Loving “The World”—Even When It’s Oppressive

Life is hard. At a stake conference a few years back, I heard Pres. Eyring speak words to the effect that if you feel like you’re swimming upstream, you’re on the right path. Those words have encouraged me many times since, prompting me when life gets difficult in ways large or small to tack into the wind and keep on sailing. This idea has a potential problem, though, in that it can quickly spill over into militaristic metaphor. Sailing into the wind risks being transmuted into swashbuckling. What’s the difference, and why does it matter? Why care what metaphor we use if enduring to the end is the outcome?

As Gandhi knew, something very fundamental is at stake here, and that is our valuation of life. Not just the lives of other people—though certainly that—but the messy complexity of our mortal existence itself. Do we love mortality, with all its challenges and flaws, or do we see it as an enemy to be subdued? How do we love something that often treats us so brutally, and that will kill us in the end?

More pointedly, can we really love God if we do not love this life, if we see mortality as something to be borne, simply gotten through, or conquered outright, rather than as a gift of God, a vital piece of the great plan of happiness? In the Church we use “the world” as a term of opprobrium, a catch-all for our perceptions of opposition and oppression. But how are we to handle opposition and oppression if we wish to be more like God, who so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son (John 3:16)?

I suspect that Gandhi would have appreciated the story in Alma 24 of the Lamanite converts who knelt to be slaughtered rather than raise weapons against those whom the text terms “their brethren.” Certainly the situation was oppressive, but this was the only way they knew how to face oppression while remaining true to the values of a recently embraced Gospel. And their dignified deaths struck many of the murderers to the quick, with the result that more came to God that day than went to God.

Nonviolence sounds like weakness, but as this episode illustrates, Gandhian satyagraha is a hard-edged doctrine. It does not mean going with the flow, letting evil have its way. Rather, it means meeting evil with love. This may sound all Kumbaya—but tell that to the more than a thousand Lamanites who preferred dying to killing.

The story of Daniel, who continued to pray even after he knew that the decree forbidding it had been signed, does reveal continued devotion to God, but it also tells us something about his attitudes to other people, especially those who use power in acts of targeted oppression. Daniel went to his window in order to pray, not to rail against the new law or those who had effected it. To do that would have been to become a politician among politicians, just another participant in the Machiavellian ordo saeclorum.

By praying, Daniel instead acted in accordance with the Gita, detaching himself from fear and anger. His was an act of bhakti yoga—devotion through love. Doing this connected him to the universal Self that pervades Creation. Having abandoned fear, the choice of whether to fear God or fear human power vanishes. There is no similar Manichaean choice in love: if we love God, we will love each other, and if we love each other, we will love God.

Or at least we should. Love sounds so easy, but when someone strikes your cheek, will you let him strike the other? Will you carry the military gear used to oppress you for a second mile beyond the compulsory first? How will you talk to the soldier who is complicit in making your life hell? Such questions reduce so many easy words of love to tinkling brass and clanging cymbals.

It seems that unless we sail the rough waters of loving others, we cannot really love ourselves. Our dignity as children of God comes at the price of loving our enemies. Daniel knew this. By praying in visible defiance of an unjust decree, he retained a dignity for which there would have been no room if he had given his heart over to hatred. As the main character Kanji says in Akira Kurosawa’s masterwork Ikiru, “I can’t afford to hate people. I don’t have that kind of time.”

Gandhi knew this, too (which explains his love for the Daniel story), but he also knew that choosing dignity isn’t always in our nature. Sometimes we prefer the rousing comforts of nationalism, or whatever other -ism gets our blood pumping. No wonder an -ism killed him, in a Hindu nationalist’s bullet. We like -isms because they (falsely) promise to preserve our dignity against existential threats, but really the existential threat to human dignity lies in our refusing to treat our enemies as though they have it—which they do. There is nothing more powerful in them to which we might appeal.

