Experimenting with the power of love

When we humans seek vengeance, we perpetuate and intensify the cycle of violence. But what does it mean to repay evil with good?

Yme Woensdregt

Last week, I suggested a new way of dealing with our enemies, a way of seeking to discover how we might work and live together in more peaceful ways.

Jim Wallis’ book continues to inspire me as I read it. These kinds of creative ways of learning to live together are even more germane in the light of tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing or the discovery of the plot to blow up the VIA train.

Our first instinct is denial. How can this be? Who would do something like this?

That is followed almost immediately by a desire to strike back. We feel fear and anger, and we want to do whatever we need to in order to feel more secure. In the wake of the tragedy in Boston, talk shows and bloggers’ keyboards spewed vengeful words. One comment that caught my attention was “We must catch them alive and make them suffer as much as possible. That will pay them back for what they did.” People like that seem to equate justice with revenge.

President Obama and other leaders promised that the responsible individuals or parties would “feel the full weight of justice.”

The question in situations like this always is “But what is justice?”

The trouble with reacting violently is that violence always begets more violence. Gandhi put it succinctly when he said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Paul exhorted the Romans, “Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all … Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. (Romans 12:17, 19).”

When we humans seek vengeance, we perpetuate and intensify the cycle of violence.

But what does it mean to repay evil with good? It certainly does not mean to let the marathon bombing suspect currently in custody go free, with no accountability for his actions. How can we break the cycle of violence?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King followed in the footsteps of Gandhi in his embrace of non–violent resistance. He reminded us that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We are only beginning to understand the power of love in response to hate. Gandhi entitled his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth” because he believed in experimenting with the power of love. He likened the power of love to the early days of electricity, when inventors were only just beginning to discover the potential of its power. Bold experimentation was needed to explore what was possible. In the same way, he explained, the human race is in the early days of exploring the power of love. We need bold experimentation to see what is possible, to see how love can drive out hate.

One courageous experimenter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid ended. While many had predicted a bloodbath at the end of apartheid, Tutu imagined a space for people to share the hurt they had experienced and the hurt they had inflicted, and to be met with forgiveness and love. The road was long. Tutu met much resistance along the way. But he persevered and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work over the course of 18 months transformed much bitterness and hatred into understanding and forgiveness. The bloodbath was averted and South Africa moved into the post–apartheid era with a strong foundation.

In ways similar to Tutu’s work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, other countries have experimented with restorative justice. Cranbrook is involved in this movement, and it works wonders as victims and perpetrators are reconciled through a process of conversation and understanding and restoration.

Gandhi reminded us that love and non–violence is not simply a passive acceptance. Rather, “nonviolence is an active force of the highest order.” It seeks to reach out across the chasm that divides, to bridge it.

What would it be like if, instead of responding to violence with vengeance, we imagined ways for love to drive out hate? Seeking to lead with love doesn’t mean having all the answers. It means living the Gospel imaginatively. What if we, like Gandhi, Tutu, and King, banded together with others to experiment with the power of love?  May we commit ourselves to breaking the cycle of violence, to channeling our imaginations and our energy to find a new way. The Gospel requires nothing less.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook