Nonviolence and Radical Love
Happy Monday, my friend!
What a week this will be. Today in the US, our country honors the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. On Wednesday our country's 46th president, Joe Biden, is to be inaugurated. In preparation for these celebrations, I chose to read a handful of books this past week to learn more about the people we are honoring.
The Radical King is a collection of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches, essays, and sermons, curated by Cornel West and narrated by several actors, to emphasize his most sacred values and his view of the path to a promised land.
The Truths We Hold was written by Vice President Kamala Harris and published in 2019. She chronicles her life while discussing the importance of acknowledging the truths about our country and our world. She does not shy away from the disturbing realities that exist in the world's wealthiest and most powerful country and she discusses ways in which we can do better.
Promise Me, Dad was written by President Joe Biden and published in 2017. He reflects on his life and the important roles that his family and his values have had along the way. He weaves these reflections into a recounting of the year in which his son passed away after a rigorous fight against cancer.
Where the Light Enters was written by First Lady Jill Biden and published in 2019. She discusses her life, family, and the darkness she is navigating after the death of her son.
The Gift of Anger was written by Arun Gandhi and published in 2017. I have read this one multiple times since I first picked it up this past summer and I wanted to include it in this week's readings because Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolence strongly influenced King and others in the Civil Rights Movement. In this book, Gandhi's grandson describes lessons that he learned from his grandfather. With a particular emphasis on using anger for good. It is one of my favorite books and I recommend that everyone read it. Even better, listen to the audiobook which is narrated by the author (This is true of the Harris and Biden books as well).
What these people have in common is their belief in a better world. They all have spent much of their adult life in service of the goal to create a global community that is equal, just, and safe for everyone in it. Additionally, these people all understand the importance of Truth and they seek to defend it. King and Gandhi specifically seek to defend it through entirely nonviolent means.
While I enjoyed reading about Harris and the Bidens, particularly with their upcoming inauguration, today I want to focus on Nonviolence and Radical Love. It’s my understanding, based on the particular book by Joe Biden I read, that he supports nonviolent means as the first approach. He has spent his career getting to know all of the leaders of other countries and he values this person-to-person communication and understanding in order to find compromise and peace. But when "necessary," he does support military defense. I think this is probably true of the First Lady and Vice President. At times it was true of King and Gandhi. It may be true of nearly everyone. As long as we view violence as inherent to humanity, and not something we can forever transcend, it’s likely that we will support the ability for us all to protect ourselves, through violent means if needed. The philosophies of Nonviolence and Radical Love challenge this. Both are often misunderstood, so I’d like to explore what they mean.
Something that The Radical King highlights is that despite how he is depicted and honored today, King was radical in his beliefs. Radical at the time, certainly, but also radical by today’s standards. Some say that his legacy is subdued in comparison to what he stood for when he was alive. Which is to say that when we remember him, we do not accurately uphold his values. We fail to fully understand and pursue his cause.
This reminds me of what Gandhi said to a reporter in 1948, just one week before he was assassinated. When asked, “What do you think will happen with your philosophy after you die?” he replied, “People will follow me in life, worship me in death, but not make my cause their cause.” To truly make his cause our own, and King’s as well, is to truly honor the philosophy and everything they worked for, which was and is radical.
Last year when I began looking deeper into King’s beliefs, I came across a 1968 quote that not only shows a more accurate side of his views, but also reflects my own view that radical, rather than incremental, change is necessary. “For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions of society, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.” I also appreciate this quote for its acknowledgement that as we grow, our beliefs can change, and this is alright. In fact, it's good news since a collective change of values would require this. It's important to remember that neither King nor Gandhi had always held the values they died defending. They were imperfect humans like the rest of us and throughout their lives they contradicted themselves. At some point, though, they both made the decision to live a purposeful life and align their actions as best they could with the philosophies of Nonviolence, Radical Love, and Truth. This is a power that we all possess.
I believe that many people, especially politicians that understand the workings of our currently dysfunctional political system, think that incremental change is the only real way to improve the world. But these small changes are not enough. They will never be able to fix the root causes of racial, economic, and social injustice and the failures of the system as it is. Our societal values and laws need to be scrutinized and entirely rebuilt. To hold us accountable as the intelligent, just, and peaceful global community that we are capable of being.
Both Harris and Biden have fought for important changes in their careers. I'm grateful for their pursuit of justice and I respect their ability to make change in a broken political system. I understand the logic behind taking small steps, too. I certainly think that any progress is better than no progress at all. But with such a strategy, the powerful structures that hurt so many people, animals, and our planet, will never give way. They will be slightly damaged here and there, they may conform to the people’s will in some aspects, but they will not fall. Hate, corruption, and greed will continue to reign over our world despite their inferiority to Nonviolence, Truth, and Love.
Both King and Gandhi were representatives of an oppressed group within a system of white supremacy. Decades later, in the year 2021, systemic racism is still deeply embedded in the world. Despite the political victories that we pride ourselves on, the US is still disgracefully granting special privileges to its white citizens and failing to deliver basic rights to everyone else. Political negotiations in our current system are not enough to change this. This is a global illness, not unique to the US. But our country has the power and means to dismantle these failed systems. We must demand change from our government, and we must do so without violence in our actions, words, and thoughts. We must spread the idea of Love.
