Calling for radical love

November 5, 2013

Last Tuesday night, over 500 Yale students and faculty had the honor of hearing Omid Safi, professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, give the keynote address at the Eid Banquet hosted by the Yale Muslim Students Association. He called on us to hold ourselves to the highest standard of radical love. It was a speech unlike any I have previously heard at Yale.

Professor Safi spoke of the role of the prophet in society. Invoking the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he called upon students not to rest easy with the status quo but to constantly re-evaluate our own actions and those of our nation and to strive towards perfection. The metric by which he asked us to judge ourselves is love — not just casual caring when it’s convenient, but the sort of love that demands sacrifice and selflessness. For, as Professor Safi claimed, we are intimately and fundamentally connected to one another, no matter the distances created by space and culture.

Much is made on this campus of the supposed apathy of our generation. Activists bemoan the seeming impossibility of getting Yalies passionate about issues beyond our college walls. Others complain that much of Yale’s community outreach is fickle and unreliable, abandoned all too easily during midterms season. But for my part, I have always thought there was value in tending to one’s own garden. A meaningful life need not be defined by self-sacrifice and it is possible to be fulfilled and satisfied as a banker living in Greenwich.

However, those who criticize our generation are not entirely off the mark. And that apathy they speak of runs deeper than political issues. In talking with my suitemates and friends about life after Yale, I have noticed a recurring theme. We find that we don’t know what path we want to take with our lives, and, more troublingly, we don’t have a framework within which to make that decision. I feel like I have no lens through which to evaluate the merits of different careers or post-graduation plans. I believe this is the reason that we see so many students sliding into the professions laid conveniently before them. We quite naturally and reasonably choose the path that is most comfortable and financially rewarding because we have no other metric by which to determine the value of a career. We’re all looking to build fulfilling futures, but we may be missing some necessary tools.

Certainly in my daily life I rarely consider how to guide my actions outside of simple calculations of self utility. I try to be honest and fair with those I interact with, but I rarely interrogate myself in earnest about my supposed values and whether I live up to them. So I take my classes, I do my homework, I go to meetings, but I do so routinely, without inspiration. It sounds callous to say, but I doubt it is a problem unique to myself.

Yesterday, Professor Safi presented an alternative. He asked us to consider what it would mean to bring the prophetic, Abrahamic tradition into our lives. What he outlined was a vision of radical love, where we strive to have our every action be a celebration of our common humanity. It is only through this love that we can hope to create a more just society. Professor Safi illustrated this with a quote from Cornell West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

I believe that the most effective way to make the Yale community a force for social good is to adopt his focus on radical love. A whole class of nonprofit workers lacking fundamental motivation would never accomplish as much as one ordinary citizen who adheres to this simple but demanding maxim. It is a code which, if taken seriously, has incredible power. If every Yale banker spoke up and stood firm when asked to act immorally or imprudently, banking would soon lose its unfortunate reputation.

What Yale needs then is a Great Awakening. It need not be a religious one, although I believe that Yale’s vibrant religious community has much to offer. But it must be one based upon a recognition and celebration of the value of humanity. We should strive not to be comfortable or self-righteous or superior but loving. Life is a profoundly moral thing. It is only when we begin to grapple with this fact that we can pursue more meaningful satisfaction for our lives and our community. So let us each take on the role of the prophet that Professor Safi spoke of. Let us ask ourselves and our school to live by that most exalted standard, radical love.

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