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The biggest problem in our world today is not global warming, hunger, racism, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or even nuclear proliferation. The biggest problem in our world is lack of compassion. If we cultivate compassion towards ourselves, each other, and animals, these other problems will be solvable.

Viewing ALL life as valuable challenges each of us in upsetting and unpredictable ways. To realize that white lives matter because black lives matter, and that police officers matter because the lives of criminals matter is part of the solution. To realize that politicians matter because the constituents they serve matter, and that American soldiers matter because the lives of ISIS matter, that is what radical compassion entails. If any human being is seen as disposable, all lives become disposable. This is the great-sometimes indigestable truth of our species.

But compassion can become a euphemism for sanctioning or justifying violence. Nowhere was racism and oppression more entrenched than it was in Montgomery, Alabama during the Civil Rights era. Yet Martin Luther King Jr never embraced violence as a relevant strategy. Until the end he was an uncompromising apostle of nonviolence trained in the holy disciplines of Christian sacrifice, Jewish determination, and Gandhian disobedience. The fact that he was able to express sympathy towards militant rebels and police officers alike in cities such as Rochester, Detroit, Newark, and Watts was just another example of his remarkable capacity for historical insight and spiritual compassion. This compassion should not be confused for acceptance. In King’s wise estimation, violence always signified a major failure of religious and political creativity rather than an inevitable and sometimes therapeutic eruption of psychological duress.

The moral question that King posed to American society is as urgent today as it was during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Are we willing to despise violence more than we love our causes and duties? And if we are ready to relinquish violence as a viable option in the theater of conflict, how are we developing the tools and skills of radical compassion that we will need to transform hatred into love? This message speaks to the hearts of police and protesters alike. In one of his most powerful sermons entitled “Beyond Vietnam,” MLK proclaimed:

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God.

George Cassidy Payne is a freelance writer, domestic violence counselor, and adjunct professor  of humanities at Finger Lakes Community College in Western New York. He lives and works in Rochester, NY. 

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