In my book Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), I reveal how the life and teachings of St. Francis of Assisi shape my work for justice, teaching me the way of peace, love, humility, and service. I talk about how my Franciscan spirituality has been enriched by the teachings of spiritual leaders of other faiths, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Zen Master, poet, scholar, and human rights activist.
John Smelcer’s new book, The Gospel of Simon (Leapfrog Press, 2016, also available in Spanish as El Evangelio de Simon), speaks of the concept of unconditional love and peace through action. The book is a powerful and vivid narrative account of an encounter two thousand years ago during a public spectacle where an itinerant Jewish preacher named Jesus was being brutally crucified and a man named Simon was being forced by a Roman soldier carrying out the crucifixion to help him carry the heavy cross through the crowded streets. Through Smelcer’s powerful storytelling narrative of that encounter and the relationship that developed between Jesus and Simon, this book is able to provide deep insights into the teachings of the Gospel, not so much from the approach of preaching, but as a story that provides us with invaluable lessons. This book is storytelling at its best, and it can apply to all faiths and spiritual teachings. The book’s simple and eloquent prose invites the reader to read it deeply with an open mind and heart.
For me as a social justice activist and scholar, what moved me the most is Smelcer’s emphasis, with much simplicity, on how our spirituality or faith can be a force for justice in the world. Faith is how we choose to live our lives, mindful that we dwell in the presence of a higher spiritual being – a higher good. It begins with the simple act of loving. Because there is a higher Goodness who loves you, you cannot have faith until you love yourself. Through a conversation between Jesus and Simon, this book teaches us that it is the inward expression of love that matters. You must look into your own heart. What you adorn your body with outwardly is of no consequence and does not prove love. The contents of your heart and your acts of kindness are all that matter. Compassion is the soul in action. Compassion triumphs because it is endless.
Thich Nhat Hanh in his Fourth Mindfulness Training, Loving Speech and Deep Listening, states that we must be “determined not to spread news that [we] do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord.” He goes on to state that we must “make daily efforts, in [our] speaking and listening, to nourish [our] capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in [our] consciousness.” Throughout The Gospel of Simon, Smelcer connects the reader to this passage of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Loving Speech and Deep Listening. Through the conversation between Jesus and Simon, we learn that active listening with our heart enables us to speak through compassion or mindful speech instead of anger, frustration, or fear. Active listening without passing judgment, is a gift that we can give to each other to enhance our work for justice. When we are really heard, and the other understands our meaning and emotions, we feel valued and respected, a condition necessary for strengthening our commitment to unconditional love for others. The Gospel of Simon captures one of my favorite quotes of St. Francis of Assisi when he said, “While you are proclaiming peace with your lips, be careful to have it even more fully in your heart.” Jesus teaches Simon that we all have the seeds of compassion inside of us. It’s how we nurture it and allow it to grow with acts of kindness. War and hate begins only when speaking and listening ends.
There are many invaluable lessons of unconditional love and unconditional forgiveness found throughout The Gospel of Simon that can appeal to anyone, anywhere. The book’s overarching message of peace is to “Love one another. Laugh. Be joyous and allow others to find joy. Love kindness and humility. Love justice and seek it out. Strive for peace in all things, for blessed are they who revere peace. Forgive others, for there can be no love or peace without forgiveness. No one is undeserving of forgiveness.” We cannot pick and choose who to love and forgive – it is unconditional. Through the dialogue between Jesus and Simon, the book teaches us that an unforgiving spirit blocks the flow of grace and mercy into our lives, causing us to live in a stagnant state of regrets, animosity, and grudges. Forgiveness simply means releasing those who have offended you from your own anger. It is the freedom of no longer holding anguish or bitterness inside you. Forgiveness creates room in your heart for love and compassion, which are necessary for bringing peace into the world.
The Gospel of Simon can serve as a primer to teach us about compassion and humility. According to Smelcer, when Jesus said to deny yourself, he meant to deny your irrepressible pride so that you may love and serve others. Like the principles of non-violence, humility is not submission or a state of passiveness; rather, it is a powerful force for change to bring justice into the world. During the conversation with Simon, Jesus explains that the biggest threat to humility is the power of human pride and ego. For him, humility in its highest form, holy or spiritual, always puts pride and ego to shame. He sees humility as the only way to prevent our ego from poisoning our pride. In this way, humility is a form of “self-activism” where we, as activists for justice, take proactive steps to ensure that we act for the act itself, and not to feed our selfish desires or be puffed up by the praises of others. We must exercise humility through acts of compassion and selflessness as we carry out our everyday work for justice. It is only fitting that the book ends with a powerful message of humility and compassion: “Possessing things cannot fill the emptiness inside you. Instead, strive to possess nothing, the entirety of it, and let love fill the void.”
The Gospel of Simon is a spiritual gift, and I am grateful to John Smelcer for writing it. It is a book that I will keep in my spiritual activist toolbox and refer to as a resource whenever I am confronted by moments of spiritual weaknesses in my daily work for justice.
Victor Narro is Project Director for the UCLA Labor Center and Lecturer in Law at UCLA Law School. For more information on his book, Living Peace: Connecting Your Spirituality with Your Work for Justice, go to https://www.facebook.com/ConnectingSpirituality. He can also be found on Twitter at @narrovictor. To order a copy of Living Peace or its Spanish translation, Paz en Acción, go to http://books.labor.ucla.edu/