Renewing the Dream: Using Nonviolent Communication to Answer Dr. King’s Call for Social Change

How can nonviolent communication help us return to the powerful vision of social change for which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so strongly advocated and for which he died? How can we inspire ourselves to stand up for social change? Every time I hear stories from the civil rights movement, every time I look at images from that time, I wonder how the people, ordinary people just like you and me, were able to do the things they did. I think about our current times, when so many of us feel powerless, when I hear so many people say, “I’m just one person – the government has all the power so nothing’s going to change anyway no matter what I do.” And I see them numb out, check out, locked into hopelessness. In those moments of despair, I reconnect to the stories and images of the civil rights time, and I feel inspired.

Take a minute to think about the people you’ve read about from the Civil Rights Movement. Think about what it took for those men, women and children to be willing to stand up, risk so much, to face the challenges they did.

And now, ask yourself, “What prevents you from standing up, from taking the risks, taking the chance to act in ways that can create change? What qualities can you develop that would empower you to act? What support do you need to be able to do this?”

When I ask this question, people share so many important qualities that they see the civil rights activists had, and that they long for. They mention needs – needs like those inherent in NVC – such as community that stands with them, a conviction that they will have support if they are attacked and vilified for taking action. They mention longing for vision, a belief that with perseverance, change is possible.

All those needs are deeply important. But one thing that I believe we all need to empower us to action is a deep connection to love. So many of us fight against what we don’t want. We demonize people we view as our enemy. No matter our politics or our beliefs, so much energy is directed towards making someone else wrong, or seeing other people as our enemy. We believe that our strength, both our strength as individuals and our strength as a community, comes from declaring, in the most absolute, reductionist terms, that those who are against us are bad, and those who are with us are good.

Dr. King spoke out against the dangers of this framing of the problem – that successful change comes from hating our enemies. Instead, I want to share what he said about hate and love, words that seem ever more true today. He said, “Upheaval after upheaval has reminded us that modern man is traveling along a road called hate, in a journey that will bring us to destruction and damnation. Far from being the pious injunction of a Utopian dreamer, the command to love one’s enemy is an absolute necessity for our survival. Love, even for enemies, is the key to the solution of the problems of our world.” Those were radical, powerful words.

When Dr. King talked about the need to love our enemies, he identified several components to make this possible. He named developing and maintaining the capacity to forgive as a mandatory requirement to be able to love. He talked about the importance of separating the deed from the doer, in his words noting that, “the evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is.” Dr. King insisted that, as part of loving our enemy, we must seek not to defeat or humiliate him, even when we have the capacity to do so.

But, in Dr. King’s enumeration of WHAT is necessary in order to love our enemies, I still am left uncertain about HOW to do so. How do I love a man who walks into a church service where he is welcomed by churchgoers, and proceeds to kill 9 innocent people while shouting racist ideology? How do I love a man who drives his car into a rally of people peacefully protesting against hate, killing one person and injuring 36 others? How do I love people who set off bombs during a marathon, killing 3 people, causing 16 people to lose limbs, and injuring hundreds of others? HOW do I love those who hate me?

I have gotten some insights on HOW to love our enemies through Nonviolent Communication. It is impossible to love my enemy when I believe that their every action is motivated by hatred of me. So many of the systems in the modern world are designed to make us believe that we hate each other. Our elected officials and political pundits rail against the liberals that don’t respect the rural community; the coalminers that hate the elitist town people, the poor man who hates the immigrants.

If I believe their assertions that your actions are only motivated by hatred, then I must hate you in return, setting off what Dr. King described as “The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars.”

Instead, I turn to one of the core beliefs of Nonviolent Communication. Every action we take – every action, no matter how heinous, no matter how harmful the impact – is an attempt to meet a need. If I can truly believe that we share the same needs, that, as Dr. Rosenberg stated, “violence is the tragic expression of an unmet need,” I can find a path to loving my enemy.

I don’t make any claim that it’s an easy path. In developing my NVC practice, in learning to love my enemy, I had to make peace with many instances in my life when it was easier to hate my enemy, or hate myself, in order to find some way of moving through life. It’s so much easier to hate the doer, to conflate the doer with the deed. It’s much easier to go along with the fiction that some people are just evil.

To answer Dr. King’s call is to step out of the false safety of judgment and distance, to step into a world where no one is just evil. Where anyone, including each one of us, can commit the tragically violent actions we read in the news. What makes it possible for me to take this step is my conviction that, unless I learn to love my enemy, the chain reaction of hate will continue to spread. So, when I try to imagine their motivations, I let myself imagine the depth of despair that would lead me to want to take the life of strangers, and then take my own life. When I think of the enduring pain they might have experienced, I find it easier to have compassion for them, while fiercely hating their actions, and hating the systems that perpetuate the poverty and brutality so many experience throughout this life, the systems that continue to perpetuate the messages that one group can only survive at the expense of another.

I worry that, in saying this, some people will say – this is just an excuse for inexcusable behavior. I want to be clear that, by no means, are we condoning violent behavior. By no means are we saying that the only action one can take if one is raised in tormented circumstances is to turn to hate. This act of finding compassion and learning to love our enemy, of connecting with our shared humanity, is not about excusing violent behavior and allowing it to continue.

No, instead, it’s a practice that focuses on shining the light on the real causes of violence and hatred. It is about taking action to end immediate harm, to protect the innocents, while also looking for the humanity in another, and trying to find ways to engage that humanity so that, with their needs better met, they are also able to also turn towards love. I can spend a lifetime hating each killer of innocents that is profiled in the news. I can sentence each one to the death penalty. And if that’s all I do, nothing changes. If I don’t focus on the poisoned soil that keeps sprouting damaged plants, no matter how often I cut down the plants, new damaged ones will shoot up. Healthy plants don’t grow from poisoned soil. And so, I try to focus my attention, with the support of Nonviolent Communication, on the areas Dr. King so insightfully identified as the places where we can create change.

I end with this quote from Dr. King. Though it focuses on ending segregation, we can apply it to ending all the inequities of power, of resource distribution, of war, of environmental impact, that threaten us all.

Dr. King wrote, “Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. With every ounce of our energy we must continue to rid this nation of the incubus of segregation. But we shall not in the process relinquish our privilege and our obligation to love. While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.”

This piece is an excerpt from a speech Roxy gave at the 30th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Convocation at Augsburg University, January 15, 2018.

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