Flipping the Script When Responding to Hostility
How do our little lives bear witness to the greater kingdom? As part of our series Called to the Firing Line, David Dark explores how Jesus’ first century teaching applies to our twenty-first century lives, even when faced with hostility.
I once began a group study of the Sermon on the Mount with an invitation to dissent and disagree. Which parts of Jesus’ instruction seem too difficult to meaningfully take on? What strikes you as perhaps deeply inadvisable? After everyone had a chance to look over the text with these questions in mind, the responses were wonderfully candid and helpful: Loving an enemy is a deep risk. Being a responsible person requires worrying about tomorrow. Aren’t some forms of judgment necessary?
One woman was immediately stopped short by the alleged impossibility of serving two masters. If there’s simply no way of devoting oneself to God and wealth simultaneously, how are we supposed to go about earning a living? Can you follow Jesus and have a job? What if the only income-earning work available to you involves tasks you wouldn’t undertake apart from accumulating wealth?
In no time, we were in the thick of many theoretical but mostly practical vocational crises. We agreed that seeking God’s righteous order first in all things is indeed our primary vocation, but most of us have yet to surrender all current and future income to a community that feels it can afford to hold all things in common. It’s also, in a deep sense, every man and woman for himself or herself. Are there ways our lives might bear witness to the greater kingdom as we try to survive and thrive in our little ones?
A Cure for the Same Old Same Old
They often prove elusive, but the ways are always there. The one who would love well, William Blake tells us, will have to labor well with the minute particulars. What that looks like exactly will prove as varied as the contexts in which our everyday labors take place. But Jesus’ first century teachings are almost scandalously straightforward in the way they clearly apply to our twenty-first century lives. "Let your yes be yes and your no be no." "Don’t speak degradingly of anyone." "Give to the one who asks of you." I bet we all have stories of someone’s act of socially disruptive newness getting through in the otherwise same old same old, workaday world. When I hear tell of such things, I try to commit them to memory. I have one favorite that sharpens my sense of wonder whenever it comes to mind.
An exchange occurred at the height of the lunch-counter sit-ins of Nashville in 1960. The Reverend James Lawson, a Vanderbilt graduate student at the time, had trained black student activists for the moments in which they’d face hostile crowds and eventual arrest when they sat in the “whites-only” sections of downtown restaurants. As tensions escalated, Lawson was on the scene to coach students and to dissuade white passers-by from responding violently to young people whole-heartedly—and whole-bodily—committed to a strictly nonviolent witness. One such onlooker saw fit to direct a racial slur at Lawson before spitting in his face.
Imagery of Infinite Possibility
Reverend Lawson regarded the man calmly and asked if he might have a handkerchief he could borrow. The man was so taken off guard that he’d handed it to Lawson before he knew what he was doing. As Lawson thanked him and wiped his face, he continued their interaction by asking the man if a nearby motorcycle belonged to him. It did. And in no time, they were discussing horsepower. Within a few minutes, the man was asking if there was some way he might aid Lawson and the students in their work. The script had been flipped, and a man who’d lost his way now found himself.
Reverend Lawson did not technically turn the other cheek, offer the angry man his cloak, or walk an extra mile, but he directly borrowed, as others have for centuries, from Jesus’ playbook of the loving and unexpected response. I once asked Lawson how one goes about becoming someone who would think to respond that way to an angry man, and he responded, as if it was just then occurring to him, “You have to keep in your mind an imagery of infinite possibility.”
Try that. I wonder how many seemingly insoluble situations have been redemptively addressed—or completely turned around—when someone managed to think twice by thinking better of themselves and others than anyone thought possible, by imagining a way when it seemed there was no way, by letting love inspire an otherwise unimaginable outcome. May the longsuffering, infinitely imaginative mind of Christ turn our worlds around today. Amen.