How can we respond to violence in a truly helpful and healing way? For me, this is no idle question. I am currently living in Mexico, where violence is a growing problem. Since 2006, when the government declared war on dueling drug cartels, some estimates say that up to 40,000 people have died, often in gruesome ways. Mass graves have been discovered; dead bodies have been hung from highway overpasses. Many of these deaths have occurred among the poorest and most vulnerable people, who are ruthlessly exploited by the cartels (and all too often by the government itself).
The situation is grim, especially for these poor people and those who are trying to help them. My fiancée Patricia Zamudio, who is assisting organizations that provide aid for Central and South American migrants passing through Mexico on the way to the United States, says that the workers in these organizations are fearing for their very lives. This is no idle fear; some have lost their lives. The violence has also touched the lives of ordinary people, as in the case of the recent casino arson in Monterrey that killed 52 people. The whole country is caught in the grip of fear.
The conventional response to violence: attack your enemies
What can be done about this? The conventional response to violence is, of course, counter-violence. When someone attacks you, he is your enemy, and you must attack back in “self-defense.” This is what the government of Mexico has chosen to do. In response to the violence of the drug gangs, the government struck back. It has beefed up police and military, armed them to the teeth, and instituted draconian new laws to improve “security,” a process that is continuing to this day.
So far, as far as I can see, this response has been a dismal failure. (The fact that government officials themselves are often in collusion with the cartels doesn’t help matters.) In fact, the great irony is that this counter-attack has likely exacerbated the situation, contributing to the increased death toll and compounding the country’s fear. Don’t get me wrong; of course the drug cartels bear the greater responsibility for all this. They have behaved in cruel and inhuman ways that stagger the imagination. But the government response, it seems to me, has done nothing but throw gasoline on the flames.
The drug cartels in Mexico present a major problem that certainly needs to be addressed. I don’t blame the government for wanting to do something, or the people for wanting something to be done. But surely, there must be a better way.
An alternative response: love your enemies
“Attack your enemies” has been the usual response to violence in this world. However much we want to be loving, it is conventional wisdom that if someone attacks you viciously enough, you really have no choice but to attack him back. Our very survival seems to depend on this. But throughout history, there have been those who chose what they claimed was a better way. There have been those, some famous and some not so famous, who have stood for and acted upon an unconventional wisdom which advocates a radically different response to violence: love your enemies.
Jesus of Nazareth famously said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45). He illustrated this love with the image of God sending the sun and the rain on everyone, the “evil” and the “good” alike. He advocated expressing this love by turning the other cheek when someone slaps you, giving your shirt also when someone tries to take your coat, and going two miles when a Roman soldier forces you to carry his pack for one mile – in other words, giving the one who demands something from you twice as much as he asks. He lived out this teaching of love every day, working miracles of healing for all who came to him, from centurions who enforced the oppressive rule of Rome to “the least of these, my children.” When he was crucified by the Romans and their collaborators among the Jewish elite, he is said to have uttered from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). And, his followers believe, in the end he was resurrected to everlasting life.
In the bloody centuries that followed, there were always those who chose the way of love. Just in the past century alone, we have been blessed with shining examples of love in action, people who responded to violence by loving their enemies, often with miraculous and transformative results. For instance:
Mohandas Gandhi, who said that “to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion,” led a nonviolent movement to liberate India from oppressive British rule.
Martin Luther King, Jr., who regarded loving your enemies as “basic to me because it is a part of my basic philosophical and theological orientation,” inspired countless ordinary people to nonviolently resist racial segregation in the deep South, in the service of creating what he called the “beloved community.”
Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador, who vowed to “give my life for those whom I love…even those who are going to kill me,” inspired all of Latin America with his nonviolent commitment to love, peace, and justice.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said with characteristic good humor, “Love your enemies – it ruins their reputation,” called for a nonviolent movement to end the racist apartheid regime in South Africa and, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, offered forgiveness to anyone willing to tell the truth of what abuses he or she had inflicted on others.
These are just some of the famous examples. Lest we dismiss these luminaries as unrealistic role models for ordinary people, let us remember that none of these great men acted alone. In each case, and in others like them, countless ordinary people followed in their loving, nonviolent footsteps. Without the commitment of such ordinary people to love their enemies, none of the movements led by these famous figures would have been successful.
