The Common Good

Experiments in Love

When I got off the plane at O’Hare Airport in Chicago on my way home to Boston on April 15, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Televisions blaring everywhere showed my beloved city at her premier event of the year, the Boston Marathon. Everyone knows the rest of the story.

“Is this for real? How can this be?” I asked, unable at first to face the reality of what had occurred. Feelings of fear and anger followed quickly on the heels of the denial.

Leaders responded quickly: the mayor, the governor, the president. “Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice,” promised President Barack Obama.

What is justice? Vengeful words immediately spewed from talk shows and bloggers’ keyboards. “We must catch them alive and make them suffer as much as possible. That will pay them back for what they did,” spewed those who equate justice with revenge.

Of course, violence begets more violence. Gandhi put it succinctly: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Paul exhorted the Romans, “Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. . . Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. (Romans 12:17,19.)”

When we humans seek vengeance, we perpetuate and intensify the cycle of violence.

But what does it mean to repay evil with good? It certainly does not mean to let the marathon bombing suspect currently in custody go free, with no accountability for his actions. How can we break the cycle of violence?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We are only beginning to understand the power of love in response to hate. Gandhi entitled his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth because he believed in experimenting with the power of love. He likened the power of love to the early days of electricity, when inventors were only just beginning to discover the potential of its power. Bold experimentation was needed to explore what was possible. In the same way, he explained, the human race is in the early days of exploring the power of love. We need bold experimentation to see what is possible, to see how love can drive out hate.

One courageous experimenter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid ended. While many had predicted a bloodbath at the end of apartheid, Tutu imagined a space for people to share the hurt they had experienced and the hurt they had inflicted, and to be met with forgiveness and love. While the road was long and Tutu met much resistance along the way, he persevered and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work over the course of 18 months transformed much bitterness and hatred into understanding and forgiveness. The bloodbath was averted and South Africa moved into the post-apartheid era with a strong foundation.

In ways similar to Tutu’s work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, other countries have experimented with restorative justiceboth in large-scale efforts and within the criminal justice system. Charles Colson pioneered restorative justice efforts in the U.S. criminal justice system through Prison Fellowship International, reducing recidivism significantly.

What would it be like if, instead of responding to violence with vengeance, we, as leaders, imagined ways for love to drive out hate? Seeking to lead with love doesn’t mean having all the answers. It means living the Gospel imaginatively. What if we, like Gandhi, Tutu, Colson, and King, banded together with others to experiment with the power of love?  May we commit ourselves to breaking the cycle of violence, to channeling our imaginations and our energy to find a new way. The Gospel requires nothing less.

Margaret Benefiel, Ph.D., is Executive Officer of Executive Soul, LLC. She is the author of Soul at Work (Seabury, 2005) and The Soul of a Leader (Crossroad, 2008), and co-editor of The Soul of Supervision (Morehouse, 2010).

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