Realistic Nonviolence #2: Enemy love as the heart of nonviolence

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

This post is part of a continuing  series on practical nonviolence. Read the first post here
In my previous post I discussed the infamous "what-if" questions that people invariably raise when the topic of nonviolence and enemy love come up, and suggested that what we really need to do is hear the question behind the question: People have a legitimate concern that nonviolence entails inaction in the face of harm being done to oneself or a loved one. I stressed that this is not the case, and argued that we need to articulate in concrete and practical terms how nonviolence addresses these issues as a viable alternative to violence.

Some pacifists argue that Christians should simply follow Jesus’ way of nonviolence regardless of whether it makes sense to them. As much as I respect their commitment to nonviolence, I want to suggest that this is a potentially dangerous and harmful position to take. The fact is, over the years many people have done things that are really hurtful in the name of religion. For example, some have told women who were in abusive relationships that they needed to stay there in order to "be a witness of suffering love."

Now, I hope you'll agree that this is not what Jesus intended. Love of enemies is not about glorifying suffering or legitimizing abuse. But how do we know that? Fact is, if we are simply blindly following without understanding, we can't. Unreflected obedience has no way of identifying incorrect and hurtful interpretations. So we need to seek to understand nonviolence. There’s simply no way around this. Until we actually understand the “upside-down kingdom” perspective of Jesus, we will not be able to intelligently apply it to our lives and world. Obedience without understanding is not possible.

What consequently happens most of the time unfortunately  is that Christians don't understand it, and so they don't practice it. I want to make the case that simply pulling the authority card on these people, and telling them they should follow this way because Jesus commanded it is a big mistake. The authority argument "don't question, just obey!" belongs to the way of religious power and violence. For those of us who believe in nonviolence it is inappropriate for us to use it, it is opposed to the way of Jesus. The way of Jesus is about breaking out of the status quo, thinking for ourselves, respecting the dignity of the little guy. Asking questions and challenging things is good for your soul. It's an act of faithfulness. Suppressing those doubts and questions is not. So we we need to do the hard work of intelligently articulating what  a healthy and life-giving understanding of nonviolence and enemy love looks like.

With that in mind, this time around, I'd like to take a shot at broadly defining nonviolence, and what it means to embrace the Jesus' way of enemy love.

For many the term nonviolence is associated with the political protests made famous by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. This is more properly referred to as "nonviolent resistance." Nonviolent resistance is a tool that can be profoundly important when dealing with oppression. I'll have much to say about it in a later post. However, I'd like to suggest that nonviolence entails a much larger way that is applicable in every area of our lives, whereas nonviolent resistance specifically is not always appropriate. That may come as a surprise to some of you that I say that, but it's a really important point. As I said, I'll return to it later in another post. But for now, let me simply say that when I speak of nonviolence, I am referring to something larger and more encompassing than simply nonviolent resistance. It includes the means of nonviolent resistance where applicable, but is a bigger, more encompassing concept.

For others, nonviolence is associated with pacifism, and means a refusal to kill. I agree that this is crucial. It's really the bottom line of nonviolence and enemy love. After all, it's pretty impossible to love your enemy when you're killing them! Whether it's in the form of political oppression, war, starvation, or abuse, violence is a profoundly important issue, and causes untold suffering in our world. Jesus spent his whole life caring for those who were suffering, speaking against abuse of power, and preaching the way of radical grace and forgiveness in the face of it. Looking around at our broken and hurting world, it's easy to see how vitally important it is that we deal with violence. Not just overseas where there is lawlessness, terror, and genocide, but also right here at home where we are plagued with mass shootings, rampant bullying in schools, and a polarized red/blue country that fuels the fires of prejudice and hate every night on the news which has become a reality show of biased angry pundits, and stories focused on shock value.

So I in no way wish to underplay the importance of dealing with the reality of violence and abuse. However, again I want to suggest that nonviolence involves a lot more that just what we refrain from doing. It also involves a way of positively engaging in conflict, and working to end suffering and hurt which operates with a different mindset than the way of violence and force. Nonviolence is not just a rejection of the problem of violence, it is an active solution to that problem.

While it's vitally important to address the question of how we should respond to a life threatening situation, and to struggle with the issue of war (and I will return to these topics in future posts), there are many conflicts in our lives that are non-lethal. After all, most of us go through our lives never killing anyone. In fact, most of the conflicts we deal with in our own lives do not involve physical violence at all. Yet those conflicts can be very real and very painful -- say for example an argument  with your spouse, your parents, or your kids.

Probably the best way to really understand nonviolence is to put it into practice, and a great place to start is in those everyday struggles and conflicts that are a part of all of our lives. Once we can make sense of how to practically apply nonviolence here, we can much better understand how it might be applied in larger social contexts.