And then there are the countless not-so-famous examples. For instance:
“Wild Bill Cody,” as Allied troops called him, was a Polish man who spent six years in a Nazi concentration camp. Here is Wild Bill’s story:
We lived in the Jewish section of Warsaw – my wife, our two daughters, and our three little boys. When the Germans reached our street they lined everyone against a wall and opened up with machine guns. I begged to be allowed to die with my family, but because I spoke German they put me in a work group.…I had to decide right then whether to let myself hate the soldiers who had done this. It was an easy decision, really. I was a lawyer. In my practice I had seen too often what hate could do to people’s minds and bodies. Hate had just killed the six people who mattered most to me in the world. I decided then that I would spend the rest of my life – whether it was a few days or many years – loving every person I came in contact with.
This he did in the camp, extending love and helpfulness to all, including the Germans. He was the one everyone consulted to settle disagreements and bring about peaceful resolutions to conflicts. And miraculously, even after six years of a starvation diet and working 15-16 hour days, he was “without the least physical or mental deterioration. Perhaps even more amazing, every group in the camp looked on him as a friend.”
Immaculée Ilibagiza is a woman who survived the holocaust in Rwanda by hiding in a three-by-four-foot bathroom with six other women for ninety-one days. She endured the ordeal by coming to a decision similar to Wild Bill’s. She realized that
In God’s eyes, the killers were part of His family, deserving of love and forgiveness. I knew that I couldn’t ask God to love me if I were unwilling to love His children.…I prayed for the killers, for their sins to be forgiven.
She also realized that all who had died were in God’s loving embrace. While crying over a dead infant, she felt God inwardly assure her, “You are all my children…and the baby is with Me now.” Her dead brother came to her in a dream and assured her that the same was true of her own family – they were with God. She even ended up personally forgiving the man who had led the gang that killed her mother and brother. She has since devoted her life to helping others forgive and heal, especially those who have been victims of genocide. She says now, “The love of a single heart can make a world of difference. I believe that we can heal Rwanda – and our world – by healing one heart at a time.”
Peace Pilgrim was a woman who walked tens of thousands of miles with no money or external support, not eating until she was offered food and not sleeping until she was offered shelter. She shared a simple message: “This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.” She loved everyone without exception and was totally committed to nonviolence in thought, word, and deed.
Once she was with a teenage boy who had a history of serious violence, so serious that he had once put his own mother in the hospital:
Suddenly he went off the beam and came for me, hitting at me.…But even while he was hitting me I could only feel the deepest compassion toward him. How terrible to be so psychologically sick that you would be able to hit a defenseless old woman! I bathed his hatred with love even while he hit me. As a result the hitting stopped.
He said, “You didn’t hit back! Mother always hits back.” The delayed reaction, because of his disturbance, had reached the good in him. Oh, it’s there – no matter how deeply it is buried – and he experienced remorse and complete self-condemnation.
What are a few bruises on my body in comparison with the transformation of a human life? To make a long story short he was never violent again. He is a useful person in this world today.
Julio Diaz is a man in New York City who responded in a novel way to a man who tried to mug him. Diaz handed over his wallet, and as the mugger walked away, Diaz offered him even more than he had asked for: “If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” Diaz said later, “You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help.”
Eventually, Diaz took the mugger out to dinner, which had a profound effect on the man. He had always been taught that you should be kind to others, but said to Diaz, “I didn’t think people actually behaved that way.” When the bill for dinner came, the mugger returned Diaz’s wallet, Diaz paid for the dinner, and gave the mugger an additional $20 – in exchange for the knife he had used to commit the crime. Diaz concluded: “I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”
Mohammed Sohail is a convenience store owner in Garden City, New York. As he was closing his store one night, a man tried to rob him with a baseball bat. Initially Sohail pulled a gun on him, but then the man broke down in tears, saying that he was in dire economic straits, and Sohail’s heart melted. Sohail not only didn’t shoot the man, but he generously offered $40 and a loaf of bread, and all he asked for in return was the man’s promise never to rob again.
The would-be robber was so touched that he asked Sohail to help him convert to Sohail’s Muslim faith. He left the store, but later Sohail received a letter from the would-be robber. The man enclosed $50, $10 more than Sohail had given him, and said:
Now I have a new child and good job make good money staying out of trouble and taking care of my family. You gave me forty dollars thank you for sparing my life Because of that you change my life.
