One of the most exciting discoveries of my young life was to learn in 4th grade science class how sunlight, when refracted, transforms into a panorama of colors. How fascinating to learn about the nature of light and the constellation of hue and tint that is part of its essence. What a wonder!
Similarly, part of the wonder of our faith tradition includes the step-by-step discovery of how faith and love are similarly composed of a panorama of commitments. Despite the seeming simplicity of the admonition “love your neighbor,” it’s a choice that draws us into a matrix of complementary commitments and complexity.
At the start, the invitation “to love” might mean a more deliberate commitment to the good of one’s family; and, to be sure, for someone who has been neglectful of a spouse or children, this is an important choice and a good beginning. But as the implications and many “colors” of love get explored, love expands into relationships with neighbors, strangers, the poor, the abandoned, even the enemy. Jesus’ beckon to love even our enemies is not so much a request to extend the boundaries of love as it is to honor the expansiveness that is inherent in love from the start.
But love’s refraction or love’s essence is not just a matter of breadth; it’s also a matter of substance. As love is explored and experienced and applied to life’s realities, it mutates into dozens of commitments, many unanticipated. The Apostle Paul speaks to this in his letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” To love draws us into an interconnected set of obligations and possibilities; Paul’s list is but one of many.
Add to these lists: love is nonviolent.
On the face of it, this seems inarguably true. How could love ever be violent? How could God possibly smile on or even tolerate the pain and suffering that is the bitter fruit of violence? How, to use Paul’s words from Corinthians, could patience or kindness interconnect with violence? With that said, the challenge of nonviolence is often not found in the comfortable musings of theology; the challenge is found in the painful and powerful realities that characterize the brokenness and wounds of the world in which we live.
My hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, is a city divided. On one side of town, where I live, most of the folks are white and comfortable; on the other side of town, most of the folks are people of color and poor. And visible violence is prevalent. Of course, this is a generalization, but it is a generalization that is reasonable to make. School teachers who serve the children on the other side of town report that almost all the children from these neighborhoods carry with them to school profound trauma from regular exposure to gun violence. Many of them have seen people shot or have lost family members to gun violence; all of them hear gun shots regularly and are trained to fall to the floor of their home when they hear gun shot. The point? Human beings do not thrive in violent settings. Human beings are mangled by violence, sometimes physically disfigured by bullets and bombs, but always psychologically and spiritually. And our faith proclaims that this is clearly NOT what God had in mind for the human family.
To say that love is nonviolent or that God is nonviolent is, in effect, to say that the world should be nonviolent; peacemaking is an act of love which seeks to make things right in a world that has been scarred by violence. Violence comes in all kinds of packages: the weapons can be guns, but they can also be neglect (the absence of food or housing) or words (racist or homophobic remarks).
Nonviolence is to shine another word-flashlight on the world to help make sense of how to heal it. To note the linkage between poverty and violence, for example, is to highlight that poverty is not just about deprivation – it’s the taking of people’s lives; starvation is violence. By making this indisputable link, the urgency of the matter is made clear. Another example: to note the linkage between verbal harassment of women and violence is to highlight that such harassment is not “playful fun” but a profoundly hurtful act that when compounded over and over in daily experience, does long-term damage. To make the linkage between racism and violence is to not only remind ourselves of hundreds of years of the most chilling acts of cruelty known in human history but to recognize racial injustice in our day as the violence that it is.
Nonviolence is a lifestyle, a way of being in relationships, a spiritual practice and a political strategy. “To love,” to walk in the way & footsteps of Jesus, to be faithful, necessarily means to eschew violence, to heal violence, to work for an end to violence.
It’s a critical ingredient for steering our faith, so that, ultimately, peace might erupt. Our invitation from Jesus—the Prince of Peace—is that we become messengers and bearers of peace. That is, the fruit of nonviolent practice and action is peace; not just peace as the absence of war, but peace as joy and human flourishing.
(This blog was originally published in 2019; it has been edited and updated.)