In our last blog I began to address the question, “Is resisting oppression abusive or sinful?” My answer was no, however, often when a woman is in an abusive relationship and she resists her oppressor it may be labeled as mutual abuse by an untrained eye.
This week I want to continue the discussion by looking at Jesus’ specific instructions on how to resist oppression and oppressors.
First, Jesus never tells his followers that they should stay passive or accommodate oppressors. He says “Yes, you can do something.” Jesus wants you to remember that in that awful situation of being oppressed, you still have agency. You still have choices, but he wants you to take action in a way that doesn’t incite your own slide into depravity and evil.
Jesus gives us a few examples that were relevant and applicable to the people in that culture. For example, Jesus told his followers, “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” At first glance, this advice seems like cowering to the oppressor. But commentaries tell us differently. In a right-handed world, a right-handed blow would land on the left cheek. One commentary also said to strike the right cheek with a fist would require someone using their left hand. However, in that culture, the left hand was only used for unclean work so no one would strike someone on the face with their left hand.
The only way to strike someone’s right cheek with your right hand would have been with the back of your right hand. That means that Jesus is referring to an insulting strike not a fist or punch type of strike that may be life-threatening. (Self-protection is not sinful nor is it abusive.)
Jesus is teaching his followers that when someone humiliates you, degrades you, demeans you, and treats you like an object, don’t lose sight of who you really are. Remember, you still have choices. For example, in Jesus’ day, a Roman soldier or slave owner would intentionally slap a Jew or slave thus exerting power over him and humiliating him as the “lesser person”. What are you to do in that moment? Jesus tells you. (Matthew 5:38-40)
Jesus said that when that happens to you, do something in front of everyone watching. Turn the other cheek. In essence, by your silent but public resistance you are challenging your oppressor to slap you again, making more obvious the ugliness and brutality of the oppressor as well as the genuine dignity, equality, and humanity of the one who is being slapped. By not retaliating, by not striking back, or shrinking down in shame, the victim’s brave action is saying to their oppressor, “I deny you the power to humiliate me or to define me as worthless” Gandhi once said, “The first principle of nonviolent action is non-cooperation with humiliation”.
In marriage, your abuser’s humiliating actions are usually done to you privately so how you resist his attempts to humiliate and control you may be different – but the bottom line is the same. Resistance to oppression is something that Jesus endorses.
Jesus does not ask you nor want you to passively suffer the violence or humiliation of your oppressor when you can help it. Instead, you are to non-violently resist his oppression and injustice even if it risks making him angrier. But when that occurs, his escalating rage, his attempts to demean you and humiliate you only make him look more oppressive, more sinful, and more abusive, both to you and to watching children.
The opposite can also be true. When a victim reacts to humiliation or oppressive control aggressively by hitting, cursing, or retaliating insult for insult, then it’s hard to tell who is guilty of what. Sadly, to observers, it’s often the victim who ends up looking irrational, sinful, and abusive, which makes her hard to believe or support.
Remember, your resistance doesn’t necessarily change the oppressor. Inviting someone to “slap your other cheek” may cause you to get slapped again. But it does non-verbally say to the oppressor, “act ugly if you must, but you’re not going to get the best of me. I have core strength inside me. I have God inside of me, and you will not control how I respond.”
Jesus is reminding his followers then, and he reminds us now that even in the face of injustice and oppression you are not powerless. You can do something. You may not change the oppressor, but you can resist his power over your heart and mind, even if he harms your body. But I would also add, if your body is going to be harmed, and you’re able, flee to safety (Proverbs 22:3).
Jesus tells another story to further illustrate again how to resist an oppressor. He says, “If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,” Jesus says, “hand him your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40).
In our culture that makes no sense, but one commentary I consulted said, “In Jesus' time, as in ours, the poor were forever in debt. People wore outer and inner garments; they were hauled into court and were sued even for the clothes off their backs. Only the poorest, those Jesus addressed, would have nothing but an outer garment to give as a loan. So, when they demand your outer garment, Jesus says, give them your inner garment as well.”
But here’s the irony and the power of Jesus’ wisdom. If a poor person was sued in court for his outer garment and willingly gave away his inner garment too, he would silently be the winner. How? Because he would be naked before the court, which was not only taboo in Judaism but criminal. In those days, it was illegal to look upon a naked person. Jesus' audience would immediately realize that the judge and the soldiers would have to arrest themselves for violating the law, and the poor person would go home free.
