Love and Power: When Are they Generative, Instead of Destructive?

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” How to find the balance.
Power and Love graphic

Artwork by Jeff Barnum

In twenty years of facilitating social change processes all around the world, one of the most important realizations I’ve made is that nothing changes without power. There are many ways to define power, but one that explains a lot comes from theologian Paul Tillich: “Power is the drive of everything living to realize itself.” Such generative power, exercised by individuals and groups, makes communities and economies grow, builds organizations and nations, and alters laws and cultures.

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Power, however, has both a generative and creative side and a degenerative and destructive one. An individual or group that exercises power to achieve its desires and ambitions, but pays no attention to the desires or ambitions of others, will end up steamrolling the others. This degenerative power shows up disturbingly as greed or arrogance and catastrophically as rapaciousness or violence.

What makes power degenerative rather than generative? Lack of connection. Tillich referred to love as the move toward connection—“the drive toward the unity of the separated.” Such generative love builds—or, more accurately, reveals—relationships and interdependence and wholeness.

But love also has a degenerative side. If an individual or group exercises its love without paying attention to the self-realization or desires or ambitions of others, it ends up smothering the others in its embrace. This degenerative love shows up disturbingly as the constraining of individuality or initiative or catastrophically as the suppression of dissent or difference. And what makes love degenerative rather than generative? It is lack of power.

This symmetrical complementarity between power and love was articulated precisely by Tillich’s most famous student, Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “Power without love is reckless and abusive and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Power and love therefore represent not a choice but a dilemma; choosing one or the other is always a mistake. If we want to effect social change generatively rather than degeneratively, we need to choose both.