Standing on the Side of Love

Unitarian Universalist Congregation  of the South Fork  June 9, 2013

     We should be happy that [Jesus] did not say “Like your enemies.” It is almost impossible to like some people.  Jesus recognized love is greater than like.
                                                                                               – Martin Luther King, Jr.

When Fear Strikes, We Stand on the Side of Love       The Rev. Alison Cornish

We are in “love month!” In our three-month series – April, hope; May, faith; and June, love, we are welcoming those three unseen guests, and exploring different aspects of these rich human endeavors.  Last week we took on covenantal love, exploring the meaning of the precept of “We walk together in love,” which is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition.  It’s the kind of love that honors the worth and dignity of all, that draws us in to knowing ourselves as capable of giving and receiving love.  It’s the kind of love that holds us fast through conflict, and times of unknowing … the love that – hopefully – characterizes faith communities such as this one.

Today, we continue to build on that understanding by talking about love in action.  By this I mean love as a force for change, especially where there exists exclusion, oppression and violence as we say in our own Statement of Identity.

This week, I draw particularly on the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh, who draw respectively from their faith traditions of Christianity and Buddhism, and their experiences emerging from two major conflicts of our own lifetimes – striving for civil rights in the U.S., and the struggle for peace in the face of violence and warfare in Viet Nam.

Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh understood their work to be to confront injustice by engaging in nonviolent action – with love at the heart of all they did.

This is the kind of love that Martin Luther King talks about as a “Love-Force” –

When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality … At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.  (from Beyond Vietnam, MLK, Jr.)

And it’s the love that Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of as “Love in Action” –

The essence of nonviolence is love. Out of love and the willingness to act selflessly, strategies, tactics, and techniques for a nonviolent struggle arise naturally … Nonviolent action, born of the awareness of suffering and nurtured by love, is the most effective way to confront adversity. (from Love in Action, TNH)

The love they speak of is not reserved for those we like, or even might come to like if we knew more about them.  It is a love particularly for our enemies – our oppressors, for those who have hurt us, done us harm, for those who have rejected us, conspired against us – for those who have fomented hate against us.

This is the love we talk about in our mission statement when we say “When fear strikes, we stand on the side of love.”

But how?  How do we do this? How do we find the courage, grace, wherewithal – how do we conquer our own fears, tap in to places unknown even in ourselves, to respond to the cruelty and violence and hatred the world hurls our way with strength of love?

Continuing to draw on both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hahn …

First, and at the heart of all nonviolent action, is forgiveness.

Martin Luther King, Jr.:

How do we love our enemies? First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive… It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us. It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression… Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. (from Strength to Love, MLK, Jr.)

I suspect that starting with forgiveness … is a surprise. It just doesn’t seem fair. Or just.  It seems like it might let people just go on doing horrible things, as if we have given them permission, a pass, to act badly.  But remember the objective here … to love our enemies so that we – and they – may be transformed.  This is ultimately about the power of love, and for love to be that powerful, there must be at least the potential for relationship.  And that relationship depends on forgiveness.

Forgiveness, given and received, is perhaps the most difficult of all spiritual practices.

We simply don’t get enough practice – so let’s get some now by joining together to read number 637 in your hymnals, A Litany of Atonement …

Now, let’s share the silence, bringing to mind someone specific … someone who you might need to forgive for their acts of exclusion, oppression or violence … sit with that possibility, that potential … of beginning again in love.

[shared silence]

There’s something that has always struck me about that reading, in the phrase “we forgive ourselves and each other.”  It’s reminder that we all have the potential to be a victim and a perpetrator of violence, an oppressor and one oppressed, the one excluded and the one who shuns.  It’s a reminder that evil acts and deeds are not all that anyone is … that there is good in the worst of us, and evil in the best.

Which is so beautifully illustrated in the Story of the Two Wolves, from the Cherokee –

An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he told the young boy, “a terrible fight between two wolves.  One is evil, full of anger, sorrow, regret, greed, self-pity and false pride.  The other is good, full of joy, peace, love, humility, kindness and faith.”

“This same fight is going on inside of you, grandson…and inside of every other person on this earth.”

The grandson ponders this for a moment and then asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”

The old man smiled and simply said, “The one you feed.”

Thich Nhat Hahn would call this “interbeing.” It is a recognition that there is no “us and them,” only the whole where we are all co-responsible for the world as it is.  

And Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hahn would agree that, when engaged in nonviolent action, with the goal of transformation of one’s enemies, the means and ends must be all of a piece – all of the same character.  For Martin Luther King, Jr., there could be no action which sought to defeat or humiliate an enemy – the objective was not to defeat the enemy but to win them over – in this way, not only saving the opponent’s face and ego, but also, having the opportunity to “prick the opponent’s conscience so that s/he could change his/her ways before inflicting bloodshed.” 

For Thich Nhat Hahn, “the success of a nonviolent struggle can be measured only in terms of the love and nonviolence attained, not whether a political victory [is] achieved.” Writing about the actions of the Buddhist monks and nuns trying to create a peaceful solution to the hostilities in Vietnam, he wrote, “we never lost sight that the essence of our struggle was love itself, and that was a real contribution to humanity.”

So, this is all good – in the abstract.

What about practicalities?

Will it work? We must have faith.

Can I – each and every one of us – do it? We must have hope.

One thing I do know. We – none of us – can wake up one morning and decide “today, I am going to love my enemies.”

This work takes practice, spiritual practice, discipline, time.  Reflecting on his work with the boat people, the thousands of refugees that attempted to flee Southeast Asia in the 1970s, Thich Nhat Hahn said, “the suffering we touched doing this kind of work was so deep that if we did not have a reservoir of spiritual strength, we would not have been able to continue.” (from Love in Action, TNH)

In order to take on this work, extending love in the face of violence, oppression and exclusion, we need to engage in practices that build compassion, peace, and fortitude, such as fasting, meditation and prayer. 

Nonviolent action – engaging love so that the world may be transformed – is not the same as not doing anything. There’s a big difference between nonviolent resistance and passivity, or do-nothingness.  It takes enormous courage and fortitude to embrace this kind of love. 

We are living in challenging times, in a world of drones, cyber-terrorism, vast inequalities of wealth and poverty, global climate change, to name just a very few places where violence, oppression and exclusion are at work.

It would be fair to ask, “Is love enough?”

In the end, I’m not sure that’s really the right question.

All that I’ve described this morning is, in fact, a way to walk, and to work, towards being the people we are longing to be.  That, I believe, we must do that in the most embodied, human ways that we can.  Which means – in love.

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