When my husband was 8 his mother moved them from Austin, Texas to the Robert Taylor Housing Projects in Chicago. It was quite the culture shock for him and his siblings to say the least. As the eldest brother and being an unusually large, strong child it was understood both in his own home and out on the streets that he had a responsibility for keeping his siblings safe. Anyone who had a beef with one of them would have to go through him first. The problem was that until the age of 11 his family were practicing Sunni Muslims. We don’t hear much about it these days but there has long been a strong strain of non-violence in many Muslim sects. Such was the case in the Islam his family practiced and the importance of non-violence had been emphasized to him strongly and repeatedly as he was growing up. Violence might be needed to keep someone else safe, but was off-limits otherwise. (Somehow this non-violence never extended to how adults treated children, but that’s another topic for another day.) The problem was that almost as soon as they showed up in the projects, my husband became the target of a few of the kids there. In particular, there was one older boy who would kick him in the back and knock him over on a daily basis. For over a year, my husband held to his convictions and did not respond. But finally one day he had had enough of being kicked, so he threw down his backpack, turned around and beat the ever-loving-crap out of his tormentor. He went home in tears and fully expected to be punished for violating the tenants of his faith. But no one messed with him again. Such is the way of the world.
Thankfully, most of us aren’t dealing with assualts on a daily basis, but there are no shortage of abusive people and situations in the world. Many of us are like my husband was as a child: prohibited by our beliefs and convictions from responding in kind, but unable to respond effectively to those who mistreat us. I thought of this today when someone I grew up with posted a link on Facebook to an article titled “Being the Better Person Will Teach People To Treat You Like Crap “. She posted, “I agree! I am over being nice to people that are nasty.” Someone else commented, “so true…turn the other cheek and both will get kicked!” The article itself pointed out that when we respond with an extra dose of kindness to those who are abusive towards us, the abuser will not repent but will feel rewarded for their behavior. Rather than being chastened by a kind response, they will likely see kindness as an acknowledgement of error by the person they leveled their abuse towards and feel more justified than ever. Instead of being extra nice to someone who is mistreated us, the article recommended being calmly assertive and standing up for one’s self.
The problems for many of us, is how to square this reality with the teachings of scripture which seem to pretty clearly advocate for a kind rather than assertive response to mistreatment. In particular, we have verses like Matthew 5:39 which tell us to turn the other cheek and Romans 12:20 which says that returning kindness for evil is like “heaping burning coals on his head”. From these verses many of us were taught or understood that we should do exactly what encourages abusive people* to continue their abusive behavior: respond to abuse with kindness. So, does God really tell us to just shut up and take it in the face of abuse? Not at all. As usual, the problem comes from a very shallow reading of scripture.
*And just to be clear, “abusive people” doesn’t mean “other people who are obviously terrible, awful people.” We’re all abusive at times. Whenever we try to force our will onto another person, engage in power plays, or demean and criticize another person in order to obtain a desired outcome we are being abusive.
Let’s start with Matthew 5:39-41:
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
On the surface, this does seem like straightforward advice to be passive in response to abuse. However, if you stop to consider the actual scenarios Jesus is describing, a different pattern emerges. One which is surprisingly confrontational, in fact. First of all, Jesus sets up the entire discussion in light of the usual response to abuse: to fight back. To give as good as you get. The problem is that he was generally talking to people who were not in any position to give as good as they got. As we will see, each scene is one where unequal power is at work. So, a person who thought, “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” was faced with a terrible dilemma: respond in kind and come out even worse for the encounter or take it and slink away in shame. As Jesus was wont to do, he offered a third way.
The first encounter is the infamous “turn the other cheek” scenario. To start with, Jesus specifically mentions being struck on the right cheek. Most people are right handed and would swing with that hand. Meaning that a straight-forward blow would land on the left cheek, not the right. A strike that lands on the right cheek would normally require a backhand. To backhand someone then and now – particularly in a place like the Middle East – is adding insult to injury. It is the move only someone who is certain of their superiority would dare to make towards another man because it is an invitation to retaliation. The most likely context for such behavior would be an employer or supervisor to worker, a parent to child or a man strong enough to figure he can take his opponent in a street brawl. The person on the receiving end of a backhand is either going to fight back and risk further humiliation or swallow their pride and go home to take it out on their kids. By offering their other cheek, the less powerful person is challenging the one who has struck them to deal with them as an equal. People who are abusive don’t see themselves as abusive. They see their actions as justified in some way. What someone who is abusive fails to understand is that utilizing a power play betrays the reality that their actions are not justified, but are meant to demean someone else in order to gain control. Turning the other cheek is a challenge to the power play, not an actual invitation to more violence. Yes, it could be risky, but now the dilemma is put onto the abuser; if they walk away, a challenge has been left unmet. But if they respond with more violence, they will be exposing themselves as a bully. A man who continues striking another man who has offered no resistance will look very bad in the eyes of those around him. It would show that he is a petty man who is so insecure that he can be baited into losing control. For a man who uses power plays to establish his superiority, his reputation means everything. Now the lose-lose dynamic of the situation is turned back on him.
