What do you do when someone spouts anger at you, drenches you in hate or shows utter contempt for everything you stand for?
The instinctive response is to fight back, to meet fire with fire.
What is the spiritual response to the same situation?
To meet hate with love.
Martin Luther King Jr. echoed the Nazarene and explained why this is the spiritual response when he said:
“Hate can never drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Meeting hate with hate is natural but it leads to an escalation that is impossible to stop.
Hate breeds hate breeds hate breeds hate.
Good People Giving Into Instinct
In the past two years, I have seen good people give into this instinct over and over again, especially in response to Trump and his supporters.
It’s a fine line that is easy to cross.
Yes, resisting hateful, bigoted rhetoric is important, but once resistance turns into name-calling, once exasperation turns into spiteful indignation, once the outrage becomes the focal point rather than a temporary feeling, then the line between a loving and respectful response and an instinctive hateful response has been crossed.
I’ve seen good people, loving people, altruistic people cross this line. Heck, I’ve crossed the line in my mind more than once in the past couple of years, even though I’ve refused to act on it publicly.
“But, they started it,” some may respond.
That is true. But a tit for tat reaction will only escalate tensions. If we want to de-escalate the situation, a better response is needed.
Love Is Strength
Spiritual teachers of all ages have tried to tell us that love is stronger than hate. They have appealed to our better angels, tried to engage our capacity for empathy and compassion, and encouraged us to water the seeds of love that reside within each and every human being.
And yet, the teachings of altruistic love have always been difficult to sell. There have always been those among us who have seen love as the ultimate weakness.
Nevertheless, on this point, the wisdom traditions all agree. Love is strength. Love is the glue that holds us together. Without it, we perish.
The Quintessence of True Religion
The nonviolent visionary, Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ (the Great Soul) Gandhi, reminded us thusly:
“It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.”
Befriending one who regards himself as your enemy.That is the test of true religion, true spirituality, true humanity.
Being friendly and loving when everything is peachy is easy. The true test comes when things go sour.
Love Is Not About Giving Up
I love my children dearly. Sometimes I have to put my foot down. When I raise my voice to get their attention, it is not the opposite of love, but rather it is part of my love for them. However, I never call them names or belittle them in the process. That would cross the line.
The same goes for my friends. I love my friends and, therefore, I am honest with them, even if it may hurt their feelings. Again, I don’t hurt their feelings for sport or try to deride them, but sometimes staying silent would go against my love for them.
Love is not merely a pleasant feeling. Love is a force for good that moves through the world without disparaging others and works on the basis of attraction rather than repulsion.
As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel reminded us:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
Resist With Love
The message is simple. While you resist bigotry and intolerance, don’t become an intolerant bigot.
That’s the essence of what I am reminding us to do (I need reminding just as much as the next person).
The love I am talking about is not the mushy feel-good Valentines love we hear of in pop lyrics or the walk-all-over-me attitude that some people mistake as love.
No. The love I speak of is resilient, like a mother with a sick baby; compassionate, like an aid worker who feeds people without discrimination; truthful, like an addiction counselor who tells the bitter truth so that his patient will get better; firm, like a father who sets a strict schedule so his children will do well at school; respectful, like a teacher at an important ceremony; kind, like a grandmother serving cookies and hot cocoa on a cold winters day; and present, like a friend who listens in order to truly understand.
Love is a force for goodness, truth, and beauty.
Interfaith Minister & Author
p.s. If you are training this emotional ability, developing your capacity for love and goodness, remember to aim for progress over perfection.
Pictures: Wikimedia CC0 License
Invitation: If you live in Central Texas, please consider joining me for free events in New Braunfels, Austin, Kerrville, and San Antonio, titled Working Together Towards Harmony. See the full schedule here.