Gandhi’s favorite Bible verse was Philippians 4:6: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (NRSV). This doesn’t mean pretending that threats are mere phantasms of our perception. The Lamanite martyrs chose to love their enemies, but that didn’t make the enemies go away. Rather, it means acknowledging the existence of those who mean us harm, and loving them anyway. It means not worrying that evil might win, because love is more powerful. The weak things of the world will overcome. It is a sea that only those who are rooted in God, their minds still as the flame of a candle in a windless place, can sail, and even then it is hard not to founder.

In remembering Gandhi today, then, let us tack once more into the wind and open our hearts wide as eternity to love the world, no matter how difficult life in it too often is. For it is only in doing so that we can grasp “the firmest hand-hold, one that will never break.”

MLP

Mohandas K. Gandhi, 1948

Dan. 6:10-11, Matt. 5:38-42, 1 Cor. 13, Qur’an 4:256-57, Bhagavad Gita 2:55-57, Alma 24:20-27

Qur’an 4:256-57 – “There is no compulsion in religion: true guidance has become distinct from error, so whoever rejects false gods and believes in God has grasped the firmest hand-hold, one that will never break. God is all hearing and all knowing. God is the ally of those who believe: He brings them out of the depths of darkness and into the light.” (trans. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford World Classics, 2004)

Bhagavad Gita 2:55-57 – “They live in wisdom who see themselves in all and all in them, who have renounced every selfish desire and sense craving tormenting the heart. Neither agitated by grief nor hankering after pleasure, they live free from lust and fear and anger. Established in meditation, they are truly wise. Fettered no more by selfish attachments, they are neither elated by good fortune nor depressed by bad. Such are the seers.” (trans. Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, 1985)

The Collect: O God, creator of all humanity, who lookest upon us thy children in our love of strife and division, bless us that we might see thy image in ourselves and in others, especially our enemies; and bless us that, so seeing, we might grow strong and thereby reconcile our manifold oppression and wrong through the all-encompassing love by which thou thyself art One God. Amen.

For the music, here is the choir of King’s College Cambridge singing one of Gandhi’s favorite hymns, Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

And then there’s this beautiful Shaker hymn.


Note: I drew on this article in learning about Gandhi’s use of the Bible.

Comments

  1. That King’s College piece is utterly lovely. Thank you.

    I got a lot out of this post- it’s so hard to love our enemies, but it’s really the only way. So damn hard. And it’s so important to remember God’s love, and not mistake our own disagreements with anything divine. The world is beautiful and painful and wonderful and glorious and wretched. Just like us.

  2. I loved most of this, and I think Gandhi’s peaceful resistance was a wonderful example. But there was one scripture cited that really bothers me – the turn your cheek and let them smite you again example. Every time I hear or read this scripture, red flags go up for me because of the problems it presents for people who have been or are being abused.

    If someone hits me, I might be able to not hit back, to forgive the person, and even to love the person, but no, I would not continue to allow that person to hit me. That’s neither loving to myself nor to the person behaving badly. Love is so, so important, but I think healthy boundaries are equally important. I may be missing or not understanding the context of that scripture, but it’s always been a trigger for me. I hope this doesn’t entirely derail intent of the post. Gandhi is one of my heroes. I just hate that scripture.

  3. Bro. Jones says:

    Fabulous comparison of Alma 24 and Daniel to Gandhi’s beliefs. Thank you.

  4. You raise an important objection, MOQT. The world is a very complicated place, and I agree completely with you that the call to love does not obviate the need for prudence and judgment. I read that scripture as applying in situations that are oppressive, but not abusive, and drawing the line between those things is obviously a judgment call. Should people love those who abuse them? I feel unequivocal in answering “yes,” but at the same time that doesn’t—and shouldn’t—mean that abused people are supposed to stick around and take another beating. In fact I think that in many or most situations learning to love the abuser isn’t going to be possible except at some kind of safe distance. It takes a Jesus to forgive people for crucifying him while they’re doing it, and most of us aren’t him. Thanks for your comment.

  5. uplifting and enlightening — love this entry in the MLP! Thanks!

  6. A lovely setting for The Wondrous Cross.