Sohail says simply, “I’m a very little man. I just did a good job. I have a good feeling in my heart. I feel very good.”
Bill Tomes, a Catholic lay worker known as “Brother Bill,” is a white man in Chicago who has devoted his life to helping rival African-American gang members in one of Chicago’s worst housing projects, Cabrini-Green. His journey to his calling began when he knelt at an altar one day and experienced an epiphany:
When I knelt down, everything turned fuzzy except the face of Christ on a painting near the altar….[The face said to me]: “Love. You are forbidden to do anything other than that.”
Over time, he received more messages: “You must forgive everyone, everything,” “Judge not and you will not be judged,” “Take nothing with you for the journey.” All of this led to his calling of serving the gang members, a service which, among other things, has included stepping unarmed into the middle of gunfights and imploring his brothers to stop shooting. (As of 1998, he said that this had happened fifty-three times). A snapshot of a typical episode:
He stands in the center of gang gunfire. He says he can hear the crack of guns from snipers in the buildings as well as see shooters running on the ground or ducking in and out of entryways. But thoughts of his safety never cross his mind. He understands that he can be killed, but he knows this is the core of his work, and he feels an absolute peace. Sometimes gang members scream out angrily, “Get out the way, Brother Bill. Move!”
It doesn’t work. “No, I will not,” Brother Bill tells them, “because I love you.”
Quickly the shots grow sporadic. Early last spring, after gunfire had shattered the windows of dozens of apartments, children ran out onto the balcony chanting, “Brother Bill, make the peace! Brother Bill, make the peace!” He heard, as did the shooters. Three more shots were fired that night, and peace was declared. “It’s like if Brother Bill is willing to take a bullet because he loves you that much, it makes it harder for you to hate the other side,” says Antonio, a 26-year-old gang member. “I think that’s why the shooting stops.”
He also helps them in other ways: taking them to Notre Dame sporting events, having them guest lecture about their lives at Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns, helping them find employment, negotiating truces between rival gangs, tending the wounded and dying – in short, “saving souls.” To all he gives the same message: “God made you. He loves you. He wants you to be with him forever.” And this message has transformed the lives of those he’s touched. As one gang member said, “I think he’s an angel. I really think God sent him here.”
Mother Antonia, “the prison angel of Tijuana,” is a woman who left a comfortable life in Beverly Hills to spend the last thirty years helping her “beloved hijos” (sons) in a squalid prison in Tijuana, Mexico. The prison, called La Mesa and known as the “Black Legend,” is a notorious hellhole of filth, drugs, corruption, torture, and death. But when she visited La Mesa with a priest in 1965 and met the inmates, she says, “I immediately felt this caring and a love for them. I felt their goodness.” In 1977, at the age of 50, she moved to the prison to devote her life “completely” to their care.
Originally she lived in a “cell” located over a raw sewer drain; it smelled so bad that she had to wear a surgical mask to stave off the stench. Even today, at eighty years old, she lives in a 10′ x 10′ cell within the prison walls, with nothing more than a cot, a Bible, and a Spanish dictionary.
She spends eighteen hours a day simply helping the inmates any way she can: providing food, medicine, and spiritual counseling; paying to get nonviolent prisoners released and helping them find jobs and apartments; praying for murderers and visiting the families of the victims to help them forgive; stepping into the middle of gunfire during riots and negotiating truces between the prisoners and riot police; making sure that prisoners who die but are unclaimed by any family members get a proper burial, with a wooden cross that says, “We Love You”; and even helping the prison guards, who like the prisoners are often suffering from poverty, depression, and drug addiction.
Commenting on her calling, Mother Antonia says simply: “Somehow prison was the place where I finally experienced the freedom to be myself, to really be myself. I think prison freed me.”
I spent so much time with those real-life examples because I’m advocating something that sounds extreme and beyond our reach, but I believe these examples show us that it is not. I believe with all my heart that the only way to truly overcome violence in a lasting way is to practice loving our enemies – and everyone else – in the ways these exemplars and so many others like them have done. I am advocating a response to violence that I call “radical love.”
