Anger can drive the fight against injustice, but victory won't come without love

I recently had the opportunity to interview freshman and sophomore college students for a scholarship program that promotes social justice. Each applicant stood out in her or his own way, but I remember two of the applicants that I saw back-to-back as having sharply contrasting demeanors.

One was on fire about inequity in K-12 education. She remained poised but simultaneously broke the controlled job interview protocol as she expressed her frustration with the injustices she saw. The other was quiet and reserved, articulate but with no clear passion. Both were churchgoing young black women, but they also differed drastically in their thoughts about faith-based activism.

The more militant one had begun to feel like the church promoted passivity and questioned the wisdom of African-Americans' dependency on the church to call people to social action or to resolve problems like poverty. I understood the other as saying she saw believers as agents of social change but the Creator as the one in control of whether change occurs. If the agents' fight for social justice failed, then God meant for things to be that way, and he would be a source of strength for enduring oppression.

I remember telling other reviewers on the selection committee that I didn't think the latter student was angry enough.

"The first one, she's angry," I said. "I like angry people."

I'm rethinking the truth and wisdom of that statement since recently hearing one of the most spiritually nurturing dialogues I've heard in a long time. Professor john a. powell's Civil Conversation with Krista Tippett for NPR's "On Being" made me hopeful for a better, more humane and more inclusive world, and the discussion contained not one hint of anger, malice or bitterness. powell -- who spells his name with all lowercase letters -- didn't speak without passion, but bolstering his passion was a sincere love for all of humanity and for the earth we share.

"Right now, we don't have confidence in love. We have much more confidence in anger and hate. We believe anger is powerful. We believe hate is powerful, and we believe love is wimpy. So if we engage in the world, we believe it's much better to organize around anger and hate," powell said during the interview.

When I made the above statement about the first student, I meant that I liked her drive, that I could see that a deep sense of justice and of righteous discontentment was pushing her to resolve a very serious issue. But I said, "I like angry people," and I think that's true. I am among those who believe anger is not only powerful but productive when channeled effectively. I do think it's easier to get people to sign petitions or to attend a rally when they're angry. I'm also confident my essays are better when I compose them in a state of anger.

Hate, I believe, is powerful but destructive to the self and to others, debilitating to the soul and therefore a guaranteed way to ultimately lose your cause. Love? I don't believe love is wimpy, but I admit I had forgotten its radical transformative capabilities.

I'm sure that comes across as a ridiculous statement for a professed Christian to make. Christianity, after all, is supposed to be founded on radical, transformative love. "For God so loved the world," right?

"Love your neighbor as yourself."

"As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

"Be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble."

"Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not boast, it does not envy, it is not proud."

It also doesn't always feel good. Paul doesn't say that, but it's true. Near the end of the interview, powell said that to love implies suffering. I think that's because in order to learn to love, we have to come across people who are difficult to love. When it comes to creating an inclusive, just and beloved community where everyone -- regardless of race, color, creed, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, income level, education level, whatever -- belongs, we have to learn to love people who aren't like us, who have done or said horrible things to us or who didn't do it directly but don't understand why we can't just leave all those horrible things in the past. And that's as hard for me as it is for any other human.

But I think I'm going to remind myself to love by remembering some things about God's love that feel good to receive and therefore must feel good to God to give. Mercy feels good. Forgiveness feels good. Being taken care of feels good.

And yes, victory over injustice feels good, too, but it won't come without love.

[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]

Editor's note: We can send you an email alert every time Mariam Williams' column, At the Intersection, is posted to Go to this page and follow directions: Email alert sign-up.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here