With the stories of anger and violence in the world, this question has been on my mind: “How far am I willing to go to defend myself?”
Let me set side the question of facing a life-threatening self-defense. Rather, I’d like to focus on self-threatening (ego-threatening) scenarios that arise for us every day in any of many ways: An impatient driver curses another driver who was doing nothing wrong; a woman in a checkout line fumbles with her credit card while trying to manage three unruly kids as the man behind her grumbles loudly about her poor parenting; a man sends an email to a coworker who badly misconstrues its intent and responds with angry accusations. You get the idea.
I think it is a human tendency to want to respond when falsely accused; at least it is my strong tendency. It seems to be my “natural” impulse to get my feelings hurt and want to set the record straight when wronged. And, most sadly, I often want to respond in such a way that hurts the feelings of the offender just as they hurt me (an eye for an eye). Aristotle thought this way, too. He went so far as to make the resenting of someone who offends us a measure of our “manhood.” From his work The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes: “Not to resent offenses is the mark of a base and slavish man.” And there can be an upside to responding publicly: having a witty social media response to an affront can gain one followers and boost one’s own ego.
But then there is Jesus:
The chief priests accused [Jesus] of many things. So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.” But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed. (Mark 15:3-5)
Jesus was on trial for His life and made no effort to refute the false accusations against Him. Given our “natural” impulses to right the wrong offenses against us, Jesus’ silence is most extraordinary. But, I find it remarkable for still another reason. Jesus was about to be the victim of a horrible injustice, perhaps the worst of injustices: to be tortured and executed for something of which He was innocent. It’s not only that Jesus was an innocent victim, He was the only “pure victim” who ever existed. That is to say, not only was Jesus innocent of what He was being accused, Jesus had never committed any wrongful act that added to the overall sinfulness in the world.
Let’s talk about this.
When unjustly wronged or offended, I am quick to pronounce my innocence, even if only to myself. However, in truth I am never a pure victim. An example: Out of my impatience I cut off another driver in traffic. That driver takes home his anger at me and is critical of an action of his wife. In her hurt, she fails to recognize her daughter has had a bad day at school. On it goes. My sinful thoughts and actions radiate outward from me into the world. I bear some responsibility for all the evil that happens because my sin contributes to the overall condition of the world.
There is a story about the writer/theologian G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). It is said that he was asked to contribute to an article explaining what was wrong with the world of his day. He responded with two words on a postcard: “I am.”
This is not to say that I deserve whatever bad things might befall me; I am only asserting that I am never a pure victim in my own circumstances. Consequently, because of my sinfulness I must take some responsibility for all sin in the world.
So, how should I live in this world and bear some responsibility for the evil around me? Accept the responsibility. Below are radically counter-cultural approaches by two saints:
If a murderer somewhere murders, it is my fault for not being a saint and not having prayed effectually for his repentance, the murderer’s “nature/nurture” background makes him blameless, and mine actually makes me blameworthy.
—St Paisios the Athonite
For all the history of mankind from Adam to me, a sinner, I repent; for all history is in my blood. For I am in Adam and Adam is in me.
— St Nikolai Velimirovic
In his classic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima says,
There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all.
I don’t do any of this very well. Here is an ancient “test” I came across (based on St John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent):1
What is your reaction when you are insulted?
1) I restrain my heart not to answer back, then I have put my feet on the first rung of the ladder;
2) I restrain my heart and I pray for the one who has offended me; then I am on the second step of divine ascent;
3) I not only pray for, but I feel sorry that my offender has suffered harm to his soul by insulting me and I feel compassion toward him. My feet are on the third rung;
4) I rejoice that I have been humiliated for the Lord’s sake. this is the fourth rung of the ladder.
Applying this test to myself, I admit that my feet are usually firmly anchored to the ground; I feel unable to lift even one foot to the lowest rung.
To again quote St Paul, “Who will save me from my wretchedness?” Jesus, of course.2
In an often quoted passage from the Bible, Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.”3 We Christians often use this as proof that the gate into Heaven is belief in Jesus. However, it is easy to overlook the first part: “I am the Way.”
As mentioned above, the Way of Jesus was silence before His accusers. It was facing (with joy!) the shame of the humiliation of executioner’s cross; it was descending into Hades to draw everyone who had already died to Him; only then did He ascend into Heaven.
His way must be our way: to go down into Hell with Jesus before we go up with Him into Heaven. To go down is to strive for the humility of Jesus Who could stand silent before His accusers. To voluntarily go down into Hell with Jesus is to become immune to the accusations of Satan who wants us full of pride.
In other words, I must work at becoming humble. I must strive to literally put myself in the Way of Jesus (think of being in the way of someone on a narrow mountain trail). Of course my attempts at finding humility will be puny, but I must try. Being in Jesus’ Way attracts the Grace of God, which is my only hope for true, transformative humility.4
Here is a concrete example of stepping in Jesus’ Way:
St Paul claimed to be the chief of all sinners. It is a statement repeated by each Orthodox Christian during the Divine Liturgy during the communal pre-communion prayer of St John Chrysostom. Only by repeating this prayer and through by the Grace of God can we begin to actually see ourselves as the chief of all sinners. We begin to recognize that others are as wounded as we are, and, as such, it slowly becomes possible for us to begin to truly love our neighbor and our enemy as commanded by Jesus.
Defending myself against offense comes from my pride; I want to be right, or to be acceptable, or to have my way…the list of consequences of my pride is long. Our pride, however, is in direct opposition to the humility of God Who willingly gave up His “rights” as God to become man and live among us and to be killed by us, His creation, so that He might offer us the Way to eternal life with Him.
On the night Jesus was betrayed, his disciple Peter tried to defend Jesus from the mob sent to capture Him. With a sword, Peter sliced off the ear of a servant. Jesus rebuked Peter for his violent resistance and miraculously restored the ear of the servant. In the words of one commentator, our resistance to an offense simply makes our “enemy” deaf to the message of Jesus. When I defend myself, I am cutting off the ear of my offender; in my angry reaction they cannot hear the love of Jesus.
So, what is the proper response to an unfounded accusation or insult against me? Here is what St Isaac the Syrian (7th century) says:
Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others. Be crucified, but do not crucify others. Be slandered, but do not slander others. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity. Suffer with the sick. Be afflicted with sinners. Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly. Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them. And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place, do not destroy their character.
Christians often recall Jesus’ words as, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (in Leviticus). However, Fr Thomas Hopko relates that it cannot possibly be translated this way. Rather, it says, “You shall love your neighbor as being your own self.” In other words, your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself.5
On the cross, Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of all. May we, too, be able to forgive everyone for everything. We will fail, but we try again. This is how we are saved.
It is the Way of Jesus.
- Paraphrased from Archimandrite Zacharias. The Enlargement of the Heart. p150.
- Romans 7:21-25.
- John 14:6.
- Following the commandments of Jesus do not earn us anything; rather, following them also puts in the Way of Christ. Living a life as described by His commandments is sharing in the life Jesus lives.
- From an interview with Fr Thomas Hopko: https://www.pravmir.com/living-in-communion-an-interview-with-father-thomas-hopko/