What is radical love? The fundamental stance of radical love is very simple, though challenging to put into practice: It is a commitment to loving everyone with total and unconditional love: the Love of God. It is Wild Bill’s commitment to spend the rest of his life “loving every person I came in contact with,” and Brother Bill’s calling to “Love. You are forbidden to do anything other than that.” This love, of course, extends to everyone involved in a violent situation: the victims, the perpetrators, those living in fear of violence, and those called to help in the situation. It is a decision not only to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 9:19) and “Love your enemies” as Jesus instructed two thousand years ago, but to recognize, as A Course in Miracles says, that in truth “I have no enemies” (T-21.VII.5:13). It is a call, in the Course’s words, to “Teach only love, for that is what you are” (T-6.I.13:2).
This kind of love may sound suicidal in the face of violence like the kind we are experiencing in Mexico. And indeed, some of the prominent people I mentioned above – like Jesus, Gandhi, King, and Romero – were indeed killed by those who were threatened by their love. And this love, while it does work miracles, does not guarantee spectacular outward results right away: holocausts still happen, people are still getting robbed, and gangs are still fighting in Cabrini-Green and La Mesa.
But in the end, I think nonviolent love is the only sane response to violent attack, and is in the long run the only thing that will keep us truly safe. The Course agrees, saying, “Safety is the complete relinquishment of attack. No compromise is possible in this” (T-6.III.3:7). Living in fear of violence will only increase the apparent danger. Identifying with the love in all of us is the only way to safety:
You will identify with what you think will make you safe. Whatever it may be, you will believe that it is one with you.…Love is your safety. Fear does not exist. Identify with love, and you are safe. Identify with love, and you are home. Identify with love, and find your Self. (W-pII.5.5:1-2, 4-8)
The roots of radical love
Radical love is rooted in a recognition of the infinite worth of each person as a child of God. God loves us all totally and unconditionally, no matter what horrible things we may think we have done, and calls upon us to love ourselves and others the same way. Note that Jesus called us to love our enemies and bless our persecutors “that you may be children of your Father in Heaven.” In other words, we are to love as God loves in order to be like Him, so that we may be His children. The Course takes it even further, saying that we already are like Him because we already are His children.
Thus, the decision to love as He loves is not a bitter struggle to somehow overcome our depraved, egotistic ways. Yes, such love takes diligent practice to cultivate, but we aren’t being asked to perform the impossible feat of changing our very nature. Rather, we are asked simply to be who we really are, to live according to our true nature. That is why the above Course passage says, “Identify with love, and find your Self.”
Radical love is also rooted in a recognition of the ultimate invulnerability of each person as a child of God. According to the Course – and I believe the historical Jesus taught this as well – out of His infinite Love for us, God gave us all eternal life. Beyond our vulnerable bodies, we are infinite spirits, eternally whole and complete no matter what seems to happen to us, forever safe in our Father’s Arms.
Thus, while we understandably grieve the deaths of victims of violence, we can take comfort in the assurance that they are forever safe in God’s Love, as Imaculée Ilibagiza felt with the baby and her own family. And as we respond to violence with nonviolent love, we need not fear death at the hands of those who attack us, because we too are forever safe in His Love. We can be, as Jesus said, as carefree as the birds of the air, trusting in our Father’s infinite care, whatever happens to our bodies. We can, as the Course says, “Cast your cares upon Him for He careth for you. You are His care because He loves you” (T-5.VII.1:4-5).
The truth of radical love
These ideas sound extreme, and it may seem difficult or even impossible to accept them and live by them. This world is a brutal place, and many of us have endured much pain and suffering. How do we really know that this inspiring teaching of “radical love” is true? We can’t know with absolute certainty, but the good news is that we don’t simply have to accept these ideas on blind faith. We have real evidence for the truth of them.
We’ve already seen evidence above: the shining examples of those who decided to love their enemies. Another source of evidence is near-death experiences (NDEs), the well-known accounts of people who, at the brink of death, had powerful spiritual experiences and lived to tell us about them. Many near-death experiencers tell of encountering a God Who loves us with an infinite Love, Who calls upon us to love others as He loves us, and assures us that our lives are indeed eternal, that we are indeed forever safe in His Arms. Notice how these themes come through in these passages from accounts of near-death experiences:
It was overwhelmingly evident that the light loved everyone without any conditions! I really want to stress this, because it made me so happy to know we didn’t have to believe or do certain things to be loved. WE ALREADY WERE AND ARE, NO MATTER WHAT! (Peggy)
It was love to the millionth power. What happened to me was like…if you can envision being in love with somebody, and you were close to them, on a beautiful day with the sun shining, and you look in their eyes, and you take that moment of feeling and you multiply it by a million – you get a sense of that kind of love. (Patricia Grabow)
When [a particular near-death experiencer] found herself in the Light, she asked it telepathically, “Does everyone come here?” She was told “Yes.” “Even Hitler?” “Yes.” (Kenneth Ring)
Then I saw a light that seemed to grow brighter and brighter until its brilliance had completely encircled me, as if my very soul had been transformed and enveloped in love.
