responding to unfairness

How do we respond to behaviour we find problematic? I have friends who respond in those situations with fierce righteousness, they get angry, very angry. There is an honesty and authenticity to that. But more often than not the anger clouds our self-awareness and we fail to see that some of what we object to can be found within our own behaviour and attitudes. It almost always opens us up to the charge of hypocrisy. When I find myself a third party in such a dispute I can see why the initial behaviour was problematic and why the response was equally so.

Then there are those who respond to problematic behaviour with passive resentment. I call this the bitterness response, we live in a kind of bitterness knowing that what is happening to us is unfair, mean, and even cruel. Sadly there are even a few who will come to use this response as a kind of identity, they are victims. “Look at me”, they will proclaim, “once again I am the victim of unfair attacks, this is my lot in life, woe is me!” At a certain point this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My wife tells me that my preferred response to problematic behaviour can be
passive-aggressive”. What she means is that my response is not hostile in an obvious way but rather by reminding the other of what s/he is doing or asking of me it becomes clear that something unfair is being carried out. If a person barges in on me and demands I drop everything and do as s/he wants immediately even though this same person would react very badly if I did that to her/him I will smile, do as request and then as I have completed the task I will respond by calmly reminding the other, and those around her/him, what s/he has done and how that same person would react under the same circumstances. This added context and narrative is unnecessary except that it is a reminder to the other of the unfairness of their behaviour. Does it work? Sometimes. Is it passive-aggressive? Those who know me say yes!

I am reading commentaries on the gospel text for this week, Matthew 5:13-20, when Jesus calls us to be salt and light to the world. One commentator reminded us that in Gospel times the Roman Empire would demand Christians and others carry the heavy uniforms of the Roman soldiers one full mile. Jesus’ response to this unfair demand? Matthew 5:41 says, “and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” This is another form of salt and light, a way that Christians would demonstrate that an unfair request could be turned into a demonstration of care for the other. Loving one’s enemy, carrying their armor, was a way to show that we will not practice vengeance but love.

I am uncomfortable with notions of allowing abuse to continue. I would like to think the Christian carrying the armor would be sharing along the road her/his objection to the behaviour of the soldiers as they harassed and abused those whom they deemed a threat to the state. But there is in this act a clear sense of not seeing the soldier as the enemy but rather as one worthy of consideration, despite the unjust act.

In the end I believe we owe those who practice problematic behaviour toward us not our complicity but our consideration. We need to find ways to exercise our cause of justice while at the same time not allowing ourselves to become agents of hate ourselves. If and when we find that right response we are truly salt and light to those watching us. We are witnessing to a faith we meet in the Gospels through Jesus.