The Essence of Violence Is in the Heart

Dr. King recognized that the essence of violence is in the heart. Bombing people, shooting people, gassing, stabbing, clubbing, hitting, and torturing people are not the core of what violence is. Those things are merely the manifestations of a heart that is disconnected.

For instance, consider the fact that we are more shocked by the desecration of bodies killed in combat than we are by the killing itself. That’s because such desecration reveals to us an essence of violence – a dehumanizing hatred behind the shooting and killing – an essence that we may prefer to pretend wasn’t there. It’s the dehumanizing hatred that is the essence of violence. What we call acts of violence are merely the manifestation of a heart that hates. Nonviolence, then, is not merely refraining from shooting, stabbing, clubbing, kicking or hitting others – as important a step as that is. Nonviolence is a heart committed to softening instead of hardening. Nonviolence is a heart that loves, that respects, that reveres life, that connects and wants to connect. And we are violent to each other – whether we ever raise a hand or raise our voice to each other – whenever we fail to respond to each other out of reverence for the wonder of the life that is before us.

Reverence for the wonder of the life that is before us. And there’s more to it than the general skill-set we call “emotional intelligence” – though that’s a key aspect. Reverence for the wonder of the life that is before us is what I would call a spiritual virtue, and it is cultivated through spiritual discipline. Nonviolence is a spiritual commitment that comes from a spiritual understanding.

The heroes of nonviolent social change pictured at right -- Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Aung San Su Kyi – weren’t just effective political organizers who happened to tell their followers, "Oh, and, by the way, no hitting." They were at the forefront of social change that we call nonviolent because they each had the emotional and spiritual grounding to understand the essence of violence as in the heart.

Before Gandhi, massive opposition to a prevailing government was called revolution if it succeeded and rebellion if it didn’t, and it involved weapons and fighting and lots of violence. Such a scale of opposition had never been nonviolent.

Martin Luther King picked up Gandhi’s ideas and brought them to the civil rights struggle in our country. Again and again he urged his followers and all those working for justice to set aside the impulse to riot, to burn, to strike back. Keep the righteous energy of anger without letting that anger make its home in hatred. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us:
“Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”
Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi continues the tradition of nonviolent social change. Her work for democratization of Burma led to her being under house arrest for 15 out of the 22 years. The Nobel Committee, in awarding her the peace prize, cited her nonviolent struggle against the oppressive military junta as “one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades.”

Each of these three was or is deeply grounded in a religious tradition:
  • Gandhi was practicing what his Hindu faith teaches of ahimsa: the principle that all living things are connected and form a unity requiring respect and kindness.
  • King was practicing what his Christian faith teaches of love – often referenced as the Latin caritas, or the Greek agape: a spiritual love. Agape, as one theologian puts it, is “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.” King took to heart Jesus’ words, “love your enemy,” and his faith tradition taught him to answer hatred with love.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi is practicing what her Buddhist faith teaches of karuna (compassion), and anatta (no self). There is no self separate from others; each of us is all of us; we cannot truly want to hurt them.
You or I may never rise to their level. But there are some things we can learn to get better at nonviolent social change.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Nonviolent Social Change."
Next: Part 3: "Social Change Through NVC"
Previous: Part 1: "To Hear Each Other with Compassion"

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