It was then that I had the sensation of being gathered up and held like a newborn child. Nestling in the warmth of this loving embrace, I knew that nothing could ever harm me again. (David Verdegaal)
There is no death, nor does love ever end. (Beverly Brodsky)
Millions upon millions feared death. Wouldn’t they be glad to know that only the body dies, but not their inner person? (Minette)
If I came back with one thing, it is that there is nothing of importance but unconditional love and compassion….During the NDE I learned so much about the essence of love and compassion. I “know” my life here is to experience opportunities to show that it can still exist under difficult circumstances. (Smiley-Jen)
I felt in Heaven God’s and Jesus’ love and compassion to me. I know they don’t judge you and that they love every one of us equally, whatever we are like. I know that they are happy when you treat other people well and show their “children” the same love and compassion that they show you. (Mia)
[God] said “Let me ask you one question. Have you ever loved another person the way you have been loved here?” The love I had received in that time was so overpowering…I had never felt anything like it so I answered God honestly. I said, “No…it is impossible…I am just a human, you are God.” He gave me…a sweet protective chuckle. He then said, “Mary, you can do better.” (Mary Jo Rapini)
Did you see those themes I talked about? These people experience a God Who loves them totally and unconditionally. This God calls on them to love other people in the same way. And they come out of the experience utterly convinced that “there is no death” and life is eternal; in fact, the number one aftereffect of a near-death experience is a complete loss of the fear of death. “Nestling in the warmth of this loving embrace, I knew that nothing could ever harm me again.”
These realizations happen not only in near-death experiences, but in mystical experiences that countless people have had throughout history. A particularly powerful example for our purposes is the story of Arthur Koestler. During the Spanish Civil War, Koestler was accused of being a spy and was in prison awaiting a death sentence. While contemplating a mathematical problem, he had an experience that completely altered his perception of his apparent predicament:
I must have stood there for some minutes, entranced, with a wordless awareness that “this is perfect – perfect”; until I noticed some slight mental discomfort nagging at the back of my mind – some trivial circumstance that marred the perfection of the moment. Then I remembered the nature of that irrelevant annoyance: I was, of course, in prison and might be shot. But this was immediately answered by a feeling whose verbal translation would be: “So what? Is that all? Have you got nothing more serious to worry about?” – an answer so spontaneous, fresh and amused as if the intruding annoyance had been the loss of a collar-stud.
Then I was floating on my back in a river of peace, under bridges of silence.
Here he was, face to face with the ultimate violence, about to be shot. But all of a sudden, his perspective changed, and when it did, he lost all fear of death. The implication is that he got in touch with his complete invulnerability. Whatever happened to his body, he was floating in a “river of peace.” If his body was shot, “So what?”
Therefore, we have real evidence pointing to the truth of this extreme idea of radical love. True, none of these experiences provide absolute proof (though the validity of near-death experiences has so far stood up under rigorous scientific scrutiny). But at the very least, they make the idea plausible, especially when we add in the examples I discussed earlier. Believing that we can respond to violence with radical love is not crazy; it is a reasonable response for intelligent, rational people. Indeed, if the Course is correct, radical love is “the only sane response” (T-30.VI.2:8). We may think that we’ll never be able to love this way, but we have at least some evidence that God has more confidence in us than we do. As He said to Mary Jo Rapini: “You can do better.”
Applying radical love to violence: the mindset
How do we apply radical love to violent situations? It starts with the content of our minds, the mindset we bring to our encounter with violence. Here I want to express, in a nutshell, the basic mental stance of radical love. I’ll apply this stance to four groups of people involved in a violent situation: the victims of violence, the perpetrators of violence, ordinary people who live in fear of violence, and those who are called to a helping role in the violent situation. (Note: When I say below that the mindset of radical love “says” such and such to someone, I’m not suggesting that you literally say these words to people, though you might at times be guided to do so.)
