- Confronting the “Sin” out of Love for the “Sinner”:Fierce Compassion as a Force for Social Change
Christian teachings of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu call us to embody an unconditional love that would confront others’ “sins,” their destructive ways of thinking and acting, on behalf of the “sinners.” From a Buddhist perspective, to confront those who do harm out of love instead of hatred would necessitate a contemplative discipline that can reveal both the deep worth and humanity of all persons and the destructive tendencies in all of us that hide people’s worth and humanity from our view. In this essay, I will explain and guide a contemplative exercise, adapted from Buddhism, that aims to evoke our capacity to recognize the unconditional worth and potential of persons while unveiling the destructive habits of thought in us that hide their worth from us, starting with ourselves. Such contemplative disciplines can help us learn to embody a fierce compassion that would confront people who harm others, not just on behalf of those harmed but also on behalf of those doing harm.
an unconditional perspective on injustice and evil
Many popular stories and films construct a simple dualism between good and evil— between the good ones with whom we identify and the others who are the source of evil in the world. As we watch Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and so on, most of us cheer on the forces of goodness and justice, sharing in their righteous rage as they demolish the evil ones. In our own lives, when we speak up or work for social justice or change, we may replicate this pattern, believing we are in solidarity with the good against the evil, that we are choosing what is profoundly right by taking the side of the harmed against the ones who do harm. We may do this in the name of God, believing that this is what God, through his prophets, has done. Yet Christian activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Desmond Tutu have taught a radically different approach to social justice: unconditional, all-inclusive love as the force of challenge leading to change. They have taught a perspective and attitude of care for all that never opposes [End Page 87] some on behalf of others, but opposes the “sin,” the destructive tendency in all, on behalf of the “sinner,” the fuller humanity and potential in all.
Love, even for enemies, is the key to the solution of the problems of the world . . . Let us be practical and ask the question, ‘How do we love our enemies?’. . . We must recognize that . . . an element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy . . . This means that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface, beneath the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evil of his acts are not quite representative of all that he is.1
Tutu wrote: “Theology reminded me that however diabolical the act, it did not turn the perpetrator into a demon. We had to distinguish between the deed and the perpetrator, between the sinner and the sin, to hate and condemn the sin while being filled with compassion for the sinner.”2 And: “Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. . . . It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.”3
King and Tutu argue that we need to discern the difference between sin and sinner to establish the basis for us to oppose the sin in perpetrators, their destructive patterns of thought and action—not just on behalf of those they harm, but importantly also on behalf of them. As Tutu explains in further writing, if we...