Nonviolent Communication, Christianity, and Notions of Right and Wrong

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Recently, I received a question from a student about the compatibility of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) with Christianity given that the NVC worldview speaks of a world beyond right and wrong, and this person’s understanding of Christianity is rooted in those very notions.
Although I have often received and addressed similar questions, this time, because the focus was so squarely on Christianity, and I am neither Christian nor a theist, I chose to engage with others: fellow NVC trainers and friends. Thirty something emails on the topic later, this quest culminated in a conversation with my friend Nichola Torbett, Founder of Seminary of the Street, with whom I often have deep discussions about theology. With all this help, I am now both ready to respond to the question I was asked, and ready to share here some specific discoveries Nichola and I made today, informed, also, by what I learned from others.

Love and Coercion

Desmond Tutu and Dr. Paul Farmer

The first piece that struck me in talking with Nichola was her comment that the ultimate purpose of everything in Christianity was to increase the capacity to love. According to her, Jesus was quite aware that love cannot be coerced; it needs to be allowed to rise in order to achieve the state that St Irenaeus named in the 3rd century: “The glory of God is a person fully alive.” Clearly, though, the Bible, both the original Hebrew and the additional Christian scriptures, has many instances of specific human phenomena that are said to be wrong, and by extension punishable (punishment being a clear instance of coercion). How, then, are we to reconcile them with the fundamental notion of cultivating love in a non-coercive way?
Of course none of us know what Jesus exactly meant or even said. Still, a way of making sense of it emerged in our conversation. Could we look at the list of injunctions in the Bible as a draft of a blueprint for actions that, if taken consistently, would result in a growing capacity for love? It appears that Jesus may have meant at least some things this way, because he spoke of not taking what he says literally.
Another Jew also addressed this kind of dilemma. I am speaking of the medieval rabbi and philosopher known to the world as Maimonides (not his actual name, though derived from it). In his book Guide for the Perplexed, he speaks of the commandments that every observant Jew follows as a path to human evolution towards the highest human potential, which, for him was embodied by Moses. I read the passage repeatedly when I first encountered it, finding it hard to believe my eyes, and there it was. Maimonides said, in no uncertain terms, that those who attain a certain level of development do not need the commandments any longer. Why then do they keep them anyway? Because of humility, and as an act of leadership and guidance to others.
While Maimonides side-stepped the question of whether or not the words of the Bible are to be followed literally, Michael Lerner, in Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation, speaks of how, in each generation, we are asked to go back to our scriptures, whatever our religion might be, and reexamine what is, truly, the voice of God, and what are the distortions of that voice brought about by the cumulative effect of cruelty and suffering over millennia. Of course, this way of looking at things relies on the assumption that the Bible, like all other religious texts, was written by humans to capture their understanding of the voice of God. It is the humans who wrote and then interpreted the scriptures over the generations that are affected by what exists in their particular time and place. Perhaps notions of right and wrong were introduced because this is how humans at the time understood the path.
Within this frame, if we see the Bible’s injunctions as a human creation, a proposal for how to walk the path of love, then they surely could serve as guidelines for self-selection, a way to attract the people for whom that particular path is a fitting way of walking towards love, while others may follow other paths.
As a non-practicing Jew, for example, I often find deep affinity with Jesus the revolutionary Jew who questioned everything, a very common Jewish practice throughout the generations before and since him, aiming to restore the foundational values of Judaism, to wake up his fellow Jews to what matters most: love, care for others, creating systems based on justice, and faith in possibility. I can receive sustenance from who I imagine him to be without in any way being drawn to the specific practices and beliefs that have become part of Christianity.
And what about the student? There is no question that the path of Christianity as she understands it speaks deeply to her, and I can see how much it supports her in being able to love more fully. Along with the question, she also shared with me that she sees NVC as being supportive of her being able to live the tenets of Christianity. In this, she is united with people of many religions who have expressed similar sentiments, saying that NVC gives practical form to their religious principles. The only question is whether she needs to hold her Christian principles as “right” or whether there can be a different way.

NVC and Notions of Right and Wrong

Why would anyone want to leave behind notions of right and wrong when they exist in most versions of most religions as well as in other moral systems? Isn’t it a core human faculty to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil?

