Over forty-five years ago, when Dallin H. Oaks was a law professor at the University of Chicago, he had a harrowing encounter that almost ended in bloody tragedy. One evening, after a late church meeting, Elder Oaks and his wife, June, drove another sister to her apartment building. Returning to the car after walking this sister to her door, he was accosted by a young man brandishing a gun. The agitated juvenile jabbed his barrel into Elder Oaks’ belly, demanding all his money. When he discovered Elder Oaks didn’t have any cash, he demanded access to the car where June was inside watching this terrifying drama through the window. Think for a second, how would you have responded to that threat? Elder Oaks chose to not give in to his demands. A stand-off ensued, and the young man threatened to kill him if he didn’t comply. But Elder Oaks stood firm.
At one point during this tense stalemate, the young man became distracted by a bus approaching behind him, out of his view, and he let his gun drift a bit to one side. Elder Oaks saw an opportunity, fully confident he could disarm the young man if he acted quickly to seize the weapon. Now what would you have done? Would you have made a grab for the gun? Elder Oaks almost did. But then something happened. “I did not see anything or hear anything, Elder Oaks said, “but I knew something. I knew what would happen if I grabbed that gun. We would struggle, and I would turn the gun into that young man’s chest. It would fire, and he would die. I also understood that I must not have the blood of that young man on my conscience for the rest of my life.”1
It was a surprising thought for Elder Oaks; his life and the life of this stranger, this young man who wanted to harm him, were intertwined. Either they both made it out alive or both of them would be damaged. And that simple thought, that connection, completely changed the situation. “I relaxed,” Elder Oaks said, “and as the bus pulled away I followed an impulse to put my right hand on his shoulder and give him a lecture. June and I had some teenage children at that time, and giving lectures came naturally. ‘Look here,’ I said. ‘This isn’t right. What you’re doing just isn’t right. The next car might be a policeman, and you could get killed or sent to jail for this.’”2
Now it was the young man’s turn to be surprised. The man he’d threatened to kill wasn’t scared or angry, but was acting like a loving father, placing a warm hand on his shoulder and expressing genuine concern for his safety. This totally threw him off. “With the gun back in my stomach,” Elder Oaks noted, “the young robber replied to my lecture by going through his demands for the third time. But this time his voice was subdued. When he offered the final threat to kill me, he didn’t sound persuasive. When I refused again, he hesitated for a moment and then stuck the gun in his pocket and ran away.”3
This encounter is remarkable on many levels, but notice how well Elder Oaks followed counsel our Savior gave about how to overcome violence and aggression. “Love your enemies,” he told his astonished disciples, “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you.”4 Two thousand years later, that counsel still astonishes us.
It astonishes us because at first glance it doesn’t seem like very practical advice for overcoming violence. It runs counter to our intuition, and the wisdom of the world. “Love is nice,” the world tells us, “but in the face of aggression or lethal violence, it is weak and ineffective. In such situations we need something stronger than love.” Only violence can overcome violence, the world tells us, and so our choice in the face of violence is to either fight back or surrender or flee. Think about how often this message is reinforced in our culture. How many times have most of us watched a movie where a hero or heroine has used some type of verbal or physical violence to defeat an enemy? How many times have some of us employed a virtual weapon in a video game to destroy a virtual “bad guy”? Now think about how well we may have absorbed these lessons. How often do we celebrate the violence we see in the movies? Or enjoy video game violence? When someone verbally attacks us online, at work, at school, or in our neighborhoods and homes, is our instinct to strike back (or fantasize about striking back)? We live in a world saturated with a simple logic: violence is the only effective answer to violence.
But the experience of Elder Oaks and the words of our Savior prove that the world’s logic is flawed. Counter-attacking isn’t the only way to resist violence. It isn’t even the most effective. Love can stand up to and overcome violence. In fact, love is actually more powerful and more effective than a counter-attack. Love is bold. Love is potent. We don’t often think of it in those terms, but love is capable of disarming violence. The master of the universe, the Great Jehovah, has unsheathed a formidable weapon—the sword of his divine love—and he invites us to follow him, to “rise in might,” wield a similar “sword of truth and right,” and boldly vanquish our foes by conquering their aggression with our love.5
The Power of Turning the Other Cheek
Unfortunately, the potency of our Savior’s counsel is too often dismissed, distorted, or watered down, and many “plain and precious parts” of his original message have been lost.6 Consider, for example, a phrase that initially held extraordinary power, but has since become a somewhat weak cliché: “Turn the other cheek.” When people use this phrase, they are usually implying that when someone attacks us we should do nothing in response. But this is the opposite of what the phrase originally meant. Our Savior was actually showing his ancient disciples how to lovingly resist and transform their attackers. This might not seem obvious at first, but it becomes easier to perceive if we better understand the cultural context in which the phrase was first uttered. As biblical scholar Walter Wink has pointed out the precise wording is crucial, “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”7 Why the right cheek? Is this particular detail important? It must be, because Jesus repeated it to the people in the Promised Land.8 But to understand why, we have to understand that in the ancient world right and left hands were considered respectively clean and unclean, and used for different purposes. Ancient people used their right hands to smite, so to strike someone’s right cheek meant hitting with the back of the right hand. To backhand others in this manner was, and still is, an attempt to assert dominance. Ancient people backhanded other people they believed were subordinate or inferior—servants, children, or women—and aggressors expected subordinates to cower and submit. Occasionally subordinates might strike back, trying to assert their dominance, but such responses could lead to vicious retaliation.
