Love Leadership: Responding to Violence

Photo by Eva Maria on Flickr

Photo by Eva Maria on Flickr

When I got off the plane at O’Hare Airport in Chicago on my way home to Boston on April 15, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Televisions blaring everywhere showed my beloved city at her premier event of the year, the Boston Marathon.  Only the Marathon had been bombed.

“Is this for real?  How can this be?” I asked, unable at first to face the reality of what had occurred.  Feelings of fear and anger followed quickly on the heels of the denial.

Leaders responded quickly: the mayor, the governor, the president. “Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice,” promised President Obama.

But what is justice?  For some, justice equals revenge.  Vengeful words immediately spewed from talk shows and bloggers’ keyboards.  “We must catch them alive and make them suffer as much as possible. That will pay them back for what they did,” summarized the view of many.

Yet what happens when we pursue vengeance?  Gandhi put it succinctly: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Furthermore, what would really pay back the bombers for innocent people’s loss of life and limb?  Could any amount of suffering inflicted on the perpetrators repay the suffering they inflicted?  And even if it could, what would that accomplish? The Christian scriptures teach that humans shouldn’t take vengeance into their hands:  “Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. . . Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. (Romans 12:17,19.)” When we humans seek vengeance, we perpetuate and intensify the cycle of violence.

But what is the alternative to vengeance?  What does it mean to repay evil with good? It certainly does not mean to let the marathon bombing suspect currently in custody go free, with no accountability for his actions. How can we break the cycle of violence?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We are only beginning to understand the power of love in response to hate.  Gandhi entitled his autobiography The Story of my Experiments with Truth because he believed in experimenting with the power of love.  He likened the power of love to the early days of electricity, when inventors were only just beginning to discover the potential of its power.  Bold experimentation was needed to explore what was possible.  In the same way, he explained, the human race is in the early days of exploring the power of love.  We need bold experimentation to see what is possible, to see how love can drive out hate.

One courageous experimenter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid ended.  While many had predicted a bloodbath at the end of apartheid, Tutu imagined a space for people to share the hurt they had experienced and the hurt they had inflicted, and to be met with forgiveness and love.  While the road was long and Tutu met much resistance along the way, he persevered and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work over the course of eighteen months transformed much bitterness and hatred into understanding and forgiveness.  The bloodbath was averted and South Africa moved into the post-apartheid era with a strong foundation.

In ways similar to Tutu’s work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, other countries have experimented with what has come to be known as restorative justice, both in large-scale efforts and within the criminal justice system. Charles Colson, for example, pioneered restorative justice efforts in the U.S. criminal justice system through Prison Fellowship International, reducing recidivism significantly.

What would it be like if, instead of responding to violence with vengeance, we, as leaders, imagined ways for love to drive out hate? Seeking to lead with love doesn’t mean having all the answers. What if we, like Gandhi, Tutu, Colson, and King, banded together with others to experiment with the power of love? Let us commit ourselves to breaking the cycle of violence, to channeling our imaginations and our energy to find a new way.

13 Responses to “Love Leadership: Responding to Violence”


  1. 1 Jackie O'Sullivan April 29, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Where is the vengeance? There will of course always be those who cry for blood, but there has been a tremendous outpouring of support and love for those who are suffering because of these acts, and most people so not see the alleged bombers in every Muslim face.
    The internet is largely a cesspool, and if you are taking the measure of the response to this heinous act by assessing the rantings of conspiracy theorists and racists, then you are engaging in a fools’ errand, and I knew well you are NOT a fool!

  2. 3 Phil Cox April 29, 2013 at 10:24 pm

    I agree, vengeance is wrong for anyone. Yet, justice does not necessarily equate to vengeance (at least in my thinking). While justice is being carried out, love can operate in the meantime. As a chaplain, I offer the same pastoral care to a patient who is escorted by a deputy sheriff as I do to anyone else. That’s my idea of love operating in the midst of everything else.

    • 4 executivesoulblog April 30, 2013 at 10:27 am

      Thanks for this excellent example, Phil, of offering the same pastoral care to a patient escorted by a deputy sheriff as you do to anyone else. I agree with you that justice does not necessarily equal vengeance. Restorative justice, for example, is an entirely different approach to justice, and one that is much more effective.

  3. 5 jane taylor April 30, 2013 at 12:56 am

    As the banner across 93 in Savin HIll says.. “no hurting people… peace”.

  4. 7 chris mc cormac April 30, 2013 at 7:12 am

    Vengeance simply perpetuates the cycle of violence. However, the energy that goes into a spontaneous re-action to violence can be led, through consciousness, to an effort to re-humanise the de-humanised person (Freire). The only place that consciousness can be ignited is through the oppressed as actors in the action of freeing themselves from oppression without destroying themselves or others.
    Love, Peace and Action.

    • 8 executivesoulblog April 30, 2013 at 10:33 am

      Thank you, Chris. Yes, the anger that is a spontaneous reaction to violence is an energy that can be transformed for good. I’m reminded of Gandhi’s statement that he didn’t want anyone with him who wasn’t willing to fight the British. He wanted that energy of anger and willingness to fight that could then be transformed into nonviolent engagement with the British forces.

  5. 9 Ramona Silipo April 30, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Margaret, it’s a little spooky. So often what you write sounds as though you’ve been crawling around in my thoughts.You, however, actually get around to writing the thoughts down. I’ve forwarded this to about 30 people! Thanks for this post. Sending you much love, Mona

  6. 11 john joe spring April 30, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    Margaret,
    Thank you for your thoughtful, challenging and Gospel-based response. It’s so vital not to lose faith in the power of love – the Christ response.
    Love and Blessings,
    John Joe.


  1. 1 What should guide our handling of the Marathon bomber? | ivoh Images and Voices of Hope Trackback on April 29, 2013 at 11:29 pm

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