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Center for Action and Contemplation

A Nonviolent Love

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Richard Rohr reflects on the spiritual foundations of nonviolence embodied and taught by Martin Luther King Jr.

Part of the genius of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), inspired by the teachings of Jesus and Gandhi, was that he was able to show people that violence was not only immoral but also impractical and, finally, futile. In the long run, violence does not achieve its own stated purposes, because it only deepens the bitterness on both sides. It leaves both sides in an endless and impossible cycle that cannot be stopped by itself. Instead, some neutralizing force must be inserted from outside to stop the cycle of violence and point us in a new direction.

King would insist that true nonviolent practice is founded on spiritual seeing. . . . He took it as axiomatic that the attitudes of nonviolence were finally impossible without an infusion of agape love from God and our reliance upon that infusion. He defined agape love as willingness to serve without the desire for reciprocation, willingness to suffer without the desire for retaliation, and willingness to reconcile without the desire for domination. This is clearly a Divine love that the small self cannot achieve by itself.

We must live in and through Another to be truly nonviolent. [1]

At a 1960 lunch counter sit-in protesting segregation in Arlington, Virginia, Quaker peace activist David Hartsough discovered God’s power in the power of nonviolence: 

“Love your enemies . . . do good to those who hate you.” 

I was meditating on those words when I heard a voice behind me say, “Get out of this store in two seconds, or I’m going to stab this through your heart.” I glanced behind me at a man with the most terrible look of hatred I had ever seen. His eyes blazed, his jaw quivered, and his shaking hand held a switchblade—about half an inch from my heart. . . .

I turned around and tried my best to smile. Looking him in the eye, I said to him, “Friend, do what you believe is right, and I will still try to love you.” Both his jaw and his hand dropped. Miraculously, he turned away and walked out of the store.

That was the most powerful experience of my twenty years of life. It confirmed my belief in the power of love, the power of goodness, the power of God working through us to overcome hatred and violence. I had a profound sense that nonviolence really works. At that moment, nonviolence became much more than a philosophical idea or a tactic that had once made a difference in Gandhi’s India. It became the way I wanted to relate to other human beings, a way of life, a way of working for change.

My response had touched something in my accuser. He had seen me as an enemy. But through my response, I believe I became a human being to him. The humanity in each of us touched. [2]


[1] Richard Rohr, “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Principles of Nonviolence,” Oneing 10, no. 2, Nonviolence (Fall 2022): 47, 48. Forthcoming at CAC Bookstore.

[2] David Hartsough with Joyce Hollyday, Waging Peace: Global Adventures of a Lifelong Activist (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2014), 19, 20. 

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Susan Ruggles, Rally Against Iraq War 0017 (detail), 2003, Milwaukee, photograph, Wikimedia. Susan Ruggles, Iraq War Anniversary Peace Rally (detail), 2003, Milwaukee, photograph, Wikimedia. Susan Ruggles, Rally Against Iraq War 0014 (detail), 2003, Milwaukee, photograph, Wikimedia. Jenna Keiper & Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States. Click here to enlarge image.

Image inspiration: Candles are on either side of a central image, as in a sanctuary. Nonviolence is sacred.

Story from Our Community:

My husband and I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in the “winter” of my life, and after many years, I still have not found a church to attend regularly. . . Without the brick and mortar, my worship has turned to the natural beauty in which I find myself. The Daily Meditations have taught me to look at my life through a new lens in which everything belongs and God is all around me. I am grateful every day that the “winter” of my life has surprised me with so much beauty. And a deeper connection with God! —Carol W.

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Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

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