The second encounter is similar. In this case, a person is being sued for their tunic. We must ask ourselves, “why would one person sue another for an article of clothing?” The answer is most likely to be that there is a debt owed which the debtor is unable repay. If the debt were large enough, the person owed the money could sue for the debtor to be thrown in prison. So it’s likely to be a fairly small amount of money involved. Suing for a tunic is a good sign that the person being sued is impoverished, has no money or possessions worth anything and was almost certainly impoverished when the loan was made. Jesus says, “show up in court, admit your debt, your inability to pay it and offer not just your tunic, but your coat as well.” Now, imagine for a moment the scene: there would be other, more powerful people present. The man making the claim is already questionable in the eyes of everyone involved. He has made a loan that he knew full well the debtor was unlikely to be able to repay. He is now demanding an article of clothing as payment. It is obvious in the eyes of all present that the tunic is the only one the debtor owns. And it is unlikely to be valuable enough to actually settle the debt amount entirely. So the debtor says, “yes, I owe the money and cannot repay. I will give him my tunic and my cloak as well.” In order to make this offer, he has removed his cloak and his tunic and is now standing before the room in nothing more than a loin cloth and maybe a pair of sandals. The person suing now faces his own dilemma. Suing for an article of clothing from a poor man is petty. But it’s his right. He is owed money after all. But taking all of a man’s clothing cruel. He has probably justified taking this man to court because of his own need for the money. So if he refuses to take the cloak he will be acknowledging that his own situation is not nearly so dire as to going to court for such a small amount to begin with. If he himself were really in such a desperate situation he would gladly accept the offer of another item that could be sold or traded to meet a desperate need. In which case he is just as desperate and poor as the man he is suing and certainly no better than him. Once again, the more powerful party is exposed as a small, petty, callous man in this situation. Yes, there is the chance that he will simply take the cloak as well and leave the debtor in court naked. But even if that were to happen, it seems unlikely that those present would watch this scenario play out and not offer assistance to the debtor who has been willing to go above and beyond in an attempt to do the right thing. Which would only pour more disapproval and contempt onto the person bringing the lawsuit to begin with. Again, the lose-lose scenario has now been turned on the abusive party.
The last scenario speaks of being forced to walk a mile. Israel was under Roman occupation during the time of Jesus. It was quite common for Roman soldiers to conscript local citizens into carrying loads for them. For the Jews this would have been a terrible humiliation. They hated their Roman overlords. But they were also in no position to refuse. Their children and wife would end up short one father and husband if they did so. The Roman centurion knows this and is using his power to avoid doing his own work or hiring someone to do it for. Again, he knows what he is doing, but it is his prerogative and like occupiers everywhere, feel entitled to conscript the local population – especially in light of all the trouble they have caused to people like him who are just doing their jobs. Most often in this scenario there is a load which needs to be carried – he’s not just looking for company on a stroll. He has demanded that the person walk a mile, which saves him work, but isn’t going to drive anyone into the ground. No harm, no foul he figures. But what happens when at the end of the first mile, the person insists on going further? If he allows him to, soon enough the soldier will find himself walking alongside a sweating, heavy breathing person who can’t keep up the same pace that the unburdened soldier can. Now instead of being a help, he’s slowing him down. And making him look like a jerk to boot. If he refuses to allow the man to continue for the second mile, he is tactically acknowledging that he has been forcing another human to act as a beast of burden for him not because he needed to, but just to make things easier on himself – a mighty Roman soldier. Again, the lose-lose scenario has been turned.
All three of these scenarios and the reactions Jesus suggests do the same thing: they put the abusive person in a position of either continuing on with their abusive behavior in a way that openly exposes their character as faulty or stopping which is itself an acknowledgement of their prior error. One way or another, their character is being put on display for the world and hopefully themselves to see. In the meantime, Jesus’ followers have remained beyond reproach. They have found a way to use their powerlessness to their own advantage. Rather than advocating a passive acceptance of abuse, Jesus points to ways of advocate for one’s self in the face of abuse without making things worse or being reduced to the level of the one who abuses.