Our Savior offered a revolutionary alternative; turning the other, or left, cheek. This doesn’t seem revolutionary to us because, again, we miss the cultural significance. It is impossible to use a right hand to backhand a left cheek. To strike a left cheek, an attacker must use an open palm or a closed fist. But in the ancient world, striking with a palm or fist was only for people of equal social standing. So turning the left cheek presented an attacker with a cleverly constructed choice: either back away from your violence or strike again as my equal. This choice also communicated a powerful truth. It said: “I will not submit to your violence, neither will I be provoked into responding in kind, but I will firmly resist your violence with my love.” Under the best of circumstances, aggressors would come to their senses, repent of their violence and seek reconciliation. But even if they didn’t, such firm but loving resistance effectively thwarted their goal of domination. This is the true significance and power of “turning the other cheek.”
Extinguishing the Fires of Violence
So, if we don’t have eyes to see we can miss love’s potency; its capacity to challenge, overcome, and thwart physical, emotional, or verbal violence. There is nothing mystical or magical about this power. Love overcomes violence in practical and easily understood ways, similar to the way water extinguishes fire. A fire needs three elements to sustain itself: a fuel source, oxygen, and heat. If any of these elements are sufficiently reduced or eliminated—if the fuel is removed, if the oxygen supply is smothered, or the temperature is cooled—the fire dies. With wood fires, water works at all three levels: cooling, smothering, and transforming the fuel into something that is no longer combustible.
Similar to fire, violence needs certain elements to sustain itself. First, violence needs a rationale to justify its existence. Everyone who uses violence usually feels they have a good reason. People believe they have to attack, physically or verbally, because they feel endangered or feel they must avenge some past harm or wrong. Laman and Lemuel, after all, felt threatened by Nephi’s leadership.9\9
Likewise, Ammoron felt he had to avenge the death of his brother Amalickiah.10 We often behave the same way. The greater the threat or past harm—whether from a coworker, or a family member, or a roommate—the more justified we feel in striking back.
Second, violence feeds on distance. It is easier to lob a bomb from miles away than to strike someone at arm’s length. And it is easier to make a snide remark online than to say it face-to-face. With geographic distance we can dismiss or ignore the effects of our violence. But emotional distance, a sense of disconnection, what the scriptures call “love [that] “wax[es] cold,” is even more crucial.11 It is easier to harm someone whom we perceive as separate from rather than connected to us. The greater the distance, the easier it is to perpetuate physical or verbal violence.
Third, violence counts on a predictable response; either fight or flight. When the Gadianton robbers threatened the Nephites, they expected their intended victims to either fight back or submit to their rule.12 When others fight back, their violence creates a new reason for our violence, because now we have to defend ourselves. Likewise, when people cower or flee or submit to our violence, their behavior helps justify our aggression because their weakness becomes an invitation for us to dominate. Our violence was effective, and so we use it again.
Just as water reduces and eliminates the elements that sustain wood fires, so love reduces and eliminates the elements that sustain violence. Authentic concern for our attackers makes it difficult for them to maintain a sense of endangerment or grievance, starving violence of its essential fuel source. Love closes distance by establishing (or reestablishing) vital human connections. These connections can be physical, as when Elder Oaks put his hand on the shoulder of his young assailant, but more importantly they must be emotional; acknowledging and reinforcing the divine ties that bind all of God’s children together. Finally, love is unpredictable. By neither fighting back nor fleeing nor surrendering, love stands strong in the face of aggression, eliciting awe in attackers. And in that moment of wonder, starved of fuel and sensing emotional connection, the fires of violence quietly yet quickly die out.