Applied to victims of violence, the mindset of radical love says: No matter what has happened to you, you still have infinite worth. You have not lost your dignity, nor anything else that God gave you. God loves you and I love you. Whatever has apparently happened to you, you are truly unharmed. Therefore, you are still perfectly safe and perfectly whole, still in your loving Father’s Arms. I will help you heal in whatever way God directs, from the perspective that you are already whole.
Applied to perpetrators of violence, the mindset of radical love says: No matter what you have done to others, you still have infinite worth. You have not lost your goodness or your innocence. God loves you and I love you. Whatever you have apparently done to others, they are truly unharmed. Therefore, you are still perfectly innocent and perfectly whole, still in your loving Father’s Arms. You have made a mistake that needs correction, but you have not tarnished your true loving nature. I will help you heal in whatever way God directs, from the perspective that you are already whole.
Applied to ordinary people who live in fear of violence, the mindset of radical love says: No matter what happens, you have infinite worth. You have not lost your security. There is nothing to fear. God loves you and I love you. No matter what may happen to you, you cannot truly be harmed. Therefore, are still perfectly safe and perfectly whole, still in your loving Father’s Arms. I will help you heal in whatever way God directs, from the perspective that you are already whole.
Applied to those who are called to a helping role in the violent situation, the mindset of radical love says: No matter what happens, you have infinite worth. There is nothing to fear. You cannot lose anything through your commitment to helping others; you can only gain. There is no sacrifice. God loves you and I love you. Because God loves you and has given you a mission to serve your brothers and sisters, He will protect you as you fulfill that mission. And no matter what happens to you, you cannot truly be harmed. Therefore, you are still perfectly safe and perfectly whole, still in your loving Father’s Arms. You can go forward with no fear, not even the fear of death. I will help you heal in whatever way God directs, from the perspective that you are already whole.
Applying radical love to violence: from mindset to guided action
How, then, is this mindset of radical love expressed on a day to day, earthly level to address violence? What does it look like in action? In short: From the mindset of radical love, we do whatever God guides us to do. Let’s look at the two parts of that sentence one at a time.
“From the mindset of radical love…” This is the crucial thing, as we can see in the examples we examined above. Whatever we do must come from that perspective of radical love. This doesn’t mean that our love has to be perfect. We can accomplish much with far less than “perfect” love, and in fact, acting on whatever love we do have will reinforce and increase that love. But without bringing as much radical love as we can to our actions, I think any “solution” to the problem of violence is doomed to failure, no matter how ingenious, no matter how well thought out, no matter how rational it seems to be, no matter how many people smile with approval upon it. Violence is rooted in hate, and the only real antidote for hate is love. Whatever we do must be rooted in a truly loving heart, a heart filled to overflowing with the Love of God.
“…we do whatever God guides us to do.” I believe that following God’s guidance, by whatever name we call it, is also crucial. So many of the examples above were spiritual people who did just that. While the ultimate problem and solution are simple – the problem is hate, the solution is love – on a form level the problem of violence, like the situation we are facing in Mexico, is incredibly complex. In and of ourselves, we are far too fallible, prone to misunderstanding, filled with prejudices and biases, and swayed by self-interest to look at the situation with the clarity we need.
I think we desperately need the guidance of Someone beyond the echo chamber of our own minds, Someone Who sees the entire situation from above the battleground and, with His infinite wisdom, knows exactly what needs to be done. This guidance can come in multiple forms. It comes not only through “spiritual” forms like prayer and meditation, but also through more “conventional” forms such as academic research, books, dialogue, workshops and seminars, etc. But whatever form in comes in, I think it is absolutely essential.
Does radical love mean never protecting ourselves from those who are violent?
This article doesn’t present a lot of form-level solutions to violent situations like the situation in Mexico. I am not an expert in this area, and I gladly welcome the contributions of those who are. But there is one issue I want to address because it is at the heart of so many objections to the kind of nonviolent love I’m advocating. The question: Does radical love mean we must completely abstain from doing anything assertive to protect ourselves and others from those who are violent? Does it mean we have no option whatsoever but to meekly give in?
In my opinion, no. I believe that God adapts His guidance to our level of development; as the Course says, He “cannot ask more than you are willing to do” (T-2.VI.6:2). So, while I think He is always pointing us in the direction of the utterly abandonment of self-protection characteristic of Jesus or Gandhi, along the way He will not insist that we do something that is too fearful for us to contemplate.
