Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by Love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law… ~~The Dhammapada
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor… ~~Anne Lamott
There has been a great deal of recent media attention about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. I absolutely do not want to politicize this blog, but I would like to talk about the background of non-violent resistance and the spirituality of the choices we make to non-violently engage aggression or oppression, in ourselves and with others.
Dr. King based a lot of his approach to non-violent civil disobedience on Quaker philosophy and Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of Ahimsa, which means non-violence in every aspect. Ahimsa is the philosophy of total non-violence. It refers not only to physical violence, but all violence– all cruelty, all unkind words, thoughts, values and behaviors toward self and others. Teachers and committed practitioners of non-violence emphasize that peace begins within, with disciplined and mindful practices of prayer and meditation. True peace involves cultivating skillfulness in these areas. We cannot be peaceful toward others if we hold self-hatred in our hearts. To love one’s neighbor as oneself means we must practice peace and self-love first; not in an indulgent, mindless way, but with true mindfulness and balance. We must truly practice non-violence within first in order to extend that to our fellows. We must be kind and gentle with ourselves first if we are to ever be consistently kind and gentle with others. (I wrote a lot about these practices in recent blog entries, if you are interested in learning more about these practices just scroll down to the previous posts).
Gandhi struggled with what to name this movement of active resistance and eventually coined a term he called Satyagraha. Satya means truth, the equivalent of love, and both are attributes of the soul. Agraha is firmness or insistence. Satyagraha is therefore translated as Soul Force. Gandhi wrote, “Satyagraha is the vindication of truth not by infliction of suffering upon an opponent, but on one’s self. The opponent must be weaned by patience and sympathy…” Weaned, not crushed or in anyway violated or retaliated against. A true adherent of Ahimsa shows the patient love of a mother to endure pain for the greater good of the birth of a beloved child. Soul Force assumes peace is possible and returns good for evil until the evildoer grows weary of the evil itself.
Some of the great Gandhi thoughts on this philosophy and his beliefs can be summed up in these quotes…
When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall — think of it, ALWAYS. …Non-violence is the article of faith…It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business… Hatred can be overcome only by love…
At one time, Gandhi had considered himself an atheist but explored many religions and philosophies. He was deeply influenced by the Sermon on the Mount and some of the Buddhist scriptures, but eventually returned to Hinduism, the religion of his youth. He was trained as a lawyer but nearly went broke because he was so afraid of speaking up in court or in public that he gave all of his cases away to other attorneys. Interestingly, the peaceful man known as a Mahatma, literally translated as “Great Soul,” described himself as at one time being very aggressive. His wake up call came one night when he and his wife were fighting and he became physically forceful with her, grabbing her wrist and trying to throw her out of the house. Her tears stunned him into silence and he vowed from that moment to cultivate an inner discipline and peace which eventually led to his commitment to non-violence.
The civil rights violations of his fellow man and the violence he personally endured because of the color of his skin sparked his non-violent action and led to a world wide movement. Gandhi based his non-violent resistance on the Bhagavad Gita and the Sermon on the Mount, citing their influences repeatedly. Martin Luther King Jr. based his non-violent civil rights movement on Gandhi’s ideas and methods after a trip to India, the Baptist minister bringing the message of spiritually based social justice full circle around the world. In his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Dr. King said,
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with Soul Force…
Buddhism, Hinduism, the Christian Gospels and the Religions of the Book all teach peace at their core. Gandhi understood this and thus his ideas and practices were based on the Hindu scriptures from the Gita and from the Sermon on the Mount. Dr. King and many others have followed those examples throughout the ages. With that in mind, a few thoughts on the Sermon on the Mount…
Matthew 5: 38-42
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles….”
These verses are taken from the Sermon on the Mount, a sermon in which Jesus addressed an oppressed people. Many consider the Sermon on the Mount to be the key address on Christian non-violence. It’s important to note that the people hearing this sermon were not rich and powerful; they were the poor, oppressed and downtrodden subjects of an occupying military force, as well as people oppressed by their own religious authorities. They were tired; they were in need of a Voice which told them they were loved and worthy, a Voice to speak of a deeper truth of Love, a Voice which reminded them, “You are the Light of the World.” They were abused by the rich and powerful every day. What Jesus is advocating in this passage is about social justice, but in a manner which emphasizes non-violent active resistance to a violent system.
