Spiritual activism: why love doesn’t mean you have to like someone

Someone I’ve known for a very long time was recently accused of ‘preaching’ because he asked a community to remain calm, kind and peaceful during a spree of vandalism in the neighbourhood. 

No one was hurt during these incidents, and it transpires that young children were the ‘culprits’. Despite realising this, several residents in the community said (and I quote) that, if the children were caught, neighbours would ‘break their legs’ for the damage they caused.  

My friend insisted the police were notified of the vandalism, called for measured action amongst the residents, and reminded them there was more to what happened than just kids running riot.  He maintained there must be a reason children would behave this way, and it was the cause that needed to be addressed, not just the actions.  

That’s not to say their actions shouldn’t be challenged, and the children should be re-educated on what is morally right and lawful.   But, he emphasised, ‘teaching them a lesson’ could not – and would not – involve any form of abuse, and anyone suggesting violence as a solution would be reported. 

Needless to say, my friend was surprised that his good intentions had been received so negatively. We had to question how a society would see his positive message as a sign of weakness, interference and, as one woman put it, “silliness” to offer a different point of view. The residents  maintained they were right, and that he was wrong. 

In the wake of the incidents in Charlottesville, and the powerful speech given by Susan Bro in the video below, I was reminded of our duty to challenge wrongful behaviour.  Bro is the mother of Heather Heyer who was murdered during those protests.  She appealed to us that we should explicitly call into question those who insist on creating a divide, just because they don’t agree with our own moral code. 

Is it possible to address ill-informed behaviour peacefully, and open dialogue with people we have no care for at all? Can we – and should we – truly love someone who causes hurt, or whose opinions are so far removed from our own; who won’t even contemplate that there is another point of view?  These are questions I myself have struggled with in the past. 

As a woman’s advocate, I raise awareness of issues which predominantly affect the mental health of women, including those escaping Domestic Abuse.  It’s a challenge for any woman – including me – to feel compassion for anyone who could so willfully and often severely harm another.  As someone who also follows a Buddhist way of life, I have battled with the concept that I must show kindness to people who behave so badly. Don’t I have to like everyone? As it turns out, no I don’t.


I was heartened  to read this article in Lions Roar about spiritual activism, which explains how love doesn’t mean you have to like someone. 

In the article, both Sharon Salzberg and Revd. angel Kyodo williams (her name is spelled with lower case letters that way) recognise that we naturally resist the idea of loving someone, especially if they’re the cause of our pain.  

The suggestion that we should show compassion to someone unkind may seem ridiculous under those circumstances, and it feels almost intuitive to fight that idea.

I’ve seen this resistance for myself. When I have tried to encourage a more compassionate and loving approach in others, when they only see the bad in people around them, I’ve been told I’m the one who is wrong. I’ve been called a ‘tree-hugging hippy’, that I ‘don’t live in the real world’, that I should keep ‘taking the pills’ (I don’t take any), and that I’m trying to simplify war in a John+Yoko-esque way by suggesting love is the answer.  I’ve been told emphatically that power is what’s needed, and that the definition of power is to ‘show them who’s boss’.  I still maintain it’s not. 

“Facing the reality of this suffering, we remember that peacefulness does not mean passiveness and nonattachment does not mean nonengagement.”  Lions Roar

Naturally, there is an aversion to loving someone when we really don’t agree with what they say, they have hurt us deeply, and we really don’t like them at all. And, the article explains, that’s absolutely fine.  

What matters is that we recognise a person who causes pain didn’t reach that point without a lifetime of experiences. That they were someone who was suffering before they chose a life of pain. This is not to excuse their hurtful behaviour (although many may see it that way, or struggle with the concept), but to be free of our own suffering, we must acknowledge someone isn’t born to hurt.  

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. ~ Nelson Mandela

For whatever reason, circumstances brought them to a place where they chose different, unhealthier, coping mechanisms to your own. There is a cause to their negative behaviour which ultimately only they can address and be responsible for.  If we can’t appreciate that, we all suffer. If we can make peace with the concept that harmful actions are as a result of a cause, we can begin a path of recovery. 

Recognising that is love.

It doesn’t mean we endorse, support, collude, encourage, allow, or live alongside harmful behaviour.  A person must be held accountable for the poor, dangerous and devastating choices they make, and the consequences they have.  It also doesn’t suggest we make it our job to ‘fix’ the person we believe is ‘wrong’, or that we get to decide what their ‘punishment’ is. 

But we can make it part of our purpose to show them another point of view, if we so choose. 

This is where spiritual activism comes in. 

Spiritual activism is a commitment to safely educating people about accountability, connection and empathy (amongst other things) through peaceful and compassionate actions, including dialogue.  

That doesn’t mean it’s passive. It doesn’t mean it involves sitting back and letting the world implode. What it does mean is challenging harmful behaviour, whilst realising there is a much bigger picture. It’s about recognising that you don’t have to pick a side and then blindly stick to it.  

I know, for example, I can change my mind about how I cast my vote, and what causes or campaigns I stop supporting, if their values become toxic or don’t align with my own. (It also has nothing to do with religion).  It’s not self-righteous judgement or preaching to encourage a peaceful world to live in for all of us. It’s not ‘negative’ to address someone’s hateful behaviour towards another human being, if you challenge it in a positive way with good intentions.  And that every action has a consequence.  

“Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.”
~ Maya Angelou, poet and activist

It’s about treating the cause of a problem, rather than managing the symptoms, and behaving with kindness, and an aspiration to heal.

As Sharon Salzberg reminds us, “The Buddha told a king, “You should be just, you should be fair, and you should be generous.” But the king forgot to be generous and so people started going hungry and they started stealing. Then the Buddha said to the king, “The point is not to start making laws against theft. The point is to look at why people are hungry.”

So in the case of Charlottesville, Paris, Manchester, Barcelona, Syria and all the other places around the world where we have seen death and devastating destruction we, as compassionate humans, have to ask why these events keep happening, rather than just treat the symptoms they create. 

In the case of my friend, he had a valid point.  It turned out that the children responsible for the recent vandalism were ‘acting out’ because their father was struggling with poor mental health and had turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. He and the children are now being supported through various agencies.  

There is nothing silly about reaching out to people in an effort to understand their pain, as long as we maintain healthy, safe boundaries and a compassionate approach to the solutions available. And, of course, those individuals must take responsibility for the damage they’ve caused.   In the case of children, leading by positive example and teaching them the value of empathy (how would they feel if, as an adult, someone damages their property?), is one place to start.  It makes forgiveness possible. 

If someone behaves ‘badly’ we can find a way to articulate that without matching hate with hate. We can recognise the cause of their behaviour without making it our problem. If we want to offer help or be there during their recovery we can, but sometimes just showing someone there is another way can be useful.  Remember though, only they can transform and heal their life by wanting better for themselves and others. 

Said kindfully and with good intentions, let’s open a meaningful and peaceful dialogue, where we choose being kind over being right, and our goal is a peaceful outcome for everyone.  As Waylon Lewis says, let’s disagree agreeably

One person can change the world, by giving people hope, so if you want to change the world…step up when the times are the toughest, face down the bullies, lift up the down-trodden, and never, ever give up… if you do these things, the next generation and the generations that follow will live in a far better world than the one we have today, and what started here will indeed have changed the world for the better. ~ William H. McRaven

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If you or someone you know may be – or thinks they are – in an abusive relationship, organisations like Refuge can help.  You can call their freephone helpline 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247. 

Copyright Delphi Ellis 

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