The Strength Card and Radical Love

There are two quotes echoing in my head right now. The first is from the Gospel of Luke. I’m not Christian, but this post is going to go to some Christian places, so brace yourselves in advance. I promise, there’s a reason for it:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Matthew 5:38-39*

We’ve all heard the phrase “turn the other cheek.” But very rarely do we appreciate exactly what that means. I think most of us, when we use it, are saying something to the effect of “Don’t let other people’s bad behavior affect you”; something analogous to Michelle Obama’s famous “When they go low, we go high.” Hearing the phrase as a kid, my mental image was always of myself looking away from the people who were trying to jeer, bully, or otherwise harm me—making the choice not to engage. That’s really not what the saying is about.

What it really means to turn the other cheek is to love your enemy. Radically. You’ve been slapped on one side of the face and you offer the other side so that you can be hit there as well. This bit of theology has tangled sociopolitical implications [we’re supposed to encourage people to oppress us?], but at its core is a notion of radical love. You turn the other cheek to your oppressor not as an act of submission, nor or passivity, but as an expression of love. The idea is to love your oppressor, even though your oppressor does not love you, and the act of offering yourself up to the oppressor is an expression of that love. In line with this, we can read a little bit farther in that chapter of Matthew:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Matthew 5:43-48

The core idea here (embedded in a Christian context) is that the Christian God loves the wicked as much as he loves the just—that he is, after all, just as much their father as he is the father of the pious. And so Christians are urged to love the wicked just as fervently and unreservedly as they love each other. They are called to love their oppressors, even at the expense of their own lives.

Now, I don’t quite hold with turning the other cheek. There is something fundamentally wrong to me about any demand that we enable oppression,** that we allow the strong to dominate the weak. Doing so is hopelessly irresponsible, and makes us at best complicit in that oppression. We cannot allow hatred, bigotry, despotism, etc. to run unfettered through the world. We must actively and vocally oppose them everywhere we can. But nonetheless, I am sitting and pondering this notion of radical love.

Jumping topics a bit: Remember The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?*** There’s a scene where Jadis, the White Witch, wants to sacrifice Edmund Pevensie on the Stone Table, mostly because she’s evil but also because some obscure magical law from the dawn of time permits her to do so. Aslan the lion convinces her to sacrifice him instead, and in so doing, he causes the Stone Table to break and is resurrected, because yadda yadda Jesus allegory.

Aslan’s sacrifice is, of course, an act of love. Love for Narnia, to be sure, but also love for Edmund, who at this point in the story is a sniveling, malicious little shit who has done nothing but willful harm. Yet Aslan loves Edmund, loves him enough to sacrifice himself (although the sacrifice doesn’t really count since he knows he’s gonna come back from the dead). Since this is C. S. Lewis, the framing of the idea is inescapably Christian, and we once again run up against this idea that loving one’s enemy means allowing oneself to come to harm. I don’t truck with that idea. However, that idea of truly unconditional love—the fact that Aslan is capable of feeling that boundless love for someone who has done such horrible things and showed no inclination to change—has tremendous power. Hell, Aslan probably even loves Jadis, because after all, he is Jesus.

What does it truly mean to love all creatures? To love all people? I’m talking about the divine, absolute, unconditional love that the Gods have for us. What does it mean to love horrible, wretched people, people who are morally repugnant and who revel in their decrepitude? What does it mean to love people who are so far gone that there is no hope of ever getting them to care about others or to see the suffering they cause? To love even a Donald Trump or a Mitch McConnell?

Allow me to be perfectly clear here: I’m not talking turn-the-other-cheek love. I’m not talking Aslan on the stone table. I am not talking about loving others to the point of one’s own destruction. I’m searching for something else.

In Wicca, the Goddess is the mother of all living things. Not just of Wiccans, not just of good people. She is the mother of all. That includes Donald Trump. Her love as a mother is boundless and unconditional, and she offers it to everyone. She may hate Trump in addition to loving him, she may rebuke him and loathe the things he has done to her other children (and if I may be permitted some hubris in speaking on behalf of the Gods, I am certain that she does), but he is still her child and she cannot help but love him. What does that love look like? And how can I adopt it? Can I live my life with that kind of all-abiding love?

This brings us to the second of the quotes that’s been floating around in my head. It’s from Crowley, and you may well recognize it, because it’s one of his more famous ones:

Every man and every woman is a star.

The Book of the Law

It’s a simple one-liner. It’s so, so simple, and it’s tempting to pass over this quote as an empty platitude or a piece of meaningless Crowleyana. I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot today, and thinking about what it really means if we take it seriously. Every man. Even Donald Trump. Even Boris Johnson. Even friggin’ Stalin is a star.

That does not mean they’re good people. They are unequivocally, unquestionably not. What it does mean is that whatever divine grace lives inside me and the people I love lives inside them, too. (Well, not inside Stalin anymore, since, y’know, he’s dead and all.) They have buried that divine spark, distanced themselves from it, done everything they can to snuff it out in themselves and in others, but it is there. The act of radical love is seeing the horror of people like Trump and also managing to see that divine spark. It means looking at a bad person and seeing the good person they could have been—and loving that good person, and mourning the fact that they became someone bad instead.

