Fighting Insults and Condemnation with the Power of Love

We were at the breakfast table.  My daughter, then about a year and a half, was in her highchair, scrambled eggs on the tray in front of her.  With an impish grin, she threw some of her meal on the floor.  “Don’t do that,” I said in a rather stern tone.  With an even larger grin, she threw some more eggs on the floor.  Immediately, and without thinking, I chided her: “Bad girl”, I said, raising my voice.  Her mother, who was thinking, just as quickly chided me: “She is not bad”; she may have done a bad thing, but she is not bad.”

Oh, I thought.  Right.  I apologized to my daughter, and vowed that I would try and never make the mistake of ascribing a person’s value to their behavior again.  I’m not sure I have succeeded.  Making unintentional (or intentional) moral judgments about people’s essential goodness on the basis of their actions has been part of family dynamics for as long as they have gathered at the kitchen table.  It is hard to give up the free-wheeling judgments and chastisements.  It can be satisfying to feel morally righteous and verbally punishing at the same time.  Separating personhood out from behavior can seem overly complicated.  ‘Bad girl’ is much easier.

Our public spaces are becoming filled with insults and outrage.  People’s very nature are venomously impugned on a daily basis.  Donald Trump has built his career on conflating a person’s essence with their behavior.  And he does it with a vengeance of regularity and intensity.  Various archivists have inventoried some 5,000 insults that he has written or said over the past few years.  ‘Bad girl’ or bad boy’, are not on the list, but loser, deranged, wack job, disgrace, crazy, crooked, joke, clown, are; not to mention a trove of unprintable invectives that have been blurted out from unmiked conversations.

There are at least three common responses to such put-downs:  disregard them, because they just keep coming at us like a broken fire hydrant; cower in their wake with shame, guilt or fear (or a combination of all three); or fight back.  The insulters of the world count on their targets responding in the first two ways:  the insults are like bad elevator music that can be ignored; or people are so afraid of the bullying that any overt reaction to it will be seen as an invitation to ramp up the cruelty.

Yet fighting back can also be a problem.  The impulse is to hit back at the putdown with the same level of animosity.  The insult itself is an invitation to violence; a commensurate response almost guarantees some form of violence.  Greater mistrust is the byproduct, and enmity can often result, all of which makes it easier to paint the person’s very soul with the brush of disdain.

That doesn’t mean we can’t fight.  But it does mean we need to fight with nonviolence.  And to fight with love.  Love is more than a feeling.  It is an act of the will.  It is the conviction that everyone deserves to receive the blessing of God, or if not God, than the blessing of humanity.  It takes work. Love can be confrontational without being insulting or inciting violence. 

Love is fierce.

One of the best depictions of this fierce love is outlined in the ‘Grand Inquisitor’, which is a poem/story contained within The Brothers Karamazov,  the 1880 novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The story is told by Ivan Karamazov to his younger brother Alyosha.  The story, which is described as a poem, takes place during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1660’s.  Jesus has returned, is arrested for performing miracles, and sentenced to be burned at the stake.  The grand inquisitor is a 90 year old church leader who chides Jesus for not giving in to the temptations posed by the devil:  to turn stones into bread, to demonstrate spectacular power, and to rule the earth.  (Matthew 4:1-11)  If Jesus had yes to those temptations, the inquisitor argues, people would have fully accepted his authority, and would become docile and happy, and would no longer experience suffering. ‘You gave them freedom of choice’, the old monk says, ‘and people can’t handle freedom.  They need to be ruled,and told what to do and think.  And to be punished severely when they transgress.  That will keep them in line, and render them obedient, docile and happy.’

Jesus remains silent.  When the condemnation is finished, Jesus approaches the Grand Inquisitor, kisses him on his “bloodless, aged lips”– and leaves the prison. Love prevails.  It is not destroyed.  Love has power.  Love invites freedom. Love can and needs to be fierce.

Martin Luther King captured this fierceness in one of his blessings: “ Power without love is reckless and abusive.  Love without power is sentimental and anemic.  Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting anything that stands against love.”

Fight with love.  Let us use its prevailing and abiding power.



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