We Must Love One Another or Die

 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” John 13:34

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939

When I woke up this morning to the news that five police officers were killed in Dallas last night—at an event organized to honor African-American men killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota—my heart collapsed. I felt scared, angry, frustrated, sad, and robbed of hope–and I hurt for my country. This sent me (as such things so often do) in search of poetry of sufficient force to confront the tragedy. For me, this often means W.H. Auden, the one poet of the 20th century whose work I consider indispensable.

Auden knew about worlds falling apart. When he wrote his poem “September 1, 1939,” German shock troops were pouring into Poland and, for the second time in his life, all of Europe had been plunged into a cataclysmic world war. Auden knew that the basic storyline was as old as the human race—something he (and many others) learned from Thucydides, the first great historian of the Western world:

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

The “speech” that Auden refers to here is this one, Pericles’ funeral oration, which launched the Athenians into the disastrous Peloponnesian War–a conflict that went on for nearly 30 years and destroyed the world’s first democracy. Never one for academic subtlety, Pericles did not appeal to anything as boring as Athenian interests. Rather, he appealed to their innate sense of superiority. Sparta must be destroyed, he argued, because Sparta is bad, and Athens is good.

Auden understood that this kind of thinking comes from deep within our tribal, primate brains—which tell us that we are more important than people like us, and that people like us are more important than anyone else:

For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

We don’t want to be loved with a universal love. We want to be loved with a particular love—and to believe that God and the universe love us more than (or instead of) other people. Nationalism draws its strength by exploiting this error. Often, Auden felt, religion does too:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god.
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

This stanza captures two important truths about religion as it has usually been practiced: 1) it often becomes a kind of super-nationalism that creates an “us” and a “them” based on an ideology; and 2) when this happens, it becomes the basis of wars, atrocities, reprisals, retribution, and, ultimately, collapse. Religion, in other words, can operate on the same tribal principles that fuel nationalism and can produce exactly the same results.

But it doesn’t have to. Unlike nationalism, which cannot exist without exclusive definitions of “us,” religion can at least theoretically steer us towards universal love. It isn’t easy, and it doesn’t usually happen, but the fundamentals are right there in the basic teachings of the great religions: love one another, practice compassion, abandon the illusion of the self, be mindful. Religion can make us better human beings, but it takes work.

By quoting the words of Jesus in his dramatic peroration, Auden simultaneously embraces one religious world view and rejects another. Religion works when it makes us more loving, more inclusive, and more concerned with an expansive understanding of who our neighbor is. It does not work when it maps onto the idols of our national, ethnic, and cultural tribes–nor can it work when it becomes yet another way to split us into parts.

This is ultimately a struggle between different aspects of human nature. Tribalism is natural, but so are empathy and compassion. All of us contain multitudes, and, for humanity to survive, our better angels are going to have to get more playing time. Religion can help, but only if religious people take the “love your neighbor” stuff seriously and stop pretending that anything else is more important. Or, to put it another way, we must love one another or die.


  1. “We must love one another or die.” Perfect.

  2. Jason K. says:

    A thousand amens. God bless you, Mike.

  3. “1) it often becomes a kind of super-nationalism that creates an “us” and a “them” based on an ideology; and 2) when this happens, it becomes the basis of wars, atrocities, reprisals, retribution, and, ultimately, collapse. ”

    The same can be said for all of the sociological and collectivist categories in terms of which “social justice” is framed.

    The solution is not trying really hard to think happier (or sadder) thoughts about anybody. Rather, it is to tear down the uncompromising polarizations according to which the political left and the right are currently entrenching themselves..

  4. Arthur A Fruend says:

    I think that millions of years have evolved our brains to recognize the value of kindness, compassion and fairness, but I am afraid these responses exist biologically deeper than conscious thought to strengthen the identity of “us.” It is only the rare mind that truly identifies these characteristics as necessarily applicable and beneficial beyond borders and physical appearance. These people ask us to overcome a biological freight train that began somewhere before the Cretaceous Period and kept gaining speed through the development of a neocortex. It would be nearly God like to overcome this “natural man” in search of a universal love, not just of the “other” but of the entirety of existence. Anything less would be to keep a finger on the button while smiling across the fence. Not feeling particularly positive today. I am grateful for you and other hopeful teachers.

  5. “Unlike nationalism, which cannot exist without exclusive definitions of ‘us,’ religion can at least theoretically steer us towards universal love.”

    In a recent post at Wheat & Tares on liberation theology, Kristine A. quotes Rev. Broderick Greer: “We have to question systems that produces conditions that lead to unsafe roads on the way to Jericho instead of just praising the Samaritan…If people keep getting beaten and robbed on the road, then the conditions of the road itself need to be brought into question.”