Now, just in case you are not convinced that God has not asked us to simply return kindness for abuse and let God sort it out for us in his good time, let’s go back to the part of Romans 12 I referred to earlier:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “it is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. ~ Romans 12:17-21
The last line is the summary of the rest: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. God does not want us to be overcome by evil. In fact, he wants us to win – overcome – against it. He’s just telling us that unlike the rest of the world, we are to accomplish this with good. However, often we pull the portion about doing kindness to those who harm us in order to “heap coals on his head” out of the context of the surrounding verses. In which case, it can appear that we are being told to simply be kind to someone who is being abusive in order to make them feel guilty enough to stop. But as the article I mentioned earlier points out, it just doesn’t work that way. In fact, trying to do it that way can be a good way to end up “overcome by evil”.
Once using evil or our own abusive tactics is off the table, most often we assume that the remaining defense we have in the face of abuse is confrontation. However, the problem we are always dealing with when it comes to abusive behavior – both other’s and our own – is that we humans have an almost infinite capacity for self-justification. All we have to do is come up with an explanation for our behavior in which we are the good guys or at least the aggrieved party and we easily become blinded to our own terrible behavior. And we humans are pretty imaginative creatures – we’re really, really good at this. Which is why trying to get the offending party to see and own their abusive behavior through confrontation and argument is usually pointless. The offender can just dream up his own narrative in which he remains the good guy and his behavior is justified. As in story-telling, showing reality is much more effective than explaining reality.
Again, we need to think through the scenario. Evil has been done to you and you have not returned evil in kind. You haven’t resorted to your own imaginative ability to self-justify your own behavior, but have done only that which everyone can see is good. You’ve made it clear that your goal is to be at peace with the offending party, so you have refrained from even the sort of petty, cutting remarks which might be justified, but only serve to aggravate the situation. You aren’t seeking payback for the wrong done to you. And yet, despite all this, the person remains an enemy. If we leave it at that, then evil is not overcome at all. So we are advised to take it even further. We are to look for ways to serve your enemy. At which point, you put the person who has done evil in a position where they will need to react in some way to your actions. It is possible (hopeful?) that the person will finally have to face the fact that you are not the source of the conflict and rethink their own position and behavior. In which case, they can repent and evil will have been overcome. Or the person can stubbornly continue with their attempts to justify their own behavior. In which case, your kind acts become like “heaping coals on their head”. Romans 12:20 is a direct quote from Proverbs 25:21-22. Elsewhere, in Proverbs, it says:
As charcoal to embers and as word to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife. . . A malicious man disguises himself with his lips, but in his heart he harbors deceit. Though his speech is charming, do not believe him . . . His malice may be concealed by deception, but his wickedness will be exposed in the assembly. ~ Proverbs 26:21, 24-26
Heaping coals is offering an evil, quarrelsome man fuel for his fire. It is the means by which he will be exposed to the assembly. Even a very deceptive, manipulative person who has successfully managed to hide the reality of his actions from others will be exposed for his true nature as he takes the goodness you do to him and uses it as kindling for his quarrelsome, malicious nature. And he will be exposed in public for the sort of man he really is. At which point, evil has been exposed and can be overcome – all through good actions that leave you blameless.
Ultimately, what God is telling us is both to stand up for ourselves and to do it in a way that doesn’t rely on resorting to abuse ourselves. He is trying to show us a third way – his way. It may take longer and be riskier than just shutting someone down with confrontation or force. But ultimately, it’s also far more effective than simply being passive and taking it. His way works for our own benefit and perhaps even for the benefit of the one who is behaving abusively. Even if we still end up on the bottom in an abusive situation, we also make it much more likely that those watching will step forward to stand with us against the abuse. Which is itself no small thing.
Perhaps if my husband had been taught how to be creatively assertive, he wouldn’t have had to resort to violating his own principles in order to stop his tormentor. But even in that situation, the fact that he had gone so long without turning on those who were harassing him was still a powerful statement. In areas where violence and crime are common, people generally believe that to not fight back is very risky behavior. It marks one as weak and a target for predators. Yet my husband went over a year without fighting back and did not face escalating abuse while out and about. One of the stressful things about living in a high crime area is that everyone is always watching everyone else. People saw what was happening. No one came forward to help, but I can’t help but think that those watching also didn’t join in because they saw someone who could have defended himself choosing not to and respected him for it.
I think that part of the reason we assume that God’s instructions to return good for evil require us to be passive is because we don’t trust in the power that good has. We’ve all heard of the verses which say that the sins of the father get passed down through several generations. But we often fail to take notice that the good we do is rewarded through a thousand generations. Good is not passive or weak. Good is active and powerful. Jesus was commanding his followers to take hold of that power and use it to overcome.