The Shift Network Blog

Organizing Love and Justice
Michael N. Nagler
By Michael N. Nagler
Co-founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program

By Michael N. Nagler

I completely agree with the statement made by Chris Hedges toward the end of one of his articles, that love is the only thing that can overcome war.  Happily, though, I don’t agree with his conclusion: “…and love can’t be organized.”

Of course, this is true on one level.  Love as a spiritual force cannot be “organized,” nor, really, can the expression of that force as a powerful emotion in human consciousness.  But on another of its many levels, namely the expression of that force in human action, of course it can be organized: what else is nonviolence?

In the modern world we suffer from an extreme form of imbalance that leads us to organize non-love, in the form of anger, fear, distrust and what have you, but lag far behind in the organization of love.  As René Girard has shown in his brilliant works on scapegoating, all human societies experience tension and when the tension threatens to destroy the social fabric a so-to-speak instinctive process kicks in, well known from primate studies as well, where the group spontaneously selects a partly out-lying group or individual to blame for the tension, expels that person or group (or worse) and then mistakes its achievement of unanimous violence for peace – until the cycle repeats itself.

This is the tragedy:  if we could organize a dynamic of love-in-action (another name for nonviolence) the solution of these inevitable tensions would lead to a higher, not a lesser form of unity.  The solution would be permanent.  The good news is, if we have organized the opposite of love on such an incredibly widespread scale, ranging from the millennia of persecution visited on the Jews (and now visited by them on others, thanks to the imbalance we’re talking about) to the bloated militaries of the U.S. and the world, then logically we should be able, perhaps by a more conscious process, to organize love as well.  Gandhi did it, and in thirty years liberated his country, brought down the worldwide system of overt colonialism, and perhaps more importantly even than this gave the world an “ocular demonstration” of the political reality of love in action.

We certainly do not lack for spontaneous instances of love’s power that we could learn from perhaps more consciously but at least as systematically as we’ve learned from outbursts of hatred and violence.  A few years ago a close friend of mine was working in Kabul when a suspicious figure disguised as a woman entered the building.  There was no question that it was a suicide bomber.  My friend fled in terror but as she ran for her life she heard a voice inside her saying, “Go back: smile at him.”  After a terrific inner struggle in she went, made herself stand right in front of the man, looked into his drug-sodden eyes and smiled.  After a moment he smiled back, took off his explosive vest and went away.

The last words that Dr. Bernard Lafayette heard from his mentor, Martin Luther King, Jr. just before the latter’s assassination were, “Bernard, now what we have to do is institutionalize and universalize nonviolence.”  He has been doing it, through trainings and other means, and he is not alone.  New institutions like Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping (UCP) have been saving lives around the world and are slowly edging onto the awareness of a few forward-looking governments and the UN.  Restorative Justice is slowly (but surely, we hope) edging out our archaic retributive system, first in schools and then in the prison system itself.  These are only two examples.  For more, I am happy to invite The Catalyst readers to look at Roadmap, an ambitious scheme to organize the progressive movement, and the other resources on our website, www.mettacenter.org.

The politics of love and justice is not a pipe dream; it’s an urgent necessity.


Michael Nagler is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC, Berkeley, where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program. Michael has worked on nonviolent intervention since the 1970’s, is the founder and President of the board of the Metta Center for Nonviolence Education and served on the Interim Steering Committee of the Nonviolent Peaceforce. Among other awards, he received the Jamnalal Bajaj International Award for “Promoting Gandhian Values Outside India” in 2007, joining other distinguished contributors to nonviolence as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and peace scholar and activist Johan Galtung in receiving this honor.

He is the author of The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action (2014); The Search for a Nonviolent Future, which received a 2002 American Book Award and has been translated into Korean, Arabic, Italian and other languages; Our Spiritual Crisis: Recovering Human Wisdom in a Time of Violence (2005); The Upanishads (with Sri Eknath Easwaran, 1987), and other books as well as many articles on peace and spirituality. Michael lives at the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation’s ashram in Northern California.