Radical Compassion is the Answer

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The biggest problem in our world today is not global warming, hunger, racism, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or even nuclear proliferation. The biggest problem in our world is lack of compassion. If we cultivate compassion towards ourselves, each other, and all other animals then these other problems will be solvable.

Viewing ALL life as valuable challenges each of us in upsetting and unpredictable ways. To realize that black lives matter because white lives matter (and vice versa) is only the beginning. Police officers matter because the lives of criminals matter. Politicians matter because the constituents they serve matter. American soldiers matter because the lives of ISIS matter. If any human being is seen as disposable, all lives become disposable. This is the great indigestible truth of our species.

As a proponent of Martin Luther King’s philosophy of deep abiding love through active nonviolence, I have been perplexed and saddened by how some of his contemporary followers have recently suggested that he would tolerate acts of violence (on both sides) currently playing out in American cities. They are quick to employ King’s famous line “a riot is the language of the unheard” in order to make it appear as if he would “understand” the use of violent tactics in certain situations- namely situations where systemic oppression is so entrenched that it can not be uprooted in any other way.

But “understanding” can become a euphemism for sanctioning or justifying violence. Nowhere was racism and oppression more entrenched than it was in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950’s. However, King never embraced violence as a relevant strategy. Until the end he was an uncompromising apostle of nonviolence trained in the holy disciplines of Christian sacrifice, Jewish determination and Gandhian disobedience. The fact that he was able to express sympathy towards rioters and militant rebels in cities like Rochester, Detroit, Newark, and Watts was just another example of his remarkable capacity for historical insight and spiritual compassion. This compassion should not be confused for acceptance. In King’s wise estimation violence always signified a major failure of religious and political creativity rather than an inevitable and sometimes therapeutic eruption of psychological duress.

The moral question that King posed to American society is as urgent today as it was in the 50’s and 60’s. Are we willing to despise violence more than we love our causes and duties? And if we are ready to relinquish violence as a viable option in the theater of conflict, how are we developing the tools and skills of radical compassion that we will need to transform hatred into love? This message speaks to the hearts of police and protestors alike. In one of his most powerful sermons entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” MLK proclaimed:

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. 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. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love… . If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.”

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