Thus, in my opinion, for some time there will still be a need to protect ourselves from those who are violent, both on an individual and a societal level. I believe we still need law enforcement officers who are armed, though I pray that they use those arms only as a last resort. I believe we still need to put the most aggressive perpetrators in prison to protect the public, though I pray that the prison is as humane an environment as possible (not like La Mesa in Tijuana).
I also think God’s guidance will take into account the realities of where a person’s heart is at any given time. So, for instance, while radical love calls us to always trust the ultimate goodness of every person we encounter, in our dealings with perpetrators of violence we may well be guided at times not to trust a particular person to behave in a good and loving way at a particular time. There is no formula for this; each situation is different. That is one more reason we really need to listen to God’s guidance.
But I think we mustn’t overemphasize the qualifiers I’ve introduced in this section. It can be all too easy to turn “His guidance is adapted to our level of development” into a license to kill. True, things like armed law enforcement, humane imprisonment, etc. may be necessary. But I see them as a last resort, and secondary to efforts that get closer to the root of the problem, which really boils down to lack of love. We must answer the call for love with love in all its myriad forms: relieving the victims’ suffering, helping the perpetrators find a better way, giving comfort to those who fear violence, and giving hope to those in helping roles who are losing hope. Even as we take into account the realities of our current level of development, we must constantly be stretching toward that ideal of truly radical and uncompromising love.
Cultivating radical love: the need for practice
How do we cultivate radical love? How do we actually live it out in thought, word, and deed? I think the only way to cultivate radical love consistently and move in the direction of truly perfecting it is through diligent spiritual, mental, and behavioral practice. Though I have stressed throughout this article that this kind of love is attainable, such a complete reversal of our normal way of being will not happen overnight, nor will it happen without diligent effort. Without a firm foundation in practice aimed at deepening our connection with God and His Love, I think it is highly unlikely that we will fulfill the great but challenging calling of radical love in a consistent way.
What kind of practice? For students of A Course in Miracles, it is walking the path of the Course as the author instructed, ideally under the tutelage of a good teacher. For others, like the many Catholics in Mexico, it means practicing in some way that is appropriate for their own tradition. But whatever practices we do, the aim is to develop that radically loving mindset day by day, and learn how to receive the guidance we need from God to carry it out in everyday life.
The topic of practice deserves an article in itself, and I have written many articles on Course practice. Here, I just want to briefly suggest some specific areas we might concentrate on in our practice. This is mainly based on the Course, but these general areas, called by many names, are part of many spiritual traditions:
- Mental vigilance: Rooting out our own violent and attacking tendencies (which the Course says are far greater than we realize) through rigorous examination of our thoughts, words, and actions, and consciously choosing more loving thoughts, words, and actions.
- Forgiveness: Seeing past the violent and attacking tendencies of both ourselves and others to the truth that all of us are beloved children of God, and our true nature is goodness and innocence, regardless of what our bodies do.
- Opening to God: Using meditation, prayer, and other forms to open ourselves to a living experience of God’s Love and to receive His guidance for our daily lives.
- Miracle working: Extending miracles of love – thoughts, words, and acts of kindness, however small – to our brothers and sisters as God’s guidance directs. As the Course says, “Each day should be devoted to miracles” (T-1.I.15:1).
As with any program of self-improvement, from exercise to learning a language to getting a Ph.D., the key is to make practice a regular, daily habit. Actually, I think that is putting it too softly; this practice must ultimately become the foundation of your life. Many of our examples above were firmly grounded in some sort of spiritual practice. Given the loftiness of our goal, we need to completely wrap our days in the practice of cultivating radical love, for as the Course says, “Your practicing can offer everything to you” (W-pI.rIII.in.4:5).
All of this sounds like a tall order, so let me end this section on a softer note. As I said above, I don’t think our love has to be anywhere near perfect for us to work real miracles for those impacted by violence. In fact, one theme that both near-death experiences and the Course material emphasize is that even very small acts of kindness performed with less than perfect love are genuine miracles that can have a huge impact on people’s lives. The world is full of examples of far less than saintly people expressing great love with God’s help.
