Practicing the Power of Love

Sometimes we learn best by seeing someone else—to watch someone practice love in the face of hostility can create a light in us as we observe it. Once, when I was in my twenties, I saw a young woman named Nelia arrested in an act of civil disobedience. She refused to walk, refused to give answers to questions on any forms, refused to cooperate with the police who were arresting her. But she radiated such kindness and love to each person who interacted with her. She smiled, and reached out her hand to shake theirs, and told them her name, and asked about theirs. She spoke of why nuclear submarines were not useful for human beings, and invited conversation.

I don’t think I had ever been able to imagine this combination of non-cooperation and love, until I saw her doing it. Yet once I saw it, it seemed so simple. She was practicing the power of love, and it discomfited and engaged all of us around her. Her tenderness was compelling. Her vulnerability was profound, because the other thing about Nelia was that she is blind.

Make no mistake—it wasn’t about being nice to everyone or pretending not to notice the painful realities that cause suffering in our world. Nelia was practicing her simple acts of tender engagement right on the front lines of the conflicts that seem so hard to confront. She showed me what courageous, creative people can do in the face of violence, what the power of love can do.

Marianne Williamson, in A Return to Love, asserts that whenever we encounter another person, we always have the choice to see them through the lens of fear, or through the lens of love.1 Our lives are meant to be a school for learning to let go of our fear, and to choose more and more the power of love. This is not an easy thing to do. It may take a whole lifetime to let go of fear, to learn how to live in the power of love.

And perhaps there is not such a big difference between loving our enemy and loving our neighbor. Each demands the same respect for self, and respect for the other. Each requires seeing the utmost dignity in our selves and in the other.

Clergy Testify in Favor of Equal Marriage 2009

Clergy Testify in Favor of Equal Marriage 2009

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Loving Nonviolent Action Is Always a Force for Human Dignity

When African American students sat down at the segregated lunch counters, they were asserting their own dignity by refusing to obey a law that treated them with contempt. They were holding onto the dignity of their harassers by refusing to engage in violence or harm. They were harnessing the power of love to make a change in an unjust system. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all of the many heroic civil rights activists, used loving nonviolent action to restore the dignity of an oppressed people, and also to restore the soul of the oppressor.  

Loving nonviolent action is always a force for human dignity. Whether the political outcome is successful or not, a change has already taken place. The night before Dr. King was killed, he said, “I’ve been to the mountaintop. It doesn’t matter what happens to me now. I’ve seen the Promised Land.” I used to think this meant that in some mysterious way he had seen the future, and he had faith that black people would eventually win their rights.

But I saw it differently after I was involved in the struggle for equal marriage for same-sex couples in Massachusetts. I believe the mountaintop is less about the future, and more about the present. When lesbian and gay people began to imagine that they might get married, they had an inner experience of equality. It didn’t happen all at once. Two members of my congregation on Cape Cod were part of the  lawsuit for equal marriage. They told me how terrifying it was, in the days leading up to the lawsuit, to ask the town clerk for a marriage license when they knew the answer would be no. It was also terrifying for many others to carry a sign in public, or to have a conversation with their legislator or their neighbor.

Wedding of Linda & Gloria Dewitt Photo 5/17/04

Wedding of Linda & Gloria
Dewitt Photo 5/17/04

But each new act in honor of love lessened their fear and strengthened their dignity. Same sex couples became aware of the burden they had been carrying, the hidden assumption that they were somehow less than the others. Once they felt a glimpse of equality, they couldn’t go back. They had put down the burden, and they were free. So even if there were opponents holding signs that said, “Homosexuals are demons,” it didn’t matter. A young lesbian woman carried another poster that said, “Your signs are mean but we love you anyway.” No matter what happens next, such love releases an inner power that is indestructible.

I think that is part of what Dr. King was talking about. It was visceral and immediate. By tapping the power of love through non-violent action, he felt first hand a new way of being in the world. He fully experienced his own dignity and the dignity of his people. After that, what else could matter? He had been to the mountaintop. As he said, “whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere.” He knew there was no turning back.

King quotes from “I See the Promised Land”, reprinted in A Testament of Hope, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

Love Your Enemy: What?

For much of my life I have been intrigued with the words of Jesus about loving our enemies. It is one thing to love those who are open to loving us. But it is a different challenge to love those who seek to harm us.

We read in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that Jesus said, “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well…” and then “We once were told, ‘You are to love your neighbor’ and ‘You are to hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies.”

According to the Biblical scholars of the Jesus Seminar, these phrases are two of three passages that are the most likely to be the actual words of Jesus, rather than edited or added by a later commentator or preacher. They are at the very heart of his teachings. They are also among the most misunderstood.

The injunction to “turn the other cheek” has fostered a kind of doormat approach to conflict. Christian preachers have used this teaching to admonish those who were suffering to simply endure, rather than try to make a change. Until very recently, most ministers or priests would tell a battered woman that she should remain with her abuser, and suffer abuse as a Christian virtue.

But Biblical theologian Walter Wink says this is not what Jesus meant by loving your enemy.  He has offered a new insight into this passage by looking more closely at its cultural context. Jesus said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” As we hear it, this saying does seems to counsel surrender. But let’s try to hear it as his listeners might.

First century Palestine was a right-handed culture, even more than our own. A blow from the right hand would normally fall on the left cheek. So, if someone wants to strike me on the right cheek—as Jesus is referring to—he has to do it with the back of his right hand. This kind of blow was intended to humiliate, to put an inferior in his or her place. It was a blow that masters gave to slaves, husbands to wives, Romans to Jews.

Dr. Wink suggests that “By turning the other cheek, the person struck puts the striker in an untenable spot. He cannot repeat the backhand, because the other’s nose is now in the way.”

The only target is now the left cheek, which would have to be hit with a fist. But in that culture, only persons who were equals would fight with fists. “…By turning the other cheek, the oppressed person is saying that she refuses to submit to further humiliation. This is not submission, as the churches have insisted. It is defiance.”

Of course, this turning the other cheek was “no way to avoid trouble; the master might have the slave flogged to within an inch of her life. But the point has been irrevocably made: the ‘inferior’ is saying, in no uncertain terms, ‘I won’t take such treatment anymore. I am your equal. I am a child of God.’”

Jesus was not just giving people a new commandment. He was revealing a new option, a new tool. Our instinctive impulses are fight or flight, but he showed a third way to engage with an enemy that simultaneously offers and demands respect and equality. It is surprising, and it is creative. Don’t respond with violence, but don’t accept humiliation either. Don’t be a doormat, but choose equal human dignity for each person.

MLK March 2011

MLK March 2011

See also: Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way