I originally wrote this post during the Baltimore riots in April 2015 and posted it to Facebook. I’m reproducing it here because it’s a topic that is so important to me. I would even go so far to call it a manifesto on my intention for approaching challenges and conflict in life.
The events in Baltimore, and the subsequent social media hullabaloo, have got my heart and stomach twisted in knots. I’m sitting up here in Connecticut, so far from my family and friends in Baltimore, on pins and needles. I love you all, and I’m nervous for you and for my city, and I’m feeling a lot of pain. I’m scouring the internet for news and scrolling through Facebook in horror. I’m texting my sister. Her block is on fire, but she is OK. I’m thinking about empathy and vulnerability and how violence got us here, how violence has erupted in our streets, how violence shines through in the dehumanizing words of so many wealthy Baltimoreans that condemn the riots, and how even the rhetoric of nonviolence can be wielded like a weapon.
There is a lot of violence in Baltimore tonight.
I thought I would write a bit about true nonviolence, and where I am coming from when I say that it could heal our old wounds that bleed fresh with each eruption of anger.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Jesus, the protesters in Tiananmen Square, and the millions of advocates of nonviolence across the world have a lot of differences. Their religion, their spirituality or lack thereof, and their specific cause all vary widely. I come from a spiritual background of Christianity, as you all know, not entirely unlike Dr. King. My current seeking has led me to read widely across religions and traditions, seeking common truths. I have found that the concept of nonviolence crops up in every faith, at the very core of it, and so I have been looking to explore it more deeply in my own life.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, ahimsa, translated in the negative as non-harm or nonviolence, is a spiritual concept that extends much more deeply than the mere lack of physical altercations. It is also translated, in the positive, as compassion. Compassion, in this tradition, is about stripping away ego and seeing the light of God – and ourselves – in all beings.
This is not unlike Jesus’ direction in Matthew 22:39 to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is not unlike Jesus’ assertion in Matthew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
So what I find is that this is hardest to practice in moments of provocation, when I want to shut down and defend my vulnerability. But I also find that the key to preventing damage and in fact building a relationship up in strength is the ability to open up to the possibility that what I am facing from the other person is a reflection of myself. If one can find empathy for one’s adversary in that moment, it is possible to find a courageous, empathetic solution to the problem – even if that involves challenging that other person to do better.
In Matthew 5:44, Jesus said, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
In Buddhism, this is referred to as the way of the bodhisattva – the warrior of compassion.
It is easier to dehumanize, to otherize, to alienate, when we feel threatened or attacked. We use violent, demeaning, objectifying language, like “savage,” “thug,” “animal,” “piece of shit,” “pig.” This language lays the groundwork for physical violence. It is harder to practice compassion when we feel pain, threat, and attack. But that is the heart of faith, whatever religion you may practice. If we do not have a faith, secular humanism and the psychological needs of the human mind still guide us toward empathy. And that is where we find love for our adversaries.
It is interesting that in all these religions, there is a history of the tremendous violence of war. Some find this to be a contradiction in terms, but typically you will find that the love and compassion that is counseled in these instances in mostly inwardly-focused. It does not typically mean that you do not defend yourself against attack – just that in your defense, you refrain from anger and hate towards your adversary. Pray for your adversary – see them as your brother – but that does not mean you allow them to harm you. It is harder to overreact, harder to take a life, and harder to cause harm, when you see yourself and your family reflected back in your attacker. It might actually hurt to fight back, even as it is necessary. That is why a bodhisattva is called a warrior – because this practice opens us up in vulnerability to experiencing physical and psychic pain.
Jesus’ actions of physical destruction when he upended the tables of the vendors in the temple were based in compassion, recognizing that a challenge was necessary to gain the attention of folks whose “business as usual” was an affront to God. Just as the actions of the Freedom Riders’ sit-ins were a challenge to the “business as usual” of Southern segregation.
So I do not say that this means the riots nor the response of the police was justified. It is hard to know who is right, since I was not there and I never know what is in someone’s mind. But I can say that in our reaction of pain and threat, in this situation, we have a choice – to act out in our anger, whether that is directed at the police and society that we feel threatens us or if that is directed at the rioters that we feel threaten us, or to engage with compassion. Perhaps we are insistent in refusing to allow harm to come to us and our children, and we keep our voices loud, but we do not reduce police to “pigs” or rioters to “animals.”
I have been angry, in my life. I have wanted to destroy things. I think this is because I am human, and I have experienced unfairness and injustice. And so I am a rioter.
I have been overwhelmed with fear and the desire to protect my family and livelihood, in my life. I have overreacted to perceived threats. I think this is because I am human, and a family member. And so I am the Baltimore Police.
But what does it mean to engage with compassion? Does it mean that we do not hold people accountable for their actions, or defend ourselves against violence? Absolutely not, but we do need to recognize that our judgment should come from empathy, not from hate and anger. It means we seek to truly put ourselves in the shoes of the people in the midst of the struggle, and try to understand the challenges they face. It means – and this is perhaps the hardest part – that we allow others to hold us accountable, where we engage in or are complicit in violence. There is a place to look at the data, to formulate grand theories about life and societal structure, but those really don’t mean anything if they discount the lived experience of the people on the ground. What deep need is triggering our reactions? What can we do, on a personal level, to understand the struggle of others and to get at the root of the problems they face?
I truly believe that the only way forward is compassion. We will debate the statistics and analysis, the pundits and the activists and the politicians will face off, and we will see endless furor nationally. But if we can just keep coming back to this core of empathy, we will find a solution and a way forward.
If you know me, you probably know that I am a bit of a skeptic (maybe more than a bit), and I require hard evidence to buy into a given theory. You might wonder where the hell all this mushy feelings nonsense is coming from. I do have some strong opinions on the numbers, the evidence, and the underlying reasons for what is happening in Baltimore tonight, but I do not feel it is right to stop there and yell about how right I think I am. We are dealing with people, not just numbers. So when we argue and debate, we have to remember who we are talking to. We have to remember that we don’t know everything, and that it’s worth trying to understand more perspectives than just our own. If we have faith, this is where it counts. We can’t just put it on hold when tough situations come up. This is where, in fact, it counts the most.