In one of my recent posts, I wrote about turning the other cheek in the grand context of war and peace. However, I still struggle with this idea on a personal level—especially when the news is filled with stories of children mistreated by parents, teachers, and peers. No parent wants their child to suffer abuse, yet, Jesus allowed himself to be abused until death. Does this same rule apply to a child? Should I expect my child to “turn the other cheek” when facing a bully or a cruel teacher? These were questions in need of answers, and so I turned to Paul’s letter to the Romans:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1-4)
There is no arguing with Paul on this question. Governing authorities exist because God allows them to exist. If we resist, we will face the consequences. There is no nuance—there is simply what is. Do what you are supposed to do and the authorities will not bother you.
But what happens when the authorities are corrupt? What do you do when the people who are there to protect you are mistreating you? No one knew the answer to this better than Christ. As I said before, he allowed himself to be abused, even until death. This is not a popular strategy—nor is it one that I am particularly fond of for my own children.
A parent’s first reaction when their child is being bullied is to assume that he or she is innocent. Our culture shields victims from any kind of shaming. While this can appear to be a good thing, it also ignores the possibility that the victim might have contributed to their own situation. This is a very touchy subject in this country—a person is all or nothing in the United States, innocent or guilty. In contrast with American culture, in the Bible, everyone is unrighteous. Period. Innocence and guilt do not factor in. Was my child aggravating the bully? Is there something wrong with my own child’s behavior? Bullying experts do not include these questions in their lists of parenting tips. That is why everyone hates lawyers—lawyers have to ask the tough questions necessary to establish the possibility of guilt on both sides. Our culture of presumed innocence places enormous pressure on victims to maintain an ideal imposed on them by society or their parents. Children are never given space to consider how their mistakes may have contributed to their suffering. (It is important here to draw a line between normal adversity and predatory abuse. In this article, I am talking about normal adversity.)
Normal adversity consists of things like a teacher who is tough or critical or a fight on the playground. This is just life…sometimes your child will run into situations that are difficult that will inevitably bruise their ego. Not everyone is going to think our children are all sunshine and rainbows and this is a hard pill for parents to swallow. Criticism and adversity can help children grow to be better students and people. If a kid gets into an argument on the playground, or gets ridiculed and teased, it’s good for them to know that the world does not revolve around them. While as parents we have a tendency to tell our kids they are the center of the universe, it is on the playground where they learn that this is not true—sometimes they have to turn the other cheek and put others first. That is if they—and the parents—accept it.
It is tempting to point to examples of predatory abuse as a reason to shelter our children from normal, healthy conflict. As humans, we are constantly searching for the exceptions… circumstances that are unforgivable and relieve us from all culpability. For example, when I was eighteen, I was in an abusive marriage. For many years after the divorce, I assumed it was my right to treat the men in my life like crap because I had spent so much time on the receiving end of abuse. This is not what the Gospel tells us to do. I cannot control the behavior of others, but I can control my response to it. We are not judged for being abused—we are judged for our response to it. While this doesn’t mean we allow the abuser to escape the consequences for his/her actions, it does mean that we must forgive and move on. We are not eternally excused for our behavior because something bad happened to us…and this is what our children need to learn.
“Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (13:5-10)
A key theme here is respect. Respect for authority, respect for the position. I have said this before—in the military, I served under plenty of people I didn’t like. But there was always the expectation that one would respect the rank and give that person their due, even if they were a straight up jackass. I did just that—until one day a supervisor of mine went too far and I had had enough. Then I asked for a change in leadership for myself. The supervisor was reprimanded and I was put under someone else.
Turning the other cheek is not up for debate. The law is “love your neighbor.” If the person in authority is not following this law, you should not be “standing up for yourself” when you report them; you should be appealing to God’s teaching for mercy. In this situation, it is important that you do not become self-righteous about it, or oppose them just because they make you uncomfortable, or because you have a point to prove. After all, I was not much better than the supervisor who abused his power. I was doing plenty of things that I should not have been doing and I had put myself in a position to be mistreated. I felt good because I stood up for myself, which is what the world says I should do. But this was self-righteous. I thought this made me better than him. In other words, while I was right to oppose his behavior, I was wrong to stand up for myself.
The rule “love your neighbor” is the only thing worth standing up for. It covers all of the basics of the Ten Commandments and more. Don’t infringe on other people—govern yourself. Don’t worry about what other people are doing, unless they are causing harm to the community. So when my child faces a bully at school, they do need to stand up…not for themselves, but for the teaching. Not to make people agree with the teaching, but to make sure that whatever they do serves the teaching. When a victim is asked to stand in harm’s way because other people might get hurt by a bully, this is correct. It may mean that they suffer more harm, but they are doing it out of love and for the sake of others. If you are standing up for the teaching, you are defending something more important than your ego.
Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (1:11-14)
Snap out of it, Paul tells us. The day of judgment is coming, so let us follow the law and behave ourselves accordingly. Let’s not argue or bully each other or stand up for others to give ourselves a sense of inflated importance. Follow the law and submit to its teaching.