These days we read a lot about the effects of bullying and what people are trying to do to combat this terrible behavior. I remember being the victim of some bullying when I was in middle school. It certainly was not the most enjoyable part of my life, especially during a time in life that is awkward enough as it is. It seems that everyone has an experience of bullying at some point, whether it was while very young, or in school, or even in the workplace. I even had a college professor who was a bully to his own students, all of whom were incredibly talented people! Bullying can crop up anywhere. It is, simply put, a misuse of power, real or perceived.
The experience to which I referred was of a cadre of girls and their ringleader whose main purpose for existence seemed to be to make my life miserable. I had been transferred from one school to another because the authorities re-structured the district. There were only a few of us who were affected so I was the new kid in the class. Therefore, the girls were in full swing before too long and it was one misery after the other for a while. Then I remembered a lesson my grandmother had taught me. She said that if I was really kind and friendly every time they tried to make me miserable, "it would be like heaping burning coals upon their heads." I had no idea this came from the Scriptures at the time, but one day I tried it.
I was in a family restaurant with my parents and the girls were at a table nearby. Stealing glances in my direction, they were whispering and giggling. When it was time to leave, I walked over to their table, said hello very sweetly, and told them how good it was to see them. I smiled the entire time. I remember the look on their faces when I said something like, "Have a great weekend. I’ll see you back in school on Monday." I tried to appear as sincere as I could, and not sarcastic or phony, which is what my grandmother had taught me to do. They were astonished, a couple of mouths dropped. How could I be so kind when they had been so mean to me? I continued being nice to them at school and I rarely ever had another problem with any of them.
My grandmother, a true disciple of Jesus, was right: if you are kind to your enemies, they find it more difficult to be unkind back. It disarms them. After all, how can you be mean to someone who is nice? Admittedly sometimes it takes more than what I just described, but the fact remains, returning goodness for evil does work. Jesus' entire gospel message revolves around this one key point: love your enemies.
Love does not necessarily mean “like.” I did not have to like those girls in order to be kind to them. But I did have to be loving. And in doing so, it totally disarmed them. They realized they were powerless to hurt me at that point because I chose to be kind, in the face of the suffering they had previously caused me. When I fought back in times before this incident, it only fueled their fire because they realized that they knew exactly how to push my buttons and get the desired effect. But when I chose to be kind instead, initiating the encounter, love disarmed them and they were left unable to anger me any longer.
Loving our enemy means doing the loving thing in any given situation. As Jesus points out, it is easy to love those who love us. He says even the pagans can do that. But the true disciple is the one who can love someone who is not easy to love back, especially one's enemies. It is especially difficult if the one who is making our lives miserable really does have power over us, like a boss or a college professor such as I mentioned above. But while that person may have some measure of control and power over us, no one has power over us completely unless we give it to them. The boss, for example, may have the power to fire us or to keep us from getting a much needed promotion or raise, but he or she cannot control how we respond to these challenges. We can do the loving thing, which may mean being patient and kind in response, or it can mean taking a risk to stand up to the bullying in some way that is not retaliatory.
Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek. That does not in any way mean that Christians are supposed to be the doormats for everyone else. Jesus was teaching us to stand up for justice by doing it with love and a measure of ingenuity. To understand what He meant by turning the other cheek we have to look to the era in which He lived. In those days, a Roman soldier could strike a Jew on the cheek with the flat of his hand, but by law could not backhand him. That was because Romans wore large signet rings and would break the jaw of the victim if he hit with the back of his hand. The law protected the Jews only a little, but it did offer some boundaries. If the Jew turned the other cheek, he was tacitly challenging the Roman to break the law. The point was to turn the cheek not with impunity, but with gentleness. The Jew always won that battle, because the Roman would not want to incur the wrath of his own justice system.
Therefore, Jesus was not teaching His followers to take whatever was dished out. He was teaching them a more appropriate response in which they never lost control. Even in dying on a cross, which outwardly looked like total failure, Jesus modeled what He taught. He was in control throughout the entire ordeal, which only confounded His enemies the more. He let them capture Him in the Garden, (Matt. 26:52-54), He allowed them to say themselves even if in mockery that He was the Son of the Most High God, (Matt. 26: 62-64), and He let them nail Him to the Cross. (John 19:10-11). But the story does not end there. His act of dying, which was the ultimate act of forgiveness and love, brought about the Resurrection. He turned the other cheek by not calling down legions of angels in an "I'll show them!" attitude and instead he offered salvation... to us all.... we are all sinners.
St. Paul aptly quoted Proverbs in saying this: "…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good.” (Romans 12:20-21; he quoted Proverbs 25:21-22.) There are those burning coals again: this passage is where my grandmother got the wisdom she imparted to me. Being good to those who wish evil for us makes them very uncomfortable. In a nonviolent way, we make our point and we disarm them. It is what Jesus did through His death and resurrection.
Suffering is a fact of life. Our world is no more just and has no less suffering than at any other time in human history. But the good news is that we have a just Savior who offers us the final victory. Meanwhile we need to ask Him to help us to persevere through the trials of this life. Not only that, but He will help us stand up for justice, which is something we are all called to do. True discipleship has a cost: we have the obligation to stand up for truth and justice in whatever way we are called to do it, in whatever situation we are in. We need to stand against the injustice of gossip, lying, deceit, envy, out-of-control ambition, grudges, rage, bullying, all those “isms”, (such as racism) and even the neglect of "turning a blind eye." We all need to be attentive to how we vote in order to stand up for Gospel values. We need to be attentive to how we consume; perhaps we are wasteful or materialistic, or perhaps we ignore or neglect the poor in our midst. Whatever it is, all of us can be more mindful of how to alleviate the suffering of those around us by sharing love in whatever way we can. The Gospel calls us to nothing less.
And in our own personal suffering, we can turn to the Lord for help. The response may come in the form of someone reaching out to us, through a grace, or simply to know that we are not alone in our suffering. He, too, has suffered and therefore He does not stand outside our suffering and watch while offering platitudes that land limply by our sides. He is in the middle of the raging fire of our pain with us. After all, He is not called Emmanuel, God with us, for no reason. He is compassion and mercy. He suffers with us and He offers us comfort. Let us be grateful for His undying love for us which is so great that He offered His own life so we could get the justice for which we long.
May we become instruments of justice! May we be healed of our urge for vengeance and retaliation when we are wronged! May we turn to the Gospels for the wisdom of Jesus in how to stand firm in adversity! May we have the courage to stand up for what is right and just through love! May we be healed of all that which we suffer! And may we be given the faith to trust, the hope to endure, and the love to guide us home to God! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of the Lord of Justice and of Mercy! Peace!
The photos are mine. The first one is on Mt. Etna. It seems that visitors make these piles of rocks using larger chunks of the volcanic lava that are scattered around.
The bottom photo is a sunset which occurred while we were at a farmhouse in Testa dell'Acqua, Sicily.
The two icons are by Rev. William Hart McNichols. The first is Holy Protomartyr Deacon St Stephen and the second is St. Paul the Apostle. You can get a copy of any of his icons and images at http://www.fatherbill.org/
Remember that Fr. Bill's work is copyrighted material. If you want copies, please order them from him. It is his livelihood and it is also the just thing to do. I post his work with his permission with no personal gain other than the joy of sharing. Thank you!
© Michele L. Catanese
Heart Speaks to Heart