“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”
All quotes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On the eve of Martin Luther King Day, we collectively celebrate the life that included a fierce commitment to compassion and dignity for all people. We also recognize that Dr. King was leading people to a social revolution in a society unwilling to recognize justice and equality. Dr. King brought the eyes of the world to see the unlivable reality of being black in a white world. He did this without firing a single bullet, but through non-violent action which removes hatred from our hearts. That was the teaching of love Dr. King brought to an America incapable of receiving his message without fear. His murder and death are part of the American legacy of violence, continued fear, and discrimination against people of color. This Monday we have a collective reminder of the promise of the beloved community, where all people are considered, and an opportunity to mourn Dr. King’s dream that is still beyond the reach of our American reality.
Dr. King understood that aggression and violence lead to more violence. Violence may serve as a justification to oppressors to continue their domination and persecutions and violence and aggression continue the fire of hatred. This is the fire that can only be quenched through a radically different approach. We’ve seen the power dynamics of warring countries. Conflicts can last for generations with one side oppressing the other, then shifting power so the other becomes the oppressor. This is a continuous cycle of ignorance and violence without end.
The Buddha’s words always categorize anger as unwholesome, consistently associated with hatred and ill-will and always an obstacle to spiritual progress. Bhikkhu Bhodi told me that anger is a “wrong motivation” and Buddhist teacher and activist Donald Rothberg states when anger and hatred are at the base of intention, the resulting action and kamma will be harmful to self and others. We know from our own experience that when we act in anger—we are at a deficit and the best part of our brain is unavailable due to the increased amount of cortisol and adrenalin, starving off the full engagement of our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for compassion, wisdom, and can discern consequence.
While unchecked anger is without question dangerous to our relationships and clear thinking, anger does have a place in our emotional life. This single interpretation of anger as a vehicle for actions rooted in hatred, vengeance, and the desire to harm another may not be the whole story. The Dalai Lama and Donald Rothberg consider the terms “afflictive emotions,” “ill will or hatred,” to be more accurate translations for the Pali word “kodha” which is commonly listed as anger. An action rooted in hatred is always harmful–but anger can serve us.
When we understand the usefulness of anger, we can see it as energy and information. The Western view of anger is more nuanced, ranging from outright retaliatory rage to a feeling of moral grievance at the ill-treatment of the weak. Rothberg writes that anger in the ancient Greek world and in the West is seen “as an appropriate response to what is socially inappropriate, immoral, or unjust.” Anger can be used as the fuel for action in social justice actions. In the struggle for India’s independence, the US Civil Rights movement, and Catholic worker movement, anger does not result in ill-will but catalyzed marginalized groups to act with non-violence and seek to liberate both the oppressors and the oppressed.
Anger sends the clear message that something is wrong and needs our attention and can be the sustenance to create an organization that uses civil disobedience to save lives. Anger at injustice may be what love feels like. Looking at the intention beneath the action there is the desire to protect and defend life and to change what is intolerable to live with. When we know how to be with anger, not to allow it to bring us into hatred, or cause pain, but when we can hold our anger with care and understanding, we can use it as the fuel for change.
In the Dhammapada, a poetic interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching from Francis Story reads, “Not by hating hatred ceases. In this world of tooth and claw; Love alone from hate releases —This is the Eternal Law.” (Dhp Verse 5). This same idea is expressed by Dr. King when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” It was the commitment to love without exception that made revolutionaries like the Buddha, Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela create revolutions that change not only the power structure but also free the oppressors from the continuous damage of perpetuating hate and discrimination. Guided by wisdom and non-preferential love, we can make wise choices towards loving others—even those who perpetuate the cycle of abuse and hatred. Treating our anger with respect and consideration, we can use the information to act with fierce compassion, just as Dr. King taught—because we are not free until all of us are free.
May we all trust our light,