This letter fervently asks more from you and from the United States. The writer James Baldwin, one of our most prophetic voices, wrote: “One can give nothing whatever without giving oneself — that is to say, risking oneself. If one cannot risk oneself, then one is simply incapable of giving.” Neither of our nations has much to give the other because each has failed to risk itself. And it is out of our collective and respective cowardice — our refusal to risk, to love and to combat our mutual cynicism — that this letter of love arises. It serves as an intervention as we face the potential horrors of unspeakable mass death. We stand with our brother Martin Luther King Jr., who refused “to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation.”
There are many here in the United States who will say that this letter is absurd, useless, even treasonous. Well, if love is treasonous, then we take joy in it. We revel in speaking out against hatred; inhumanity; divisiveness; discourse mired in immature name-calling; ugly, disparaging remarks; talk of destruction and obliteration; and the potential of miscalculation and nuclear conflagration. We prefer to stand on the “treasonous” side of Jesus, who dared to love.
We are traitors to those who reject mutual respect and who believe that there is no place for love as a binding force greater than mutual bullying and provocation. We are traitors to our country’s divisive rhetoric, filled with militarism, hatred, blood lust and warmongering, just as we stand opposed to yours, which threatens not only us, but also your neighbors — that is, your own brothers and sisters, and even your own people. As men of color, we know the semblance of that threat from within our own country.
To hate requires so little; to love requires doing what may feel impossible, because it means to lay down the sword and stretch out your hands, your arms, your hearts, to each other. Many will also criticize us, saying that love is too simplistic, that the problem between North Korea and the United States is too ideologically and geopolitically complicated. Those people fail to imagine with their hearts. Dr. King said: “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” And Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, another prophetic American voice of love, asked us, “How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; whenever one person is offended, we are all hurt.”
That kind of love refuses to hate, it refuses to believe that we are “enemies” by birth. We are brothers and sisters born of a common humanity. We believe in a love that remembers the humanity that binds us together, that opens us to hear the other’s voice, the other’s mourning. Then again, perhaps Baldwin was correct, “There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves.” Yet we believe that reciprocal love can take us to that place together and heal our wounds.
David Kyuman Kim: These feel like especially loveless times. We write from the conviction that the values of a love-driven politics can transform how we engage each other not only as nations but also as human beings. Which is to say, a love-driven politics insists that we seek compassion, generosity, kindness, forgiveness and mercy for each other as much as we do for ourselves.
Our president was elected to represent our people, but he has not represented the best of us. He has instead chosen to display only our basest traits. While he is not the first president to speak and act with hubris and arrogance, he has chosen belligerence over diplomacy, bullying over accord, insult over care. He represents a strand and strain of the American experiment that stubbornly holds on to the misguided notion that we are a nation of destiny and superiority, strengthened on legacies of white supremacy and rapacious capitalism. He has exacted those misguided ideals by treating you with disrespect and disregard, all the while belittling you as a leader of your own people, and you, in turn have done the same.
As a Korean-American, I have to acknowledge you both as one of my people and very much not of my people. My mother’s family is from North Korea, and so in some very real ways, you and I are of common stock. But a land does not make for family. If anything, you and your father have shown how land and nation can destroy families and traumatize them for generations. You are the leader of a nation whose people have suffered at the service of a political vision. At what cost has your loyalty to power come to your people, let alone to your humanity?
My mother’s family fled North Korea because of the forces of war that are all too similar to the enmities that are threatening us today. And it was the consequences of the Korean War and the havoc it wreaked on my people in South Korea that eventually drove my family to the United States. And through this migration and growing up in white-supremacist America, I was transformed from our common stock to a Korean-American dedicated to the ways of love.
Indeed, as a Korean brother I have been forged by my inheritance from Christianity and Confucianism. This means that my witness to you is born of traditions of love and ethical responsibility. Among the very real and central challenges of radical love is to adhere to the moral mandate to love our neighbors and enemies as we would love ourselves. This is especially challenging at a moment in which love has been hard to find and discern. For those of us who lament the ascendancy of our current president, we have had to learn how to love ourselves once again.
We write you today not only because of what you are hearing from us — the United States — but, more important, because of all the crucial things you are not hearing. As defenders of civil rights against racism, we come from a tradition not well represented or well understood, yet one that has transformed the course of our nation’s history and the lives and legacies of peoples across the globe.
This is the tradition of radical love most powerfully and persuasively articulated and represented by Martin Luther King Jr. This is a tradition that insists that love has the power to bind us together in a common purpose, that love gives us the confidence and courage to stand up to injustice and suffering. It is a tradition that holds us accountable not simply to ourselves but to a vision of human existence that insists that we can be with one another, hold one another up, and fortify one another’s humanity in what Dr. King called “the beloved community.”
We reach out to you from this tradition that holds the value of speaking truth to power with love. This is a calling. It is our vocation. We have no choice but to strive to live up to the examples of Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Grace Lee Boggs. These heroic figures have been exceptions to the insidious rule of an American legacy of white supremacy and imperialism that has left the least among us in utter despair. This tradition of radical love is an American tradition, even though it has drawn deeply and powerfully from people like Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh.
We come to you as citizens of an America not yet fully realized, one that insists that the ways of love can be the ways of democracy, that the challenge of loving one’s neighbors and enemies is fundamentally a call for freedom and justice and hope. We write to you with love and an appeal for forgiveness and mercy because history and our lot demand this of us. And our hope is that it will demand the same of our fellow citizens.
Wishing you peace and love,
David Kyuman Kim and George Yancy