And our practice, too, need not be perfect, especially at first. I think we simply need to start where we are, and realize that both developing a consistent spiritual practice and embodying the love that is the fruit of that practice are gradual, long-term processes. We can and should be happy with whatever small gains we make, even as we strive to do better. We can and should be patient with ourselves, even as we strive to learn and grow as quickly as possible. We are not perfect, but as the saying goes, practice makes perfect.
The promise of radical love
Responding to violence with radical love may sound like a daunting task, but I am convinced that it can be done. We’ve seen the inspiring examples above, and there are many more. This response has produced truly miraculous results throughout history. True, as I said before, it has not always done so right away. In fact, dramatic changes in difficult situations are often years and even generations in the making; as the title of an inspiring book on activism edited by Paul Rogat Loeb says, “the impossible will take a little while.” We need to be patient with the process and celebrate all of the little victories along the way, however small. But though it may take a while, I think radical love is the only way that will lead to ultimate success, to true healing, reconciliation, and the creation of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “beloved community.”
Why not respond to the violence here in Mexico with radical love? What other choice do we have, really? I am more convinced than ever that this is not pie-in-the-sky idealism, but hard-nosed, practical realism. Confronting violence with violence has never worked. It only leads to increased fear, violence, and death, as we have certainly seen in Mexico. The choice between an angry, violent response and a radically loving response is not a choice between a practical response that has worked and an idealistic response that can never work. Rather, it is a choice between a response that has always failed and a response that few people have ever tried. What have we got to lose?
I have based my call for radical love on my belief in a loving God. But even if God didn’t exist, I think we would actually be safer with a loving, nonviolent approach. Think about it. What happens when you respond to violence with violence? Most likely, the initial attacker will respond with still more violence. And he will feel fully justified in doing it, because after all, he’s responding to your counter-attack. And he and his cohorts will almost certainly have you outgunned. So, you will almost certainly lose a violent confrontation with people who are prone to violence. After all, they’re a lot better at it! This is the option most likely to lead to death, as we’ve certainly seen in Mexico.
What if instead you respond with radical nonviolent love? If you do, won’t that violent person be far more likely to respond with love in return, because that is what you gave him? And won’t he be much less likely to harm you, since you chose not to harm him?
True, he still might respond with violence against you. He might harm you or even kill you. As we’ve seen above, a number of the great practitioners of radical, nonviolent love have indeed been killed, so the risk exists. Let us not be naïve about that. But is the risk of death if we respond nonviolently really greater than the risk of death if we respond violently? Though I don’t have statistics to prove this, I honestly believe that our chances are better with a nonviolent, loving approach.
That being said, I do believe in a loving God. I am convinced that His Love is the law of the universe. And this law promises that our decision to love will bless not only everyone we choose to love, but ourselves as well. At one point, A Course in Miracles defines the “law of love” this way: “What I give my brother is my gift to me” (W-pII.344.Heading). This has been my experience; has it not been yours? Haven’t you found that what you give returns to you in the long run, even if not right away? Doesn’t your decision to love others bring more love to you?
The Course goes on to describe a specific application of this law of love: “I offer only miracles today, for I would have them be returned to me” (W-pII.344.Heading). Our miracles – our thoughts, words, and acts of kindness toward others, however small and seemingly insignificant – return to bless us.
The Course then offers a beautiful prayer based on this idea. I invite you pray this prayer right now, applying it to the problem of violence. Say this prayer to God with all your heart, fully expecting Him to hear and respond. Let in the glad tidings it proclaims, and commit to the joyous mission its final sentence calls you to fulfill:
Father, a miracle reflects Your gifts to me, Your Son. And every one I give returns to me, reminding me the law of love is universal. Even here [on earth], it takes a form which can be recognized and seen to work. The miracles I give are given back in just the form I need to help me with the problems I perceive. Father, in Heaven it is different, for there, there are no needs. But here on earth, the miracle is closer to Your gifts than any other gift that I can give. Then let me give this gift alone today, which, born of true forgiveness, lights the way that I must travel to remember You. (W-pII.345:1-7)
Again, what have we got to lose? In truth we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. God is Love, and so, as the Course promises, “A happy outcome to all things is sure” (W-pII.292.Heading). As God’s children, we too are Love, and we are called to bring about that inevitable happy outcome as soon as we can. So, let us identify with Love and find our safety. Let us respond to violence with radical love. Let us offer miracles as God directs. Let us not waste another second. Let us joyfully roll up our sleeves and get to work.