I want to be really careful in articulating what I’m trying to say. I am, first off, not prescribing behavior to anyone. I’m not saying “This is what you should do.” I’m exploring my own feelings and my own actions, because the world is ripping me apart at the seams and something’s gotta give. Moreover, I am not advocating for pacifism, for peace & love & rock ‘n roll, or for some hippie-dippie Marianne Williamson style nonsense to the effect that we can beat Donald Trump just by loving him real hard. None of that is what I’m saying.

For anyone who’s not up to date, I’ve been struggling a great deal in my relationship with my father for quite a while now. He is a rabid Trumper, deeply racist and misogynistic, terribly homophobic, and at bottom I simply don’t believe that he is a good person. That breaks my heart every day. (As does the rest of everything going on in the world, because LOOK AT THE WORLD.) I am so filled with anger at him and at the whole whirlwind of social and political monstrosity that surrounds him—to the point that I wake up in the morning with my fists and jaw clenched from fighting about it in my dreams.

But underneath all of that, I feel sorrow. A deep, abiding grief like nothing I have ever felt before. I am mourning for my father, for the good person I had once thought he was and that I still believe he could have been. I am mourning for my country, and for the world, and so on and so forth. Lots of mourning. Very sad. Much grief. The truth of the matter is, we don’t grieve over things we hate. We grieve for things we love. Currently, I am exploring the grief that I feel and trying to transform that grief and the anger that cloaks it into an expression of radical, unconditional, universal love.

In Qabalistic terms, I am and have been drowning in Gevurah. The philosophy of turn-the-other-cheek as Christianity preaches it—the sacrifice of Aslan—is pure Chesed. It’s “love thy enemy” taken to such an extreme that it becomes an invitation to oppression. I am searching for something in between. I am searching for the strength to stand up to oppression, to see how horrible it is and to act out against it, but still to feel that maddeningly universal love that’s so damn hard to express without it sounding like some trite parody of hippieism. I do not want to turn the other cheek to those who strike me, but I want to feel compassion and see their humanity nonetheless. Not because it’s better, nor because I think it’s what we should all do (I don’t). Rather because I, personally, cannot bear not to see that humanity any longer.

What lies between Chesed and Gevurah on the Tree of Life is the path of Teth, which corresponds to the Strength card. It’s funny: I’ve been meditating on and pathworking with the Emperor for months now, trying to explore issues of authority, power, anger, and political violence, but all this time I’ve been working with the wrong card. I picked up Strength this week and pathworked it, and instantly something clicked. This card is my guide as I try to hold both Chesed and Gevurah in my heart.****

I don’t know how much sense this post will make. I’ve hit a turning point in work that I’ve been doing for quite some time. It may not be the turning point, and there may be more turning points yet to come, but I’ve certainly hit one here. The idea in my mind is so, so clear: How to practice radical love without giving up on fighting for justice. Still and all, I don’t know how well the idea in my head has translated to the written word.

I’ll leave off with a message to Donald Trump (and probably, by extension, to my father). I’ll obviously never have the chance to say this to Trump, and it wouldn’t change him even if he heard it, but at the moment it’s what’s in my heart. I hope I can continue to cultivate this attitude. And yes. I’m aware that it sounds like Marianne Williamson’s closing statement from the first Democratic debate.

Sir,

You are not a good person, and for that I am so, so sorry. I am sorry for the choices you have made, the harm you have done, and the person you have become. I do not forgive you, because you have made unforgivable choices, but I grieve for the man you could have been. I mourn the good you could have done. I will do everything in my power to oppose you and to keep you from doing further harm, but I do it with love in my heart: Love for myself, love for those you would hurt, and even love for you. I love you, and I pity you. Every man and woman is a star, and I wish only that you had chosen to shine brightly rather than suffocating yourself in darkness.

Farewell.

_______________________________________________________________
*Okay, this exact quote isn’t echoing in my head. “Turn the other cheek” is. But this is the quote in context. There’s one other passage of the Bible that mentions turning the other cheek, and that’s Luke 6:28, which says pretty much exactly the same thing. Astute readers will note that I’m using the King James translation of the Bible, which is objectively terrible, but it’s always been my go-to for literary discussion.

**In case it has not yet become obvious, the backdrop for this post is the Trump administration, the degeneration of the Republican party into open Neo-Nazism, the concentration camps currently being run in America, and the general state of the world being on fire.

***Yeesh, this post is getting really Christian.

****Interestingly, Strength was also the card that unlocked a lot of the work I did in coming to terms with my own sexuality.

5 thoughts on “The Strength Card and Radical Love

  1. This is an excellent post and I can relate rn as I am currently dealing with compassion fatigue and trying to find ways to have resilience in this world. This post has been added to my mental toolbox and many thanks for your words!

    Like

    1. I once was part of a leftie, lgbtqa friendly, direct protest action, Anglican church. There were no sermons, just group discussions on what verses like this might mean. Someone framed ‘turning the other cheek’ as a non verbal gesture to shame the oppressor, a sort of challenge to the oppressor to go ahead and repeat that angry violence so the crowd can see the cruelty of it for what it is. I thought about the early Christians trying to deal with humiliation on a daily basis, no Messiah to battle the Romans, just a local man who could work miracles but was very clear that violence was a sin. I can see a version of turning the other cheek that has a defiant resistance to be shamed by oppressors to it, a sort of ‘hit me again if that is your M.O but I refuse to hate you.’

      That said, I think that how we face oppression matters and to have a cheek to offer and strength to endure is privilege not everyone has left because they are so mistreated. I hesitate to see we should turn the other cheek.

      Like

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