Let All Tend Inward to Me

Another presidential campaign season is upon us, with all its ugly divisiveness and demonizing of politicians who don’t share one’s own views. How is a Christian to live out Jesus’ command to love one another (John 13:34) in such times?

In the early 1980s, as a newly baptized Catholic, I plunged into a study of the spirituality of nonviolence. What pushed me was a pastoral letter issued by the U.S. Catholic Bishops in May, 1983: The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, written in the context of the Cold War’s nuclear arms race. As a baby Catholic, I soaked in every word of the first official church document I’d read. What especially struck me, and with revelatory force, was the bishops’ assertion that nonviolence “best reflects the call of Jesus both to love and to justice.”

I’d heard of nonviolence, of course (Gandhi and Martin Luther King), but before my baptism I lived in such a self-enclosed world that I didn’t even read the newspaper. The bishops’ assertion moved me to learn about nonviolence. So I joined a group in my parish that was studying both Thomas Merton and Gandhi. I was immediately hooked.

Merton’s analysis of how we cling to self-protective fears to keep from obeying Christ’s command to truly love our enemies brought me to my knees in penitence; I knew guiltily how far I was from nonjudgmental love of my neighbors and friends, let alone my enemies.

And Gandhi’s notion of Satyagraha—that the strongest force in the universe is the force of love, which will conquer all hatred and injustice if we let its power rule in our own hearts—held a condemning mirror to all my petty hatreds and angers. Recognizing how little peace there was within myself, I felt my complicity in the violence of the world.

The bishops’ document persuaded me that the U.S. strategy of nuclear deterrence was an evil, so I joined my city’s nuclear freeze network. It was exciting to be, for the first time in my life, politically engaged. But, before long my studies of nonviolence posed a challenge.

For nuclear deterrence supporters, the threatening enemy was the Soviet Union, for those in the freeze movement, the threatening enemy was our own government and all who supported its nuclear arms build-up policy. My prayerful studies of nonviolence had been training me to raise a red flag in my heart whenever it cast an other as enemy, training me not to scorn the enemy but to try to enter his or her own heart non-judgmentally.

So I decided it was time to practice spiritual nonviolence in a concrete way. There was a man—I’ll call him Tom—who used to come to all our nuclear freeze public events deliberately to argue the opposing view: to hassle us, we’d say with an irritated sigh among ourselves. I decided to try to get to know him—as a human being just like me, rather than as The Hassler.

When I introduced myself to Tom at one of these events and said I wanted to understand his view better, he invited me to his home. It was in a neighborhood not unlike mine, but (symbolically) on the other side of the city. After introducing me to his wife and son, he took me into his study and gave me copies of magazine articles supporting his view.

I didn’t argue back. I listened with a heart aching to love him as I knew God did, a heart seeking to enter his own heart and become its very core. While disagreeing totally with his nuclear deterrence support, I sought to relinquish the image of him as enemy, to be able to accept in my soul that—despite our mutual fear of each other’s positions—he and I were one.

Only God knows how far I succeeded. I left Tom’s house with a splitting headache. This was the cost, for me, of trying to open my heart and mind: feeling my own fragile self split open with hammer and wedge to let in the feared other.

Did it take this much out of Whitman, I wonder now, to become each of the people he tenderly names in the famous “Song of Myself”?

The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stoops by the bars of a Sunday and looks at the oats and rye,
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirmed case…

And these one and all tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them,
and such as it is to be of these more or less I am.

Ever since college, when I first encountered the wildly self-transcending vision of “Song of Myself,” I’ve returned to it. I long to share Whitman’s deep identification with all people in their precious individuality—Tom then, politicians who terrify me now.

I’m driven, like Greg Wolfe, writing in his editorial in the current issue of Image (72), “toward an inclusive vision that reconciles divided peoples and riven hearts.”

During our current agonizingly long and inherently divisive campaign season, can I watch TV news without mumbling scornfully at politicians I disagree with? Can I get through the elections with nonviolent love in my heart?

Let all tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them.

