- Christian-Buddhist Dialogue on Loving the Enemy
We are taught to think that we need a foreign enemy. Governments work hard to get us to be afraid and to hate so we will rally behind them. If we do not have an enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us. Yet they are also victims.1—Thich Nhat Hanh
We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.2—Martin Luther King Jr.
Literally speaking, Ahimsa means "non-killing." . . . To one who follows this doctrine there is no room for an enemy.3—M. K. Gandhi
In his autobiography, Martin Luther King Jr. comments that he initially considered Jesus's commands such as "turn the other cheek" or "love your enemies" as limited to individual relationships. Only after reading Gandhi in the late 1940s did he conclude that the love ethic had a much broader scope. Love became to him an effective principle applied to racial groups and nations in conflict and was "a potent instrument for social and collective transformation."4 Some years later, King was influenced by another Asian religious thinker, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Under Nhat Hanh's influence, King repudiated the war in Vietnam by addressing the similarity between the Vietnamese Buddhist peace movement and the American civil rights movement.5
Nhat Hanh and King were both inspired by Gandhi's peaceful approach to social conflicts. All three are exemplary models of love and nonviolence in their respective Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu traditions. Whether ahimsa (or harmlessness) in Hinduism, compassion for all beings in Buddhism, or "love of enemy" [End Page 89] in Christianity, unconditional love signifies the principal concern of these spiritual thinkers. All three men display an uncompromising commitment to the cause of the oppressed and downtrodden, but, at the same time, they refuse to vilify the opponents. In fact, all three speak of the "love of enemy" as the only sure way to ensure peaceful solution to any social crisis. Recent military conflicts prompted by the tragedy of September 11 offer a challenge for rethinking the most effective ways of dealing with international terrorism and other forms of social struggles. In what follows, I will suggest that, like Martin Luther King Jr., Christians can benefit from engaging in a dialogue with Eastern thought. Specifically, by focusing on the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, I will engage Christian liberation theologies to offer a possible corrective to a theological reflection on social conflict. In conversation with sociological reflection on war, political theorists, and artists, this article will present a fresh reexamination of a nondualistic, nonviolent approach to military and social conflicts.
Social exploitation, injustice, and oppression are focal points of many contemporary Christian theologies that are indebted to Latin American liberation theology. Recognizing the suffering of the poor and the failure of the historical Christian church to address the systemic injustice against them, liberation theologians affirm solidarity with the poor. Because of oppression and poverty, the poor have privileged access to the meaning of the Gospel (hermeneutic privilege) and the church needs to commit to a "preferential option for the poor." That is, those "who are privileged must identify with the poor and the oppressed not only because they need us but also because, from their experience of poverty and oppression, they are in a better position to understand the Gospel."6 Learning from the poor implies interpreting Christian faith out of the suffering of the poor; it implies seeing God as the God of the poor and the oppressed. The poor are seen as "the favorites of God"7 because they receive continuous divine attention to their struggle. The liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, Jesus's solidarity with the poor by becoming one of them, as well as his preaching the good news to them, are all examples of God's love for the poor. God's solidarity with the victims of social oppression reaches its zenith in the resurrection of Jesus when God is "doing Justice...