Backs Against the Wall

Howard Thurman


Howard Thurman’s classic book, Jesus and the Disinherited, opens with this startling statement:

Many and varied are the interpretations of the teaching and life of Jesus of Nazareth.  But few of these interpretations deal with what the teachings and life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall.

Jesus understands and identifies with the oppressed, both those who are oppressed as ethnic/racial/religious groups and those who are oppressed as individual persons.  You may know the experience of belonging to an oppressed group.  You and I also know what it means to be oppressed by a cruel person who has the power of authority, intimidation, physical size, or simply a capacity for evil doing.  What is it to be oppressed?

  • You receive a slap down that puts you in your place (it was cruel).
  • You were cheated when money changed hands (it was unjust).
  • You were forced to carry the burdens of others (it was unfair).

To be on the receiving end of cruel, unjust, and unfair treatment is the experience of oppressed people around the world.  Yet, closer to home, it is an experience in the work place, the school house, the family, and (at times) the church.  A dominating parent, a diabolical sibling, a heartless boss, a manipulative co-worker, or a traitorous friend is a story almost all human beings share.

You know the feeling, like being backed into a corner or pushed to the limit.  Your honor and reputation are at stake.  Your dreams and plans are at risk.  Your security and relationships are in jeopardy.  What are your options?  There are three:

The Fight Option: Use your words, your political skills, or your fists to settle the score, receive your just reward, and give them what they deserve.

The Flight Option: Leave the scene, hide inside yourself, cower into apathy, and just take it and hope to make something of it when the dust settles.

The Faith Option: Jesus outlines a third choice, a “turn the other cheek” option.  The choice is radical and ridiculous, but the power of God is found here.

The Jesus Option: How you take the blows matter

The way you take the blows makes a difference.  Martin Luther King demonstrated a nonviolent response (neither fight nor flight) when the police brandished nightsticks and crowds shouted insults and threw stones.  Dr. King’s strategy was not necessarily to win over the policeman or the Ku Klux Klan member hiding in the crowd.  His plan was larger: to make a deep impression on the person watching from outside the crowd that viewed the travesty on television, or read about it in the newspaper.  The way he handled the blows made the difference.

People watch how the followers of Christ handle the blows.  How do we handle the cruel, unjust, and unfair treatment we receive?  Do we fight back or flee in fear?  Or, do we stand in faith, toe-to-toe, eye-to-eye, with Christ by our side, as we face the oppressor.  How do we enact the faith option?  Here are four practical actions that express deep faith when your back is against the wall:

First, when your back is against the wall, you have an opportunity to stand up for what you believe“If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).

In the ancient world, a person in authority could strike someone who was beneath them.  In fact, the person in authority had a right to strike others.  Today, the “strike” may be verbal abuse or malicious talk, and the people with the power may believe they have the right to strike out at others whom displease, annoy, or frustrate them.

In the day of Jesus, the person in authority would use the back of the hand to slap the face of the oppressed.  The person in power expected the belittled individual to cower – the flight response.  The fight response, when the belittled person struck back with the same force, was not only unexpected, but punished severely.  In this regard, the ancient ways are still with us in modern corporations, families, and institutions.  Cruel people, who use the power of their position, the power of intimidation, or the power of physical size, often get away with belittling others.

Jesus shares a third response.  When a cruel person strikes you verbally or physically, do not cower away or strike back, but raise yourself to your full height, turn your eyes to meet your oppressor as you turn and face them again.  This is the unexpected response and act of faith.  This is the courageous protest of turning the other cheek.

When you are slapped down, literally or figuratively, the way you respond makes a difference.  The easy responses are to hit back or hide out.  However, Jesus sees the act of cruelty as an opportunity to stand up for what you believe.  It’s an opportunity to use your full measure of self-control.  It is an opportunity for deep courage to rise within you.  It is an opportunity to bring the cruelty into the open.  Your act of faith may not change the oppressor, but there are other people watching, watching how you handle the blows.