    We can see that, in theory, religion could steer us toward universal love, but in practice that is only rarely demonstrated. If a mechanism (religion in this case) consistently produces tribalism, an us/them mentality, then I think Rev. Greer’s logic requires us to ask two kinds of questions:
    1. What is the underlying reason for religion leading to tribalism? Is it something specific to religion? Is it more generally attributable to any kind of human organization? Or is it more fundamentally some unalterable part of human nature?
    2. If the goal is to move humanity towards universal love, is religion the right vehicle for that?

  6. Love Auden. Thank you.

  7. Loursat says:

    There is no error in wanting to be loved with a particular love. Particular love is the only kind of love that matters to anyone. It is beyond our power to love universally, and we only get into trouble when we pretend otherwise. Nietzsche pointed out, in Beyond Good and Evil, “From love of man one occasionally embraces someone at random (because one cannot embrace all): but one must not tell him this—”

    The love of God is all-encompassing. I know this because I have felt it. But I also know that the love of God is realized one person at a time. That is also the only way we—I—can love: by facing the one who stands before me now, whoever that may be, and loving that one with the particularity that he or she calls forth from me. True religion steers us not toward universal love, but toward an infinitely particular love, and we get there by loving everyone, one by one.

  8. maustin66 says:

    The point that Auden is making, though, is not that humans feel the need to love with a particular love, but that we feel the need to imagine that God loves us more than he loves others. I can go with the idea that religion develops an “infinitely particular love.” This is not different, in any real sense, from what Auden is calling “universal love.” “To be loved alone” means “to be loved more, or differently, than other people.” That is where religions have always run into serious trouble.

  9. Loursat says:

    Thank you. I hoped that my point would not be inconsistent with your essay, which made my day a little brighter.

  10. Auden later repudiated his sentiments and thinking here.

  11. The ideas in this poem are consistent with everything Auden wrote. But he did come to dislike the poem, which he saw as too sentimental and so frequently anthologized that he was becoming over identified as its author, obscuring what he considered his better work. So, in the 1950s, he stopped allowing it to be anthologized. This is roughly how the members of Led Zeppelin feel about “Stairway to Heaven,” which doesn’t mean that it is not a great song

  12. Kruiser says:

    Talking about “rampage shootings” I have just finished a book just out entitled TRIBE by Sebastian Junger. He begins with a survey of traditional tribal life and the appeal it had to early Americans, a significant number of whom abandoned their “civilized life” to join up with the Indians. These closely knit people with an egalitarian lifestyle were a magnet to Europeans. It was no utopia, but it was seen as a better alternative lifestyle by some people who were attracted to the caring and sharing aspects of the community.

    Junger contrasts it with modern society and its authoritarian, regulated, alienated, greedy, and contemptable attitudes. It is now producing a fast growing mental illness and anti social behavior syndrome. This modern society is what produces “rampage shootings” in upper-middle-class communities or in rural towns that are majority-white, christian, and low-crime. People or their youth who are relatively affluent commit these crimes.

    He also goes into military situations where “unit cohesion” similar to tribal life makes to handle the stresses of combat bearable. He even goes into PTSD and how it is now less associated with combat stress and more associated with the stress of going home and being wrenched away from tribal support with nothing to replace it.

    So I think there is something to be learned here about the composition of our society and our efforts to change things. I see this word “tribe” as opposed to “tribalism” as a possible basis for improvement.

  13. To emphasize the theme of this post about loving one another, I cite an excerpt from TRIBE where it talks about the a young girl’s experience in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war;

    “The basement of one of the buildings was deep enough to serve as a bomb shelter, and teenagers from the neighborhood led a kind of communal life down there that was almost entirely separate from the adults above ground. The boys would go off to fight on the front line for ten days at a stretch and then return to join the girls, who lived down there full-time. Everyone slept on mattresses on the floor together and ate their meals together and fell in and out of love together and played music and talked about literature and joked about the war. ‘The boys were like our brothers.’ Ahmetasevic said. ‘ It’s not like we girls were waiting for them and crying. . .no we had a party. To be honest, it was a kind of liberation. The love we shared was enormous. They’d come from the front lines and most of them were musicians and they would have small concerts for us. We didn’t believe in heroes. We were punk rockers. Our biggest hero was David Bowie.”

    She continues about life since the war;

    “I missed being that close to people, I missed being loved in that way,” she told me. “In Bosnia – as it is now – we don’t trust each other any more; we became really bad people. We didn’t learn the lesson of the war, which is how important it is to share everything you have with human beings close to you. The best way to explain it is that the war makes you an animal. We were animals. It’s insane – but that’s the basic human instinct, to help another human being who is sitting or standing or lying close to you.”

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