Loving “Bloodthirsty” Lamanites
We can observe these principles in the dynamic between the Nephites and the Lamanites. For centuries, they engaged in repeated cycles of violence, sustained by the three elements we’ve discussed. Each side stoked its rationale for violence based on generations of grievances. From the Lamanite perspective, all Nephites were “liars” and “robbers.”13 From the Nephite perspective, all Lamanites were “stiff-necked” and “blood-thirsty.”14 These grudges created and sustained a deep emotional and geographic distance. And when one group attacked, the other side usually gave a predictable response—either fighting back or fleeing—which only reinforced each side’s justification for their own violence.
These cycles might have gone on indefinitely, but then the sons of King Mosiah did something rather remarkable—they went out to meet their traditional adversaries armed with the sword of compassion. Long before our Savior told his astonished disciples to love their enemies, these precocious young men were already doing it. They felt no anger, no hatred, no fear—only deep and genuine empathy, “for they could not bear that any human soul [including their enemies] should perish.”15 So they went straight for the heart of their enemies, so to speak—journeying into their territory, offering to serve them, bridging the wide geographic and emotional distance. The humble gift of themselves undermined Lamanite grievances against Nephites, and utterly bewildered these long-standing adversaries, throwing them off balance, reconfiguring their cultural paradigm. This was not the way Nephites were supposed to act. In the same way Elder Oaks surprised and disarmed his attacker with genuine concern for his well being, the sons of Mosiah surprised and disarmed the Lamanites with their unexpected compassion. First King Lamoni, then his father, and ultimately tens of thousands of Lamanites were inspired to abandon their violence and be reconciled with their former enemies.
These Lamanites were so deeply moved by the love of the sons of Mosiah, that when their own enemies came to destroy them, they buried their swords and went out to meet their attackers armed only with prayer, employing the same principles of love that had worked to transform them. And their compassion startled and touched their enemies so deeply that it extinguished the fires of violence in their hearts and they repented of their anger and aggression, throwing down their weapons and joining their enemies in prayer. Thus we see that the ripples of love spread far, and wide, and fast. A little-known painting by Minerva Teichert captures the power of this moment. In a telling but easily overlooked detail, Teichert employs a brush of red in the palm of an expectant defender, subtly yet vividly connecting his willingness to absorb violence, his willingness to give rather than take from his enemies, to the ultimate gift and sacrifice of his Master, Jesus Christ.
Acquiring the Strength to Love
Of course, our Savior’s compassionate life and self-sacrificing death are the most powerful examples of exactly how to love one’s enemies. His mortal path was one of noble and potent love, absorbing brutal violence from both Jewish and Roman authorities without striking back or surrendering. Rather, with quiet dignity he firmly insisted on demonstrating his infinite love, speaking words of hope to the other malefactors at Calvary and even forgiving the soldiers who carried out his crucifixion, causing one of them to proclaim: “Certainly this was a righteous man.”16
Unlike our Savior’s suffering in Gethsemane, a burden only he could bear and which he has never invited us to share, his suffering of the cross is a path he has repeatedly invited us to follow. “[C]ome, take up the cross, and follow me,” he calls to us. Be willing to absorb violence rather than inflict it, because the way of the cross is love; to bless them that curse us, to do good to them that hate us, to pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us, the way he loved and served.17 Of course we cannot develop such remarkable love without his divine assistance, but it is there for the asking. As Mormon taught, all we have to do is “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that [we] may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son.”18 And when we ask for it, the love will come to heal our hurt and our hate, our anguish and our anger, for us and for our enemy. This is his loving gift to us and for us.
Nevertheless, as with any gift, we must practice using the sword of compassion if we want to learn how to wield it with strength and courage. The U.S. military has a training pattern that might serve as a model in this regard. Known as “Reflexive Fire Training,” soldiers practice shooting their weapons over and over and over in simulated combat situations. They do this so rapidly and so often that their muscles and reflexes become finely honed to pull their triggers without any conscious thought. In a similar way we might train ourselves to wield weapons of love. Over and over and over, in our daily interactions and petty conflicts—when a roommate or a family member yells at us, or when we are assaulted with snarky comments on social media, or anytime anyone intentionally or unintentionally abuses us—we can, with our Savior’ help, train our mental muscles and moral reflexes to not strike back, nor surrender, but to resist the violence with our love.
We learn to wield the sword of compassion when we respond to “wrath” with firm yet “soft” and loving “answers.”19 We hone our skills in the weapons of love when we refuse to be drawn into anger or hate, no matter how much the world tells us we are justified in those feelings. We learn how to resist violence with love when we refuse to bow or surrender to other people’s anger or aggression, and instead find ways to minister to our attackers; to feed, and clothe, and visit, and pray for them.20 Every time we choose to stand and love instead of strike back or shrink away, every time we serve instead of surrender or retaliate, we improve our responses and build moral muscle memory. Again, the enabling power of our Savior’s atonement will guide us if we let it. And the more we hone these divine reflexes the better prepared we will be when the next moment of crisis comes, as it always does, at a time and in a place where we least expect it; on a dark Chicago street after a church meeting, or in our apartment, or at our workplace, or some other location we can hardly now imagine. Moreover, the better each of us individually enhances our skill with love, the easier it will be to collectively answer threats with a coordinated force of compassionate warriors—“Zion’s army,” as the hymn goes—lovingly resisting and overcoming the culture of violence that seems poised to consume our modern world.