Today our culture is different, but the bigger picture Jesus wants all people in every culture to understand is this: Because of sin, there will always be oppressors and oppressed. That is the kingdom of power that rules this world. Jesus is teaching the oppressed not to be awed by power, but to respond creatively, disarm their opponents and nonviolently break free from their oppressors. Jesus is offering a practical, strategic measure for empowering the oppressed of that culture.
One last story Jesus uses to illustrate resistance to oppressors again doesn’t make sense in our culture but it made perfect sense in theirs. Jesus told his followers. “Should anyone press you into service for one mile,” Jesus says again, “go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:41). Why? Roman soldiers forced the poor to carry their heavy packs for them. By law, however, the soldiers were not permitted to force the poor to walk more than one mile with their packs.
These Galileans were totally oppressed and terrorized by these Roman occupiers. Jesus shows them a way to nonviolently resist the soldiers.
Purposely go the extra mile. His audience would understand that any soldier would be arrested for breaking the law and imprisoned. If everyone in Galilee did this, all Roman soldiers would be imprisoned. Jesus doesn't say: kill the Roman soldiers or fight them. Yet He does not encourage his followers to sit back and passively suffer their oppression without protest.
Jesus teaches his followers creative nonviolent resistance to transform the situation without using the world’s ways of violence. He reminds us, “you are not helpless. I am with you. I am showing you.” Use creative nonviolent action to end oppression by shaming your oppressor. Jesus tells his people – “do not use the weapons of the world to resist oppressors, bullies, and the wicked.” The Apostle Paul reminds us we don’t’ fight back as the world fights back, but it’s not that you don’t have weapons to use (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
Practically, what might godly resistance to oppressive control look like for a Christian woman?
Here are a few things:
1. Disarm the impact (humiliation) of the oppressor with goodness, dignity, and self-respect. Romans 12:14; Proverbs 25:21-22. You can do this simply through your posture. Stand tall, don’t cower in shame or humiliation, and look your oppressor in the eye versus shrinking down. Model self-respect and respect for the other, even when they are wrong and sinning.
2. Don’t submit or cooperate with controlling oppression. Like the Hebrew midwives showed us when they ignored the Pharaoh’s edict. Don’t do it. Or, do it.
In other words, don’t allow your oppressive spouse to decide for you whether or not you can go to church. Just go. Don’t let him decide whether you can visit your mother or tell the truth about why you have a bruise on your arm. Visit her, tell the truth if you want to. Don’t give him power over you to decide whether or not you need counseling, whether you should go back to college or get a job. You can simply resist his control and say in a respectful neutral voice. “This is important to me even if it isn’t important to you. I am an adult person capable of making decisions for myself.” Even if your oppressive spouse disagrees, by you affirming the truth, it will help you.
3. Practice speaking up, using your voice. Tell the truth to your counselor or pastor; stop pretending. Say no, I can’t/won’t do that. By you affirming your right to choose, to say no, you are validating your right to be an individual even if you are also a wife. You are not a puppet or a possession, you are a person. Call the police or file a restraining order if needed to protect your safety.
4. Go grey rock. In other words, give no emotional energy to the moment. Respond as dispassionately and unemotionally as a grey rock. Give him no narcissistic supply by your emotions. Use a flat and neutral voice tone in your responses.
5. Remember J.A.D.E. Don’t justify, argue, defend or explain your reasons for dissent. Just say, I accept you don’t agree with my position. (But don’t let that change yours.)
6. Be brief, informative (facts), friendly (polite and respectful), and firm (BIFF)– Operate out of your own values and virtues. Don’t let him trigger you into reacting destructively.
7. Detach – Love your enemy, do him good, but do not expect your enemy to love you back. Make big circle choices, not emotional choices.
8. Disengage – Let go of expectations for the oppressor to change or “get it” or validate your No. The oppressor is not your friend, even if he is your spouse.
Remember, you give away your power when you:
1. Put up with abuse. Your children and your spouse wonder, “what will you let me get away with? How far can I go?” When you don’t have boundaries or clear lines, you look powerless and they will gain more power.
2. NEED someone to value you because you don’t value yourself. We all need relationships but work towards healthy ones. Don’t enable abusive ones.
3. Allow yourself to get so depleted and worn down that you are physically sick, emotionally worn out, and spiritually drained. Get healthy support and put your spiritual armor on daily (Ephesians 6).
Friend, what other ways have you learned to resist oppressive control without sinning or giving away your own personal agency and power?