The phrase, “do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also,” refers to the custom of the day and meant more to them then than it means to us now. A better translation of this from the Greek is “do not meet violence with violence.” This is not instruction to passively accept brutality or injustice, it is instead encouraging a courageous stand which exposes the violence. During that time, the master or slave-owner had the right to strike the subject or slave on the right cheek—but only the right cheek, with the back of the right hand. To strike the left cheek would indicate a loss of temper or control and bring shame upon the one doing the hitting. But since it is impossible to strike the left cheek with the back of the right hand, what Jesus is advocating here is exposing the violence, but doing so non-violently.
The next instruction, “And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well…” refers to the time in which they lived and more customs of the day. At that time, the wealthy and those in power abused their authority by suing the poor and oppressed who literally had nothing but the clothes on their back. The court would then say the person had to forfeit their tunic, leaving them essentially standing in their underwear in court. What Jesus is saying is that if they want to try to humiliate you through abuse of power, to again resist non-violently and expose the violence. Be empowered but do so through your own sense of internal power, of knowing you are valuable and worthy as a child of God, but do not resist the evil of abuse with more violence. So if they want to strip you of all you have—fine. Counter with stripping down in court and exposing it all, literally. But do so from a position of non-violent empowerment, not angry retaliation.
The next line, “if someone forces you to go a mile, go two miles...” is part of an expression we use all the time without understanding its context. The Romans were an occupying force of that time and under the law a Roman soldier could force a person, usually an oppressed subject, to carry his pack one mile. While this might not sound like a big deal, it was abuse of power with serious consequences. The poor laborers of that time worked each day for their money and bought food for their families each night with their earnings. So to force a man to carry a heavy pack a mile meant he would then have to turn around and walk back to town, ensuring he would miss a day of work; this meant he and his family would therefore go hungry that night. Going the extra mile was again a way to expose the violence of the oppressor and be empowered in doing so, but again to choose to expose the injustice and violence through non-violent means.
There is much more to the Sermon on the Mount, as well as to the philosophy of non-violence called ahmisa. I will cover some of that in a future post, but for now, if you have never watched the full I Have a Dream speech, you can do so in the video below. It’s about 17 minutes long, so give yourself the time to really sit with it, and maybe ponder a few questions….
As we head into Labor Day, what are you really working for and toward? Does it feed your soul? Is it congruent with your values? Is your behavior in alignment with what you say is important to you and what you want to model for your children? As the Prophet Isaiah asks, “Why do you spend money for what is not bread and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance…”
With that in mind…What are your dreams? Are you willing to work toward them without force, using methods of non-violence, starting with yourself? Are you ever forceful or violent toward yourself or others? Do you practice self-hatred or self-oppression which leads to aggressive behavior with yourself and others? Will you go the extra mile for yourself as a means of empowerment, but not force? Will you turn the other cheek with that voice inside that may be the oppressor and gently wean it from the harshness with which you speak to yourself? Are you violent and aggressive with yourself while you smile and pretend life is good, do you act as if all is well when you are enduring great pain inside? Does life have to be forced and perfect, or can you strive for an excellent peace? Can you cultivate inner peace and share that with others?
Are there ideals or values you hold so dear you would die for them but not kill for them? Can you have a dream, vision or value so important to you that you give up everything in order to work toward it, but do so peacefully, allowing yourself to be transformed in the process?
What are your dreams today? What keeps you from your peace?
What are you willing to do to take responsibility for your dreams and your peace? Are you willing to use your own Soul Force to cultivate peace and non-violence within, to live your own dreams? If you have these dreams, but haven’t opened yourself to them, why? And if not now, then when?
We may be dreamers, but we are not the only ones…
Have a great holiday weekend.