Freedom and Complicity
Several years ago in a conference sponsored by Louisville Seminary, a passionate speaker, caught up (I think) in her own rhetoric, moved from what seemed to me completely justifiable righteous indignation to the threat of violence against those who committed the evils she abhorred.
She was one of several speakers at the event. But her speech is the only one I can still remember.
The next day I sat down with our Dean of Students, one of my most trusted confidants, and told him about my concerns with this public address. I recall saying something to the effect of this: When a justice movement, no matter how much in the right it is, opts for violence as a recourse, it goes wrong. The participants lower themselves to the level of the oppressors. And once you’re down there, it’s awfully hard to find the moral high ground again.
I think this may be at least part of what Jesus is saying in his oft-quoted Sermon on the Mount. When I retaliate against someone who has hurt me, I’ve simply endorsed their approach to life. It’s sort of like the old saying: “Don’t wrestle with pigs, it just gets you filthy and the pigs love it.” But, in another way, it isn’t like that old saying at all. You see, people aren’t pigs. No really they aren’t.
The ideas that inspired the street philosopher Epictetus were in the air of the first century. I suspect it was hard to live in any town in the Roman Empire without at least a superficial impression of these ideas, whether they were called Stoicism or something else. Under the heavy boot of Rome, lots of decent people were trying to figure out how to survive oppression without becoming oppressors. The philosophy of Epictetus presented a way remarkably similar to that of Jesus.
Epictetus, a slave who eventually was given his freedom, knew oppression personally. A Greek man owned by Romans, he sought to teach people how to be free. And one of his most powerful lessons was this: “We are complicit in the offenses we take.”
If I give someone else the power to “make me angry” or to “make me act in violence,” I have given up my freedom to them. They can lead me around as surely as if they had put a chain around my neck. They can pull my strings and make me dance to their music. When I am complicit in the abduction of my feelings and actions by others, the last thing I am is free.
If they can make me react, internally or externally, I have also allowed them to take from me the opportunity to teach or inspire them. This is where the old saying about wrestling with pigs falls apart.
Turning the other cheek is not simplistic idealism run amok. It is the free act of a person who will not allow his or her character to be shaped by forces that seek to make humans inhuman. And it is also the free act of a person who believes that no one is beyond redemption, that even the most vile person can be inspired by the strength of grace incarnated in their presence.
To return to my conversation with the Dean of Students. I said to him that day that as a young person growing up in the South, the most impressive thing to me about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was his unyielding trust in the power of love to liberate not only the oppressed but the oppressor. This remains, for me, the most impressive thing about Dr. King a half century later.
I also believe it is the lesson humanity was taught by the greatest teacher who ever lived, the Lord Jesus, as he hung on the cross. In these days when anger comes easy, I find myself returning again and again to Christ on the cross.
There’s a lot of talk these days about complicity in injustice, whether intended or not. I need Jesus and Epictetus and Dr. King and Tolstoy and Gandhi and Bonhoeffer to keep reminding me, “We are complicit in the offenses we take.” The freedom of the Holy Spirit shows us a more excellent way.