Monday, January 20, 2014

Radical Love: Inspiration From John Lewis

Before this past year I had a terribly incomplete understanding of the philosophy and practice of nonviolence. The word "nonviolence" always brought images of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Gandhi to mind along with thoughts of civil disobedience, peaceful demonstrations, and pacifism. My eyes were opened to the other side of nonviolence when I heard an interview with John Lewis, a civil rights activist, politician, and nonviolence advocate, on the On Being podcast (1). What I had been missing was the kind of active, radical love practiced by the adherents of nonviolence.

Nonviolence requires its practitioners to actively love and empathize with the people on the other side of their cause, even when the people on the other side are, "attacking you, beating you, spitting on you..." For many receiving that kind of treatment, it would be hard to not respond in kind. John Lewis explained the basis for not responding to violence with violence:

In the bosom of every human being there is a spark of the divine. So you don't have a right, as a human, to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being...
I was especially struck by the description of how civil rights activists, nonviolence practitioners, would practice for peaceful demonstrations through role play. While being yelled at, spat upon, and otherwise abused, they would practice overriding the natural tendency to respond to abuse with abuse, instead responding with love and empathy.

I have a hard time responding with love and empathy to someone who causes me pain, or sometimes even inconvenience, unintentionally. It gets even harder when it's intentional, and finding the capacity to love in the face of  straight-out-hate feels overwhelming. Again, in John Lewis's words:
...years ago that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby, and so what happened? Did something go wrong? Did the environment, or did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being. And you don't give up. You never give up on anyone.
In addition to everything it has meant in the past, MLK Day will now always be a reminder for me to seek that spark of the divine in others and to never give up on loving radically and practicing empathy as the path to a better world. Be the change.
(1) John Lewis on the Art and Discipline of Nonviolence (March 28, 2013). On Being with Krista Tippett  

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