Maimonides on a New Israeli Shekel

I come back to Maimonides one more time. In his same book, he poses this question, which I summarize and paraphrase: how is it that Adam and Eve got rewarded for the transgression of eating the forbidden fruit by being given this faculty of knowing good from evil? His answer, which I learned about first when I was fifteen, and which continues to delight me, is that it is not a reward to be preoccupied with right and wrong, good and evil. Maimonides was an Aristotelian, and was partly responsible for reintroducing Christian Europe to Aristotelian thought, which he received from the Arabs in Spain and passed on to none other than Thomas Aquinas. Within that context, his way of explaining why it wasn’t a reward is perhaps not surprising. Simply put, he argued that Adam and Eve lost a faculty rather than gained one: “he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. He therefore transgressed a command with which he had been charged on the score of his reason [the realm of true and false]; and having obtained a knowledge of the apparent truths [the realm of good and evil], he was wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what improper.” This is one way of understanding what the fall from paradise means, according to Maimonides: aiming to decide what is right and what is wrong is stepping into the domain of God, not of humans, and in doing so we lost our actual paradise of being at one with the natural order of things.
This difference has everything to do with NVC, because one of the core practices of NVC is the capacity to distinguish observations, which are matters of truth and falsity, from interpretations and judgments, which are matters of good and evil, right and wrong.
One of my colleagues, James Prieto, is an NVC trainer who has explored this very idea about the tree of knowledge of good and evil, even without knowing about Maimonides. He concluded that “the goal is to figure out how to return to the Garden of Eden – i.e. to transcend our propensity to judge. What NVC brings to the table, indeed, is just that – through empathy and honesty we are able to get to the ‘fully alive’ state that St. Iranaeus spoke of, and Jesus was quoted as saying in John 10:10 “I have come so that they may have life to the full.” James so loved this story, that he actually wrote a book about this called The Joy of Compassionate Connecting: The Way of Christ through Nonviolent Communication.
Another NVC trainer colleague, Alex Censor, goes even further with the same story. While discussing these issues with his wife and friend Meera, they came to a startling conclusion which he described thus: “There’s a practical metaphorical alert in there for us, which we have verified in our own lives. The moment I am in the consciousness of judgment of you as wrong/evil … I am instantly ‘out of paradise’ …. kicked out of the garden of Eden so-to-speak.”
Some people end up believing that the NVC worldview says that judgments are wrong. I see it very differently. What studying NVC has gotten me clear about, and powerfully so, is that whenever I speak the language of right and wrong, I step out of what I have the authority to speak about with knowledge, and, instead, assume the position of an all-knowing entity (i.e. God!). In the most radical way, for me, I believe we simply cannot know if anything is right or wrong – we can only truly know what works and what doesn’t for us. There may be great and enormous pain and harm that is of such big proportion that we would feel pulled to call it wrong so as to invoke an authority larger than our own, to be able to rally a community, even the world at large, to stand by us.
Still, from where I stand, the only position of full integrity that I can have is that the only thing we can know for sure is our own experience, perspective, needs, desires, preferences, feelings, and interpretations of reality. For as long as we stay within our sphere of authority, no one can disagree with us, although they are always free to not like what we say or do, as that is within their sphere of authority.
Even the notion of sin, so central to Christianity, can be reframed outside the right/wrong paradigm. The origin of the word in Hebrew literally means “missing the mark.” James Prieto, my NVC colleague I mentioned earlier, provides what I see as an ingenious way to map “sin” into the NVC focus on needs. According to him, “missing the mark” occurs anytime that any of us meet our needs at the expense of others, or meet someone else’s needs at the expense of ours, or even meet some of our needs at the expense of other needs. Defining sin this way provides a way out of relying on an external authority about what is right or wrong. Instead, we can rely, once again, on our own authority, our internal compass for living, which is to be found in our hearts, which, as James puts it, “bear the image of God.”
And what happens when we step outside our authority and begin to assert what is right and what is wrong? We end up interfering with the possibility of human understanding, connection, and collaboration. Instead, we sow the seeds of war, in that others are only invited to agree or disagree. As far as I can tell, humans have been on the path of trying to convince everyone of their individual and collective version of what is right and what is wrong for about 10,000 years, and we have not gotten any closer together as a result. I simply don’t believe that it’s possible to come together on the basis of all of us agreeing to one version of what is right and what is wrong. Even the one that comes closest to universal agreement, the commandment not to kill, is not actually universal, as there are many groups, including modern “democratic” societies, that make it entirely OK to kill certain people or groups.
I do believe, however, that it is possible to bring all of us together on the basis of aiming to attend to as many needs as possible, of as many entities as possible, as often as possible. Love, oneness, and caring for everyone’s needs is just as core to multiple religious traditions as are notions of right and wrong. Perhaps we might finally be able, in our explosive capacity to be connected electronically, to find a way to live out this all-encompassing love?

Who Then Matters?

When we got to this part of the conversation, Nichola brought up the question of whether or not there is any room for the notion of evil in the framework we were settling into. That’s when things got particularly satisfying, as I found a way to provide an NVC twist to this notion. Instead of seeing “evil” as the opposite of “good”, I saw, instead, a spectrum running from “love” to “evil”, which spans our human capacity to care about needs. On the side of “love” is the human capacity, even longing, to be in a state of love of all, a state of oneness in which everyone matters, a fully open heart. All the way on the other end of the spectrum, what we tend to call “evil” may simply be the most horrible state we can be in, when absolutely nothing matters, not us, not anyone else, not life itself. This is the state of utter disconnection, complete and total reactivity, in which harm is simply not seen as such. All is possible, in the opposite direction, as nothing unites us with anything else, and our actions themselves don’t matter.
As I see it, any step we take in the direction of assigning a value of rightness or wrongness to anyone’s acts, tends to push us towards less care for this person, less concern for attending to their needs, as they are seen as less deserving. This helps explain why we are then willing to inflict punishment on people, which, to me, has always seemed fantastical, especially in contexts where love is supposed to predominate, between friends and within families, especially towards children.
Before concluding I want to speak briefly of the vexing question of what we can do in relation to harm done. What is a way to respond when harm has been done that holds everyone with love, that invites responsibility, that reduces the chances of continuing harm being done, that restores the shattered trust in a community or the world, that provides opportunities for those whose actions have harmed others to be able to retain their own dignity while recognizing the effect of their actions? This is a topic I plan to revisit in the future, because the picture of the world I want to create cannot be complete without recognizing that harm does happen, no matter how well we design our structures.
Perhaps some things are wrong; I just cannot know which they are. I have adopted the path of humility and not knowing. Whether or not I like what someone is doing, even when they have harmed what is dear to me, I know that I want to maintain caring for them. I want to keep my own heart open, widely open, as often as I possibly can, to move towards paradise, the Garden of Eden I see so clearly as possible in our future.
Image credits. Top: “Cefalu Christus Pantokrator cropped” Photo by Andreas Wahra, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0. Middle: Archbishop Emeritus Desmond M. Tutu and Paul Farmer, Skoll World Forum, 2011, Flickr, CC BY 2.0. Middle lower: from the NSP website. Bottom: “One NIS Rambam” by Pc84. Wikimedia Commons, public domain.