Changing Perspectives: Fighting Back

The 80s and 90s were strange times to be raised in the church. Our parents faithfully honored the opulence of PTL with Jim and Tammy Faye but we lived meager lives. We received mixed messages about the virtues of pride and humility. Our youth pastors tried to simultaneously embrace the silliness of the 80s and the angst of the 90s. We weren't allowed to see movies at the theater or attend school dances because those activities could lead to hand-holding, hand-holding led to kissing, kissing would inevitably tumble into sex, and sex before marriage was the ultimate sin. Yet our moms spent their days watching soap operas - shows where everybody was having extra-marital sexual affairs with everyone else.

As a kid, no other conflicting lessons confused me more than the formal and informal teachings on violence. Pastors would preach a sermon on the verse declaring "blessed are the peacemakers" while choirs would sing "Onward Christian Soldiers." We were taught to be pacifists in Sunday school, then went home and watched The A-Team. Our parent's generation celebrated both Martin Luther King Jr's non-violent protests and Braveheart's battle cry "They can take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!" We were given the advice to play nice, and then told to toughen up. War and violence were often praised with equal measure as peace and passivity. After all, Jesus taught us to love our enemies but he also flipped tables. It was difficult to understand Christ as both a lion and a lamb when our cultural icon for a lion was Bruce Willis in Die Hard and our symbol for a lamb was Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile.

Even the games we played as teens frequently took a brutal turn. My youth group's favorite activity was called "Wink-em Blink-em." This game's instructions are more complicated than could be fully explained in a simple blog post. However, it involved players winking at other players of the opposite gender prompting the person winked at to attempt an escape from the person standing behind them. It sounds innocent but my peers took it to extremes. Our rounds of Wink-em Blink-em often ended with bruised limbs, pulled hair, torn shirts, bloody scratches, and broken fingernails. Afterwards, an adult volunteer would lead a devotional reading Bible verses urging us to "make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification."

It was enough to make a kid like me question if it was even possible to be a peacemaker. After all, my generation came of age when one of the biggest songs played on the radio was about a bullied kid named Jeremy who spoke in class with lyrics like "the dead lay in pools of maroon below" and "he hit me with a surprise left, my jaw left hurting dropped wide open." In that pre-Columbine era, bullying was practically accepted. Or at best, it was ignored. This was all before the existence of programs like Dude Be Nice or the It Gets Better campaign. If you were (like I was) beat up or picked on, the recommendations we were given was either “stick up for yourself” or “just stand there and take it.”

The latter instruction was usually the one provided by well-intentioned youth pastors. They relied on the sermon on the mount, guided us with the words of Jesus. Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, and the persecuted. Rejoice and be glad when people insult and hurt you or lie about you. Don't get angry because anger is sinful. Befriend your enemies and pray for them. Don't resist an evil person. Turn the other cheek. Give up your clothes. Walk an extra mile. Give the bullies your lunch money.

I was a nerd growing up in an age where the geeks and nerds routinely got our asses kicked for being freaks. After getting teased and physically accosted at school, someone would tell me what the bible says. If someone hits you, let them hit you again. If they take part of your outfit, let them take it all. If someone forces you to do something, do it twice.

Derived from the fifth chapter of Matthew, verses 38-42 were the highlights of this passive advice. Even the NCV translation of the Bible titles this section "Don't Fight Back." I shouldn't need to say this but the "biblical" instruction I was given did more harm than good. I was led to believe that our purpose was to suffer. Whether intentional or not, the lesson I learned was that we were to be punching bags for the abusers, bullies, assholes, and jerks of this world.

Too often, we read scripture from a Western viewpoint. We filter the Word of God with modern bias. Yet, in doing so, we miss a very important detail about the Gospels: Jesus was a Jew. More than that, He was a Jew, living in ancient Palestine under Roman occupation. His people were an oppressed population ruled by foreign tyrants.

When we study passages like these verses from Matthew, we need to understand the meaning is far deeper, more audacious, and of greater power than we could ever perceive through the context of 21st Century Americana. When we begin to understand the culture and traditions of Jewish life combined with laws and expectations of the Roman Empire, we get a better perspective on what Jesus really intended. We can hear his words with the outlook of his original audience. His talk discouraging taking an eye for an eye was about human dignity as much as it was about de-escalating conflict. When interpreted with American ideals of vocabulary and syntax, what sounds like quiet resignation is actually a call of rebellion; it is a peaceful way of fighting back against the powers that be.

Over the past couple years, I have been learning more and more about what life was like when Jesus walked the earth. I'm unlearning unhealthy lessons from my youth and my perspectives are changing. What I am discovering in this process is that the Bible truly is living and active. I am finding out how the words of Jesus are bigger, better, and perhaps more wild and dangerous than I have ever known before.


  1. I find it hard to believe that taking the punch is truly the right thing.
    While I'm of a different religion to you, I believe in self defense, and I'm confident religion would back me up.

    1. You and I are in agreement.