Cardinal looking at side mirror – Version 2The other day on my walk, I saw a male cardinal fly back and forth to a side mirror on an automobile.  I could imagine his inner dialogue: Who is that other cardinal who is invading my territory?  I will scare him away by attacking him!  Hey, he is still there!  Get out of my territory, you interloper.  Stay away from my nest.  Go on!  Get away. Hey, you’re still there.  I’ll show you who’s boss!

Sadly, the drama continued as I walked on.  But every once in a while, he sat proudly on top, as if he was satisfied that the foe had been vanquished.

We never do that, do we?  Imagine that the enemy is out there, and we’d better keep our guard up–only to discover that the enemy is ourselves?  Or that, in fact, we are the only ones in the arena of our lives?  Maybe it doesn’t matter what we think the other folks are doing–maybe competition is like that mirror–there is no one here but us.

Cardinal on side mirror – Version 2



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

Tea with the Enemy

Another example of the power of the nonviolent way is expressed in the Japanese story of the tea master. The tea master was traveling with his Lord to visit the Shogun, the military commander of all Japan. In order to enter the court to perform the tea ceremony, he was required to wear the swords of a samurai. So, although he had never used a sword, he was wearing them after he left the palace. As he was walking over a bridge, a ronin, a local mercenary, knocked him over and tried picked a fight with him. When he explained he was not a warrior, the mercenary claimed he was a coward for not fighting.

The tea master did not wish any dishonor to come to his Lord, so he felt obliged to face this ruffian. But he asked leave to do an errand first. The mercenary suspected he might be going for a bribe, so he let him go. The tea master went to the school of a renowned sword master, and asked for his advice on how to hold a sword, so that he might die with dignity. The sword master was astonished, and said, “Most people come to me to ask how to bring death to an enemy, not to face it themselves. You are the first! But before I teach you my art, would you show me yours?”

Tea Ceremony Tools Wiki Commons Photo

Tea Ceremony Tools
Wiki Commons Photo

Knowing this might be the last time he would practice his art, the tea master carefully assembled the elements and utensils of the tea ceremony: the tea, the water, the whisk, the tea scoop, the clay tea bowl, and the iron pot for holding the fire to heat the water. Then he prepared himself. When all was ready, with a peaceful spirit he prepared the tea and served it to the sword master.

The sword master observed the tea master carefully. After he had sipped from the bowl of tea, he said, “I can see you are already a master. I have nothing to teach you that you do not know. All I would say is to approach the mercenary as if he were an honored guest at a tea ceremony. Then, take off your jacket and fold it neatly, draw your sword and hold it up over your head, and let him know you are ready. Then close your eyes. When your opponent yells, bring the sword down.”

When the tea master returned to the bridge, he prepared himself all along the way, not as if for a fight, but for a tea ceremony. He let go of his fears and his hopes, and imagined the ruffian as an honored guest. When he reached the bridge, there was a crowd gathered. He did everything as the sword master had instructed. But after closing his eyes, he heard nothing. When he opened them, he was astonished to see that the ruffian had dropped his own sword and was running away. When the ruffian had looked at the face of the tea master, standing calmly in front of him, he lost his nerve. He did not know how to fight such an enemy.

The Tea Master is a traditional Japanese story.  I’ve adapted it here from the version by Dan Yashinsky, in Suddenly They Heard Footsteps

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