This theme was explored in a recent panel discussion at the University of Arkansas entitled "Turning Swords into Ploughshares: The Many Paths of Non~Violence.” The panelists were the Dalai Lama; Sister Helen Prejean, advocate against the death penalty featured in the film Dead Man Walking; and 80~year~old civil rights activist, Vincent Harding.
The Dalai Lama, in his broken English, began the discussion with what may seem a rather audacious statement. “I consider basic human nature is…gentleness.” Gentleness?!! What about survival of the fittest, aggression, and all the rest?
He supports his point by noting that since humans are born helpless and in need of care, the ability to bond is primary. He believes this points to “compassion, human affection,” as the core quality of the human species.
He goes on to reference continuing scientific evidence that emotions such as anger, fear and worry are harmful to the human organism, while love, forgiveness and kindness are conducive to health on all levels and, therefore, more in harmony with basic human wiring.
“The compassionate mind,” he concludes, “is very good for the society, very good for the family, very good for individual.”
Sister Helen Prejean spoke of witnessing convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier’s execution and choosing to be “a loving face” for him at the end. She also shared her hesitation to reach out to the families of those Sonnier had slain. When she did so, though, she was greeted not with the anger she had feared, but by a palpable relief.
Prejean quotes parent Lloyd LeBlanc as saying, “Sister, you can't believe the pressure on us to be for the death penalty, and I've had nobody to talk to. Where have you been?" She relates how this brave soul refused to give in to baser, though completely understandable, emotions. She shares LeBlanc’s words: “I didn't like the way it made me feel when I went to that place of hatred and bitterness…They killed our son, but I'm not going to let them kill me.”
Harding shared a similar story in the reactions of two friends to the bomb that killed 4 Sunday school children in Birmingham in 1961. Civil rights workers Diane Nash and James Bevel overrode an immediate urge for revenge and instead deepened their commitment to non~violence. Harding paraphrases them as saying, “We cannot copy that terrible path of violence. That is not who we are. That is not what we believe in…We must respond, but we must find another way.”
Non~violence is not a technique. It is not, in Gandhi’s words “…a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart and it must be an inseparable part of our being.” When we commit to transforming what King referred to as our “internal violence of the spirit,” a loving response becomes more accessible, no matter the situation.
My friend Val told of a mentally ill young man who was being loud and disruptive during a recent General Assembly (GA) meeting at Occupy Denver. “Five folks just gently stood by him,” Val shared in a recent email, “and, as a circle, slowly moved him outside of the larger circle, just listening to him. Since he had those 5 sets of ears, he just followed them.
“For an hour they listened to him rant,” she continued, “but well away from the group, so the GA could go on. After an hour, he calmed down and walked away.”
How very beautiful! To listen with kind attention to the cursing tirades of a wounded soul is not a tactic. That kind of response comes from the heart. It is non~violence in action, love made manifest.
And yet non~violence may be only the beginning. In Harding’s words, “I'm deeply convinced now even more than I was then, that when we…commit ourselves to the building of humanity, then all kinds of forces…become available to us, and we are able to do much more than we ever dreamed.”
So let us love one another as Jesus instructed, and let us do so within the commonplace events and muck of human life. In the process, we just might find ourselves part of something much larger~~the healing of a world.