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times(Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). SeeAmazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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  • This is great food for thought, Peggy. You always write so well, and I very much share your desire to lovingly deal with people individually. Just this weekend, my dad and I were talking about the danger of being tempted to classify people as “others” and creating an us vs. them mentality that keeps us from relating to them on an individual basis. I applaud your approach.

    I tried recently to be friends with someone who saw the world very differently from me, and I too got a headache – and no small amount of anxiety, too. The person was not willing to see me as an individual, and could not get past seeing me as part of a dangerous “them,” I think. It was immensely frustrating, but I am also glad I tried. Streets do not always go two ways.

    *Sigh.* Rodney King’s question about why we cannot all just get along is one that has been in my mind for years. If I can refrain from hurling rocks at my coworkers, who sometimes drive me nuts, why can’t others refrain from violence? But at the same time, if my friends can keep from bringing up past wrongs with their friends and spouses, why can’t I? I know we all have a lot to learn.

    Good things to think about this political season. Thank you for this, Peggy.

    • Chad, Thanks for sharing your personal experiences with trying to be open to the “threatening” other. It is indeed a challenge… but one that I believe, as Christians, we’re called to.

  • One of my favorite twitter friends is a *devout* atheist. Whatever that means. And I just adore him. He is kind and funny and thoughtful. And also a touch on the mean side sometimes, but I try. Oh, how I try to listen, to hear what is under that. To not be the newsworthy version of Christians shouting and fighting and blowing up things. It is enough to wear a person out. And still, we listen, and hope and pray.

    • Jennifer, I love the way you put it: “it is enough to wear a person out”! But you are hanging in there, trying to listen with your heart, and that’s great. Thanks for your comment.

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    Peace . Its a lovely thought . The prime directive in Christianity as long as you’re willing to completely ignore the entirety of the Old Testament . Along with the concept of Original Sin and the results therein thru out the ages and until the Second Coming . War is an ugly reality we’re forced to live with : being Fallen ( albeit forgiven ) Beings in a Very Fallen World where genuine evil that is incapable of responding to love exists and must be dealt with accordingly . A ” Tragic Reality ” as we labeled it in Seminary .

    As Christians we should never make war our priority . But …. as our Savior so well said : and I paraphrase ; Governments and Institutions are put in place by God to deal with the day to day events of life : your job being the preaching and teaching of the Word . That statement along with my above paragraph makes it very clear . Sometimes with some people , violence is the only reasonable response . Do we head there far too soon in many cases ? Most definitely ! Is it inevitable that on occasion we will and must end up with that response when appropriate ? Absolutely .

    Never place Human and/or Personal Agenda over and above the Truth of Scripture

    As to this upcoming Election ? Call me Sinner…. or call me Saint but I’ll be abstaining from the 2012 Presidential Elections : withholding my vote . My reasons being best summed up best by the Gerry Rafferty song ” Stuck in the Middle With You ”

    ” Jokers to the Left of me
    Clowns to the Right
    Here I am .. Stuck in the Middle with You ”

    e.g. I cannot in good conscious vote for either candidate

    • To T.Martin Lesh—Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I don’t fully agree, but that’s fine. I’m guessing that your paraphrase that “Governments and Institutions are put in place by God to deal with the day to day events of life” refers to Jesus’ saying “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”—which seems to me a short and cryptic statement on which to base the Just War theory that you’re expounding. But certainly many Christians agree with your position.

      • T.Martin Lesh.

        To Peggy ; Christ also said there will be wars , famine etc and we’re not to concern ourselves with those things as they will happen . Paul thru out his letters also states that we are to obey the Governments placed in charge in as far as civil matters are concerned .

        As well as the multitude of references etc to war instituted by God Himself in the Old Testament , which as a Bible believing Christian one must accept as the Word of God along with the New and not to be pushed aside . ( e.g. You need to take in all available factors before coming up with any interpretations or agendas which may or may not be Biblical at their foundation )

        Finally I did not , anywhere in my response ever claim war was ‘ Just ‘ or ‘ Justified ‘ I said that war is a ‘ Tragic Reality ‘ There is in fact a huge chasm between ‘ justified ‘ and ‘ tragic reality ‘ One implies that there is ‘ Just ‘ reason to go to war . The other accepts war as a ‘ Tragic Reality ‘ to be lived with on a Fallen Planet filled with Fallen ( albeit , some forgiven ) People .e.g Sometimes one goes to war because there is no other choice .