So what is nonviolence at its core about? Nonviolence is a way of transforming conflict, a way of turning hostility into friendship, a way of stopping cycles of hurt and violence, and instead sewing seeds of restoration and healing. I find this larger over-arching umbrella understanding of nonviolence is best expressed in Jesus' idea of loving our enemies.

The idea of love of enemies needs to be understood in the context of the normal way love works in our world: Normally, love is something that is given to those we feel are deserving. We love those who are kind to us, and we dislike those who hurt us. That's the idea behind the concept of an eye for an eye. You hit me first, so I hit you back. Jesus takes that normal idea of how things work by reciprocity, and flips it on its head: "You know that it says, 'love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' but I say instead: love your enemies! ... After all, if you love those who love you, why would that make you special? Doesn't everyone do that? So instead, go all the way and love like God does" (Matthew 5:43-48).

So enemy love is about loving people regardless of whether they "deserve it." God does not love us because we are good, God loves us because God is good. That's the way we should love to. When we do that, we can break the cycle of hurting and being hurt because love is transformative. Being loved changes us, transforming the hurtful dynamics we can get entangled in.

So what Jesus is doing is replacing the way of retaliation with the way of restoration. The way of an eye for an eye is overturned by the way of enemy love. Paul expressed this same idea when he tells us: "Don't be overcome by evil, rather overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21). This idea of overcoming evil with goodness is the operative principle of enemy love. The idea here is a restorative action which reverses hurtful dynamics, bringing us out of our self-focused antagonistic us/them mentality, and instead into a relational mindset thinking socially, compassionately.

Let me give an example of how this might play out in practice in our daily lives:

The other day our 5-year-old daughter had a melt down. She's screaming, and I'm triggered. I take her hand, and bring her to her room for a time out. When we get there she demanded that I hug her. I'm not feeling compassion, I'm mad. In my head I'm thinking, “I don't want to reward this selfish behavior with a hug.” I was tempted to pull away, thinking that it would be good for her to feel bad so she could “learn her lesson.”

Now if you're a parent you'll know how overwhelming and exhausting it can be. Being screamed at and hit can stretch you to your limits, especially if you haven't had much sleep. So here we are, both frustrated, both feeling antagonistic and blaming the other. We're both caught in retaliation mode. My instinct in that self-focused defensive state is to withhold love. In my mind I justify this as responsible parenting, as being "for her own good."

But something in me knew that -- as much as I didn't feel like doing it -- she really needed that hug. So I put my arms around her. As I did, her distress, panic, and rage melted away. My reluctant act of kindness was not reinforcing bad behavior, it was helping her come to her senses again. Making her feel bad would have only pushed her deeper into her self-focused panic. She needed that hug, and the sense of security it gave her, to be able to break out of the emotional fit she was in. It allowed her to be able to be social again. It was a simple act of kindness that broke the hurtful dynamic we were both caught in. That's the core working principle of enemy love: Do not be overcome by anger, but overcome anger with kindness.

The way of nonviolence and love of enemies is about a change in our perspective, moving from a me-orientation to a we-orientation. As long as I was stuck in the self-protective perspective, hugging her seemed counter-intuitive. But later, when I was able to think socially again, it made perfect sense. So long as we are stuck in a me-orientation, the way of nonviolence and enemy love appear as foolishness. But once we can learn to think within a relational perspective, it makes perfect sense. It's the logic of compassion.

Next time I'll discuss how we can learn to move from that me-orientation to a we-orientation, which can be especially difficult when we are in the middle of conflict and feeling threatened.




At 12:36 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Derek,
Visiting your blog is often very helpful. You’re just working on a theme I’m dealing with as well. Thanks for your thoughts.

It’s a great opportunity to learn from our parenthood, as you seem to do in these days :-). (That’s a reason why I think elders should have children and should have learned through their parenthood. But that’s a side track.)

It’s so cool that you put the theme in our daily life level. In addition I found it helpful to look at examples of extreme situations, too. Here is what I mean:
I like the notion of “violence of love”, which is also the title of a book with speeches of Oscar Romero, who set the basis for reconciliation in San Salvador.

Recently I learned from the Trappist Atlas monks of Algeria. The last will of Christian de Cherge, the prior, is an extreme example of enemy love.(

) The story was put into a film “Of Gods and Men” and my key phrase of the film is “Doch, ich habe die Wahl” - “I can choose”. (short snippet here:

I know you like the notion of “we-orientation”. I still find this word a little dangerous and are still looking for a better term. “We” is so often only a bigger “me”. “We, the Protestants”, “We, the Pentecosts”, “We, the Christians”. And again there is an “us”/“them” perspective. I personally prefer the term “you-orientation” to stretch the fact that my deed and mind is in a reconciliation mode which considers the person, needs, and feelings of the other.


At 2:40 PM, Blogger Robert said...

A treat for you Derek. Listen to the Q&A starting at 1:14:00

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Robert said...



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