–by David Hartsough (Aug 26, 2016)
My first encounter with the power of nonviolence came early. I was seven years old, trudging home from school through a park that I crossed every day on my way to and from the second grade. A bitter wind was blowing that winter day in Gilman, Iowa. The ice balls that landed on my face and chest stung, some fortified with stones to increase the pain on impact.
My face started to bleed. I was mystified by the glee on the faces of the small gang of older boys who were pelting me. A quick mental review told me that I had never done anything to them to merit this treatment.
On a recent Sunday in church, my father had preached a sermon about love, based on Jesus’s command: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I was certainly feeling persecuted.
I hadn’t yet lived long enough for questioning realism that often overtakes adults to have settled on me. It didn’t occur to me to ask: did Jesus really mean these tough words? Will loving these guys make a difference? If I don’t fight back, aren’t I giving to evil? I just took Jesus’s words at face value and asked myself: how do I love these guys?
I stood still for a few moments. Then I faced those boys and piped up, “I’d like to be your friend, and I certainly don’t have anything against you guys.” I wanted them to know that I wasn’t afraid of them. They threw a few more ice balls. But eventually the thrill wore off, as I wasn’t throwing any back or reacting in any way aggressive way to their onslaught.
I walked on home, trying to figure out what else could I do in this challenging situation. The previous summer I had visited several Indian reservations in the Southwest with my family, and my most precious possession at the time was a little copper letter opener inlaid with an Indian precious stone. I decided to give it to the boy who appeared to be the leader pf the gang. He received it with surprise and gratitude, and we became good friends after that. […]
Fast forward, it was 1960, and I was twenty years old. I was sitting on a stool at the lunch counter of the ironically named People’s Drug Store in Arlington, Virginia, along with ten African American classmates from Howard University. American Nazi Party “storm troopers” showed up with their swastikas and pictures of apes, which they waved around, taunting us, shouting, “Is we, or is we ain’t equals?”
Late in the evening of the second day [of the nonviolent civil disobedience], I was reading from a pocket New Testament I had with me. I had turned to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, to the same passage I had remembered as a seven-year-old being pelted with ice balls: “Love your enemies… Do good to those who hate you.”
I was meditating on those words when I heard a voice behind me say, “You nigger lover. Get out of this store in two seconds, or I’m going to stab this through your heart.” I glanced behind me at a man with the most terrible look of hatred I had ever seen, his eyes blazed, his jaw quivered, and his shaking hand held a switchblade –about half an inch from my heart.
Loving the enemy was suddenly more than just a discussion in Sunday school or a confrontation among schoolboys over ice balls. For a fleeting moment I doubted that Jesus meant to include a man so hateful among those who deserved to be loved. I had just seconds to respond to him, and I was grateful for those many hours of role playing and practice the previous two days.
I turned around and tried my best to smile. Looking him in the eye, I said to him, “Friend, do what you believe is right, and I will still try to love you.” Both his jaw and his hand dropped. Miraculously, he turned away and walked out of the store.
That was the most powerful experience of my twenty years of life. It confirmed my belief in the power of love, the power of goodness, the power of God working through us to overcome hatred and violence. I had a profound sense that nonviolence really works. At that moment, nonviolence became much more to me than a philosophical idea or a tactic that had once made a difference in Gandhi’s part of the Planet we call India. It became the way I wanted to relate to other human beings, a way of life, a way of working for change.
My response had touched something in my accuser. He had seen me as an enemy. But through my response, I believe I became a human being to him. The humanity in each of us touched.
–David Hartsough in his book Waging Peace [Illustration offered as an anonymous gift :-)]