I recently read a moving, powerful book that combines the personal, spiritual, and political, to show how, in the life of author Valarie Kaur, they are one.
Kaur was raised in a faith that taught her to “see no stranger,” that is, to recognize and treat each person as part of oneself. She grew up in rural California, part of the third generation in her family to be a U.S. citizen. Yet from early childhood onward, she experienced painful discrimination against her dark skin, female body, and Sikh religion.
As a student at Stanford University she received a grant to record stories of survivors of the massacres that took place during the 1947 Great Partition that separated India and Pakistan. Before she could fly to India for her research, however, the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center towers took place in New York City on September 11, 2001. Almost immediately, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Arab, and South Asian Americans became victims of hate crimes by white Americans in the United States. On September 15, domestic terrorism affected Kaur in a deeply personal way when a dear family friend she called Uncle Balbir was shot outside the gas station he owned in Mesa, Arizona, while he was planting flowers.
Kaur changed her research project. She and a cousin with a video camera got in a car and traveled all over the country for months to visit communities where hate crimes had taken place. She interviewed the families, and with the video camera documented what had happened. She also grieved with each community.
She was back at Stanford while the United States prepared for war against Iraq, a war that the government justified using false claims. After months of futile anti-war activism, she participated with other Stanford students in a non-violent direct action on the streets of San Francisco on the morning the United States began raining down bombs on Baghdad. The action was designed to stop morning traffic, “to shut down business as usual” and protest the war. The night before the action, Kaur shifted her name from the group not willing to be arrested to the group willing to risk arrest, if necessary. She wrote, “I wanted to give everything I had to this moment, to give my all to the fight.” She was not prepared, however, when the police came to arrest the line of students blocking traffic and she ended up being the one with the microphone, the person who needed to explain both to the police and to the frustrated commuters the reason for the protest. In that moment Valerie Kaur found her public voice, and something amazing happened. Later she became a Yale-educated civil rights lawyer who worked with her filmmaker husband to let the world know about ongoing attacks against religious and ethnic groups in the United States and to tell the stories of those affected by hate crimes. In her 2018 TED talk she says, “stories can create the wonder that turns strangers into sisters and brothers.” Indeed, her moving stories taught me to respect and appreciate fellow citizens whose lives I had not understood before.
See No Stranger moves back and forward in Kaur’s life, weaving very personal strands with the stories of her religious faith, of communities affected by hate crimes, and of recent social and political events. She tells about confronting sexual and sexist abuse in her own life and family, and shares intimate accounts of finding the love of her life, addressing health problems, and giving birth to her children. She shows how the personal, spiritual, social, and political are all part of a single tapestry, and reveals how addressing the problems in our world requires attention in all areas of life, as well as respect for all persons. Drawing from her religion, her personal experience, and recent events, she suggests that the only way forward is revolutionary love; love for ourselves, others, and our opponents.
What does revolutionary love look when dealing with people who have perpetrated abuse and violence against oneself, one’s family, or one’s community? Kaur shows us what love requires and the steps in the process of reconciliation. She learned that battling bad systems is more effective in creating change than battling bad people, and that bad people have wounds that need, in one way or another, to be tended. Her story is a compelling illustration of what revolutionary love looks like and how to live it.
Valarie Kaur’s See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love (One World: 2020, Hardcover, 416 pages) is available at half price from QuakerBooks at https://quakerbooks.org/products/see-no-stranger. ISBN: 9780525509097,
Valerie Kaur’s TED talk: 3 lessons of revolutionary love in a time of rage
© 2020 Marcelle Martin
A Guide to Faithfulness Groups explains what faithfulness is and how it can be cultivated by small groups that practice ways to listen inwardly together for divine guidance, a practice that holds great potential for supporting individuals of any faith in allowing the work of the Spirit to become manifest through them and their communities.
Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey describes the transformational spiritual journey of the first Quakers, who were inwardly guided by God to work and witness for radical changes in their society. Focusing on ten elements of the spiritual journey, this book is a guide to a Spirit-filled life, designed to be a resource for both individuals and groups to explore their spiritual experiences. It describes the journey of faithfulness that leads people to actively engage in God’s work of making this world a better place for all. Our Life is Love has been reviewed by Marty Grundy in Friends Journal, by Carole Spencer in Quaker Religious Thought, and by Stuart Masters on A Quaker Stew.
Both books are available from Inner Light Books in hardback, paperback, and ebook. (An excerpt and a study guide are also available on that website for Our Life is Love: the Quaker Spiritual Journey.)