When people speak of Radical Love, it is often misinterpreted. Universal or Radical Love is not a poetic dream. It’s knowing that we all share the same basic needs and fears. That regardless of where someone is born, the color of their skin, or the class that they are assigned to, they have the same rights as we do. It's knowing that hate will never solve our problems. Hate will only ignite further hate. In this context, Love means understanding. It means protecting yourself as much as the other. Because as King said, “Hate is equally destructive to the one who hates. Causing him to describe the beautiful as ugly and ugly as beautiful. Causing him to confuse the truth with the false and false with the truth.“ Hate is not only ineffective at ending whatever it hates, it also causes a complete distortion of the world. You can let anger similarly distort the world. But you don’t have to. Anger can go hand in hand with Radical Love. Gandhi explained to his grandson: “Use your anger for good. Anger to people is like gas to the automobile. It fuels you to move forward and get to a better place. Without it, we would not be motivated to rise to a challenge. It is an energy that compels us to define what is just and unjust.”
As Love is often misunderstood, Nonviolence is often viewed as a weak and passive hope for peace. This is not true at all. Nonviolence is not for cowards. It is not weak. It is not passive. In fact, it’s a strong, disciplined, and active commitment to standing up for what is just without inflicting harm on others. It requires integrity beyond what many of us muster in our daily lives. Nonviolence and Radical Love acknowledge that there will be no peace as long as violence and hatred continue. So we cannot participate, nor encourage the participation of others, in these destructive behaviors.
There is a quote attributed to Lincoln, as well as other historic figures, regarding the view of others as enemies: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Trying to destroy enemies through violent means like war and riots will in fact create more enemies out of those who are traumatized and outraged by the violence and loss. The only way to really get rid of enemies is to understand them and to have them understand you. Gandhi said: “I don’t consider anyone to be my enemy. They are all my friends. I want to educate them and change their hearts.”
This radical view sees everyone as a friend, worthy of understanding. This means people in other countries. It also means our fellow citizens. It also means the people in our country that don’t have a legal document saying they are an official citizen. It even means the people that hate us, deny us rights, and oppress us. Understanding does not mean that we agree. It does not mean that we see others’ views and actions as right and just. But it is the foundation for growth. We must understand others if we want to educate them and change their hearts, as Gandhi did. We must not look down at them or try to humiliate them. These actions would only further the divide. And that is a huge problem with our country today. Media and prominent figures regularly belittle others. They say false and hateful things daily. They refuse to cooperate even when they could find agreement, as is common among our politicians of both Democratic and Republican parties. This hatred and dismissal of those that disagree with us is so normalized that we easily view others as our enemies. We struggle to view them as our friends. We find it impossible to understand how they could believe what they do. We feel angry towards them. And this anger can prevent us from making progress.
When Gandhi’s grandson, Arun, asked how he could learn to deal with his anger the way Gandhi had, he was given this advice: Sit in a quiet room without distractions. Hold something lovely, like a flower or a photograph of a flower, and fully concentrate on it for a minute. Then close your eyes and see how long you can hold the image in your mind. As you practice this, you gain the ability to push out distractions and control your focus, holding on to the image for longer periods of time. The next phase is to fully concentrate on only your breathing. As you practice this, you gain the ability to control your responses, even in difficult or extreme situations. Eventually, as you gain control of your mind and responses, you can channel your anger into intelligent action. Arun Gandhi emphasizes that this is a lifelong practice, not something you do temporarily. Every day, you can practice using your anger for good. This practice will be revolutionary for you, and it has the power to revolutionize the world.
And so again, I am brought back to what King said in 1968. That we need a complete overhaul of societal values. We can’t make real change as long as we view each other in a hateful light. We can’t continue to channel our anger into rash and violent actions. We need to entirely reject many of the things we have come to see as inevitable truths, but are in fact choices made without understanding. And this of course requires work from each of us. This is why meditation and personal introspection are vital. Because as we dive deeply into ourselves and question the world as we know it, we come to know peace. And only once we know it within ourselves, can we know it as a society.
By definition, these radical values are not easy for each of us to suddenly uphold as we throw our currently widely-accepted values out the window. This kind of revolution requires an honest and continuous reflection on our lives and daily choices. Understandably, these concepts can seem too big and overwhelming for many of us who are just trying to get through the days. I think a good starting place is to take a few minutes each day to contemplate some of these ideas. To wonder: What do my choices ultimately reflect? What values does my life represent? Are there times that I could choose nonviolence over violence? Is there a way to use my anger for good?
I understand why many people are pessimistic about humanity. It's pretty easy to be that way when you know and witness all of the horrible things that humans have done and continue to do. It's easy to believe that we could never truly find peace. But I also understand why this type of thinking is wrong. And I know, as John Lennon sang in 1971, I’m not the only one. King, Gandhi, Harris, and the Bidens all see the possibilities before us. We believe in a world where people treat each other much better than they do today. A world where hatred is not tolerated, and violence not necessary. A world where anger is used for good. A world where we all have justice and equality.
To all those who can't yet see it, I hope some day, you’ll join us.