The Fearless Way of Love
Of course, as with any weapon, wielding the sword of compassion is a risky enterprise, requiring extraordinary courage, even fearlessness. There have been and will be serious casualties, perhaps even death, because the way of love isn’t safe or foolproof. Love can come with a cost, as it did for our Savior, the one who wielded it best. Violence can even seem to triumph for a time. Furthermore, there may be some people who are “past feeling,” who have placed themselves beyond confrontational compassion. Yet such people are rare, much rarer than the world would have us believe, as the Sons of Mosiah demonstrated with their love for the supposedly “stiffnecked” and “bloodthirsty” Lamanites. This much is sure: resisting violence with compassion is more effective than resisting it with violence. It may not work every time. No weapon ever does. Even righteous Nephite generals suffered many defeats. But love will work more often than anything else, a fact that is increasingly supported by modern research.21 Of course this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, love is the higher way of God, and though his ways may seem “foolish” and “weak” to the world, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”22
Love may seem weak or soft, yet it is not. It is firm. It is robust. But in order for it to work, any love we have for our enemies—whether we find them at home, or at work, or in our communities, or our politics, or some distant land—must be genuine. Antoinette Tuff, an elementary school bookkeeper who stopped a mass-shooting at her school by expressing sincere compassion for her attacker, later told a reporter: “He was really a hurting young man… I didn’t know his name. I didn’t know much about him. But I did love him.”23 Such capacity to imitate our Savior, to see beyond the immediate threat, to look past the anger and aggression, to see him as a flesh and blood person rather than as just an attacker is remarkable. Likewise, for each of us to go against our cultural training and choose divine love is a tall order, to be sure. But I have faith that we can achieve it, because our Savior said we can, and promised to help us, and I believe him. We can be Zion’s army—compassionate warriors whose coordinated efforts vanquish their foes by collectively serving them—because principles of loving resistance apply not only to individuals and families, but also to communities and nations. In a world awash in the logic of violence, the best responses to current threats—in our nations and in our families—are the same ones proclaimed two thousand years ago: “love your enemies” and “be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”24 We have the commitment, the creativity, and the spiritual resources to figure out how marshal our collective capacity for compassion in the struggle against evil. And with heaven’s help we will figure it out, fulfilling a prediction made by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a philosopher and theologian: “Some day,” he said, “after we have mastered space, the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire."25 This is the future for which most of us yearn—a future filled with the fires of love rather than the fires of violence—and if we take up our crosses and follow our Savior, he will lead us to that blessed land. This I know and promise you, in the name of him who is the embodiment of extraordinary, genuine, and transforming love, even Jesus Christ. Amen.26
1. Dallin H. Oaks, “Bible Stories and Personal Protection,” Ensign, November 1992. Emphasis in the original.
4. 3 Nephi 12:44. See also Matthew 5:44.
5. “Hope of Israel,” Hymns, no. 259; “How Great the Wisdom and the Love,” Hymns, no. 195.
6. 1 Nephi 13:34.
7. Matthew 5:29, emphasis added. Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).
8. 3 Nephi 12:29.
9. 2 Nephi 5:3.
10. Alma 54:16.
11. Joseph Smith—Matthew 1:30; see also Matthew 24:12 and Doctrine and Covenants 45:27.
12. 3 Nephi 3:2–10
13. Alma 20:13. See also Alma 54:17 and 3 Nephi 3:4, 10.
14. Alma 26:24. See also Enos 1:20 and Mosiah 10:20.
15. Mosiah 28:3.
16. Luke 23:47.
17. Mark 10:21. See also Mark 8:34, Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23, and Doctrine and Covenants 56:2.
18. Moroni 7:48.
19. Proverbs 15:1.
20. Romans 12:20.
21. See, for example, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
22. 1 Corinthians 1:25.
23. “Elementary School Clerk Says She Convinced Suspect to Put His Weapons Down and Surrender,” ABC News, at http://abcnews.go.com/US/elementary-school-clerk-convinced-suspect-put-weapons-surrender/story?id=20014879 (accessed 1 February 2016).
24. Matthew 5:44 and Romans 12:21.
25. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S. J., Les directions de l’avenir (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973), 92.