helping me construct a vision for our shared political life.

Tillich argues that love, power, and justice are essential modes of being for individuals and societies.

Love for Tillich is not merely a sentiment or a passion. He writes  that love is  that which “drives everything that is towards everything else that is.”[1] As love drives us towards everything else that is, life brings itself into being by reuniting what was once united. Here, Tillich is recalling us to the shared image of God we bear, but I think it is also possible to consider our original unity in terms not specifically Christian.

Buddhist philosophers describe it as our shared vulnerability and our ability to have compassion for one another.[2]

Aristotle and Paulo Freire describe our shared human capacity to transform our world for greater beauty, goodness, and freedom.[3] When we allow love to reunify us, this creates the condition for the image of God, for compassion, and for creative rationality to presence itself in the world. Herbert Marcuse makes a similar point when he argues that our erotic drive is not originally solely a sexual drive but a life drive that propels us towards building greater unities of life so that humanity can be fully actualized.[4]

Creación de Adán (Miguel Ángel).jpg

This painting is “The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo.

Love desires to unify us for good reason. The more we are unified in our shared humanity, the greater our power of being as a human species becomes. Power for Tillich is not the ability to force or compel people to do stuff. Rather, power is the ability to be—to become actualized. I don’t think we typically think of power in terms of the power to be, but it is time we start doing so.

Human beings have a long way to go to become fully actualized. We have amazing social, emotional, rational, artistic, and spiritual capacities, but we have only just begun to develop them. The history of the human race has largely been marked by the struggle for existence. Only in the last several hundred years have we begun to transition into a world that is not consumed by this struggle. We have a lot of work to do to understand how we can live together with greater love, power, and equality. We often think of ourselves as a highly developed species, but we are really still in our adolescence.

And we still behave like adolescents.

As a species, we act as though our power of being is something we increase through competition and force. This is radically short-sighted and immature. Our power of being is only something we develop together. It is only in my equal encounter with another human being that my capacities for dialogue, rationality, problem-solving, and compassion are called forth. Rocks and trees do not elicit my human capacities in this way.

Every encounter we have with one another is an opportunity to increase our power of being by cultivating our shared humanity. As we increase our power of being together, we overcome the forces in our world that dehumanize us and  that turn human existence into a fearful and violent struggle. When we live in such a fearful condition, non-being threatens us continually, and this is why Tillich suggest that true power is the possibility of overcoming non-being.[5] It is also why Aristotle suggests to us that man is a political animal and that he who has no need of the polis is either a god or a beast.[6]

Our power of being is only increased by human beings expressing their power in an equal relationship with one another.

Therefore, if we want to increase our power of being together in the polis, we must hold love and power in balance. Justice is what allows us to do this, and this is why Tillich writes that “Justice is the form in which the power of being actualizes itself”.[7]

If justice is to allow the power of being to actualize itself, justice must work to correct imbalances of power that treat people like objects or machines. It must also work to develop institutions that support human rationality, physical and emotional health, and social development. If justice does not do this, it is like having a house that is technically wired for electricity but has no light fixtures to express that electricity. The potential for power without the means to express power is not really power. And force, which is an imbalance of power, is not true power either. It actually destroys power.

This brings me to our current politics.

It seems that we still need to learn the lessons of love, power, and justice. Too often we practice love as objectification and control, power as force, and justice as anything that serves our purposes. Rather than increasing our political power by unifying us, such behavior foster division, hate, and fear. In driving us apart and in using force to promulgate a private justice, we weaken our power of being as a nation.

It doesn’t matter if these actions cause a stock market rise or if they defeat our “enemies”[8]. Unless we cultivate love, power, and justice together, we lose our power of being as a nation. This is why I have been so troubled by our current politics. We are resorting increasingly to the politics of force, and the politics of force[9] exercises power without love or justice.

It is natural to want to respond to the politics of force with our own politics of force, but this only further decreases our power of being. So what is the solution? Tillich suggests a solution in something he calls “the strange work of love”. Tillich says that the strange work of love “destroys what is against love” and that it “does so according to…justice.”[10]

This idea of the strange work of love is fascinating to me. I can’t tell you exactly what it is or what it looks like, but I think it does at least several things: the strange work of love (1) cultivates shared humanity in every encounter, whether that encounter is with a friend or an “enemy”. (2) It supports social structures that cultivate the unified and equal power of being. (3) It resists social forces that drive us apart and that confuse power with force.

Our current politics frighten me, but I also believe it is an invitation for us to evolve as a country and as species. American politics has had a long and complicated relationship with love, power, and justice. We have too often in the past confused love with objectification, power with force, and justice with whatever serves our ends.

 It is time for us to practice love, power, and justice together and do the strange work of love.


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You might also like this book: Paul Tillich: Love, Power, and Justice

And this post: Meditations from the Belly of the Whale



[1] Paul Tillich. Love, Power, and Justice. Oxford University Press. New York: 1954, pg. 25.

[2] In his essay “Buddhism with a small b”, Sulak Sivaraksa writes about our shared vulnerability and suffering: “Recognition of the fact of suffering is the first step towards its mitigation. The most difficult thing for someone who is sick or addicted is to acknowledge his or her illness.  Only when this occurs can there be progress…One must look deeply into one’s own body, feelings, mind, and the object of mind…Our goal is to develop human beings with enough inner strength and moral courage to begin restructuring the collective consciousness of society.” (Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism. Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft, ed. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, MA: 2000. Pgs. 121-123).

[3]See Aristotle’s Politics,1253a10-15 (C.D. Reeves, trans. Hackett Publishing, Co. Indianapolis, IN: 1998) and Paulo’s Freire Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy and Civic Courage (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Lanham, MD:  1998, pg. 53.)

[4] Our erotic drive, according to Marcuse, is not original expressed in just sexual terms. It is the drive for life and for peaceful and loving solidarity with the world around us. It is also a drive for pleasure but, once again, this pleasure originally includes more than sexual pleasure and refers to the pleasure that comes from the joyful expression of all of our physical, emotional, and social capacities. For a helpful discussion of this, see pg. 19-20 and also pg. 25 of Marcuse’s “Freedom and Freud’s Theory of Instincts”(Five Lectures. Beacon Press. Boston: 1970.)

[4] Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice. pg. 40

[5] Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice. pg. 40

[6] See Aristotle’s Politics, 1253 a4

[7] Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice. pg. 56

[8] I put quotes around enemies because Tillich suggests to us that no person is thoroughly our enemy but only the parts of him that lack being (i.e. that lack love, power, and justice). Our goal should always be to do the work of love to cultivate being in our “enemies” as well as our friends.

[9] The “politics of force” and the notion that it is power practiced without justice or love is Tillich’s concept.

[10] Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice. pg. 113

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