        One ‘ accepts ‘ Tragic Reality for what it is

        Whereas one ‘ applauds ‘ Justified – I never ‘applaud ‘ war . But often must by the reality of the circumstances involved do accept that it may be the only way .

        Finally , in light of his consistent ‘ Revisionist History ‘ (when it came to the West’s influences and benefits ) the violent and hideous acts he condoned ( for all his Love and Peace ) as well as the fact that the man did not even vaguely resemble anything approaching Biblical Christianity I would suggest in the future not raising Gandhi’s name to justify and/or validate any stance / agenda claiming to be Christian . Walt Whitman ? … Well seriously …. a brilliant and creative man to be sure … but Christian ? He was anything but .

  • Chad Thomas Johnston

    Peggy, T. Martin is a fascinating individual. I am not entirely sure who he is, but I always enjoy reading his colorful responses even when I disagree with him. Ha! 🙂

    • Chad, the joyfully nonviolent spirit of your comment makes me smile. Thank you!

    • T.Martin Lesh.

      @ Chad

      A quick summary ; Professional Musician [ Guitarist/Composer ] focusing for the last 20 years on fingerstyle and instrumental guitar ( thank the Good Lord for the sake of your ears I do not sing ) Style wise I’m best described by stating ; Classical musicians say I’m too Jazz / Jazz say I’m too Rock / Rock say I’m too Folk and Folk say I’m too Classical ( which means I’m either doing something right or am an eccentric MPD sufferer ; lol ) 14 International Composers awards //// Seminary educated / Reformed theologian specializing in Apologetics and Contemporary Issues/Ethics . If one must place a label on mu theological stance I’d call myself a CalviLautheran .

      For those who know T. Martin Lesh is an abbreviation . For those who don’t its to maintain a semblance of anonymity .

      ( apologies to the moderator if this was too ‘ off topic ‘ a response )

  • T. Martin, don’t you know anonymity is so 2011? In 2012, it’s cool to tell us who you are so we can listen to your music? 😉 Ha! No, really – I understand. Just always find your responses interesting. 🙂

    • T.Martin Lesh.

      @ Chad – Anonymity was a choice I made last year due to both the wife and I’s fully recognizing our Introvert nature and need for privacy . Up and until the fingerstyle conversion when I used my real name , I’d used DBA’s in the past and after some 18 years being ‘ public ‘ decided to revert to a new one now . Strange decision admittedly , but there it is . When and if I release another solo CD under my current DBA I’ll reassemble a website and make the tunes available , along with the two previous CD’s under the new DBA . Currently I guess you could say I’m semi – retired ( in my mid 50’s ) with boredom setting in … rapidly ….. so it might happen

      BTW By ‘ interesting ‘ I hope you mean at the very least : thought provoking ? FYI; Should of added in my second response to Peggy about my theological bent that I’m more G.K . Chesterton ( pre- Catholic conversion ) than John Calvin in my reformed bent

  • I mean “interesting” in a good way. 🙂 And Chesterton is a fascinating writer. Just picked up a few of his works in the past few years. Loved “Orthodoxy.” A challenging read (at least for me), but really wonderful, too.

    Please do let the world know when your CD comes out. I’m definitely curious. Don’t let boredom get the best of you. I am certain there are more adventures to be had! 🙂

  • Tim

    Thanks for this article!
    It is a challenge for the nonviolent to love the violent. Richard Rohr suggests the practice of non dual thinking, or obsevation without evaluation. I confess that I am a long way from this and loving others unconditionally

    • Tim, I’m a long way from it, too! But it’s the path I feel called to follow. Thanks for Rohr’s suggestion… very helpful.