Second, when your back is against the wall, you have an opportunity to influence others. “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, give him your cloak also” (Matthew 5:40).

In the days of Christ, to sue for a tunic was to threaten health and comfort.  In our day, suits are levied against inheritance, business interests, lands, or goods.   In the days of Jesus, to take a person’s tunic, their outer garment, meant that they had nothing left except the clothes on their back.  How do we respond when someone threatens all we have?  Jesus gives us a radical response; strip the clothes off of your back and walk out of the courtroom naked.  In a literal and figurative way, let them see what you’re made of.  They may take what you have, but in Christ, they cannot break who you are.

How do we apply such a ridiculous and radical vision when dealing with greedy, self-serving people?  If people treat you unjustly, you can be reasonably assured that they have done this to others.  You can speak for all who have been unjustly treated.  The Jesus option suggests, “Give them something to talk about.”  Show people what you’re made of.  Reveal yourself to those who are watching.  Stand by what is in your heart, what matters to you, and the values of your life that count for eternity.  Do it with dignity and grace.  This is your “I have a dream” speech.  The oppressor may turn a closed ear, but there are others listening who need your words and actions of courage.

Third, when your back is against the wall, you have an opportunity to challenge negative beliefs, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:41).

In the first century, it was the law that any Roman soldier could force a person to carry a knapsack one mile, but no more.  This was the legal limit.  Picture the scene:  A soldier forces you to carry his belongings.  You leave your work and duties, pick up the load, and head down the road behind the soldier.  You know the exact location of the one-mile marker from your house.  During that mile, the soldier says nothing to you.  He knows he is within his legal rights.  You have no choice.  When you get to the end of the mile, he anticipates that you, like everyone else, will set his belongings on the ground and turn without a word as you hurry back to your work, cursing him under your breath.

However, the Jesus option kicks in.  A surprising thing happens.  You don’t stop at the one-mile marker but keep walking.  The soldier is confused.  He slows down, thinking that you don’t realize you have reached the mile post.  Slowly and then with surprise, he awakes to the fact that you are going to continue carrying his belongings, even when the law no longer requires your service.  The soldier stops to watch you as this sinks in, then takes a few steps to catch up with you.  Now, who is in the lead?

The tables have been turned.  Instead of following the soldier, the soldier is following you.  The soldier is also trying to follow your thoughts and beliefs.  He is trying to understand what you are doing and why.  Before you reach the second mile post, you may be engaged in a rather interesting discussion with the soldier.  You have the opportunity to explain what you believe and why you continued to help him, beyond the requirements of law or tradition.

Fourth, when your back is against the wall, you have an opportunity to live out your values. “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42).

In this verse, Jesus is not laying down policy for government agencies, social service organizations, or financial institutions.  What He is saying – and He is using the ancient pattern of hyperbole and exaggeration – is, “Live it out.”  Let people see what you believe by the way you live.  The unexpected act of kindness in a cruel world, the unexpected gift of goodness in the midst of injustice, the unexpected word of grace in a storm of unfairness, provide the opportunity to live what you believe.  Your actions roll like thunder claps.  When your back is against the wall, love your neighbor and love your enemy.

Copyright 2011 © Richard Leslie Parrott, Ph.D.

2 Replies to “Backs Against the Wall”

  1. Dr. Parrott (Brother Richard): This is John from First Church orchestra. First, allow me to thank you for your ‘Christ-life’ in front of me. Thank you for your prayerful support. Second, thank you for posting this article…while I find it easy to be giving and slow to anger most of the time. The difficulty comes when I don’t feel worthy, secure or prepared for “the slap”. All I can do is hold tighter to Jesus and trust in him.

    1. John: I am honored and humbled by your words. Thank you so much. When you speak of “the slap,” I know what you mean, and I know how it feels. Undeserved, insecure, and unprepared is a good way to describe the experience. A “re-action” is often the wrong response (don’t we all know that from experience), but a “re-flex” (to bend) can be a good thing… like bending to let Jesus hold us tightly. Again, thank you.

      Dr. Parrott

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