catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 2 :: 2008.01.25 — 2008.02.08


Jesus isn’t crazy

How to bless those who curse

After writing an article on the way principle and emotion spark political debate, I warily read through some responses. Things were going well till I opened the third e-mail.

The writer was highly-credentialed and not at all pleased. I can’t remember the last time I was called the name he used; and being commanded to recant was no less painful.  How was I to respond? Given what so many others go through, I knew I should be grateful that this was the worst kind of “enemy” I had to face. But I was under a proverbial attack that didn’t feel proverbial in the least. Though I tried to remain calm, I couldn’t stay quiet. Jesus had a practice for even situations like mine: “Bless those who curse you.” And I needed practice.

Since Jesus gave that command—along with “love your enemies” and the rest (Matthew 5.44, Luke 6.27-28)—people have been arguing over His rationality. Is He or isn’t He proposing the most radical principle ever? Is it or isn’t it crazy?

When you read John (e.g., 1.50-51, 6.48-58) you start to think maybe Jesus is crazy. He even claims His yoke is easy and His burden light (Matthew 11.30)! Only someone who hasn’t lived with other people could honestly expect humans to bless when they are cursed, and love when they are threatened—much less think it would be easy.

Why does Christ demand the impossible?

For the frustrated Christian the only answer can be, “It’s not impossible, I just haven’t figured it out yet.” And so we turn for help to writers like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, who teach us about “the Spiritual Disciplines.” But the Disciplines take work. You have to develop habits. How is that “easy” or “light”?

This is where St. Thomas Aquinas comes to our rescue. In his Summa Theologiae (I-II.51.3) he says some habits involve seeing truth, and can be acquired instantaneously.  In other words, you see some truths all at once and are convinced forever. They affect the way you think and live from that point forward. And there is a truth like this behind Jesus’ Discipline of blessing those who curse. That truth is: “Almost all anger is a response to fear.” As physical beings we have two responses to danger: fight and flight. Anger belongs to the former.

Once we see a curser’s (e.g., friend’s, boss’s, letter-writer’s) anger toward us as the face of their fear of us, we are liberated. We see them as feeling threatened—which makes them appear much less threatening. And not feeling threatened ourselves, our anger at them disappears.  In fact, sympathy replaces our anger, and a whole range of new emotions—from pity to compassion—is opened to us.  Thus, seeing the truth that most anger is a response to fear paves the way for love. But this side of love is emotional. What of the active side? 

To turn our anger at a curser into active love, we need to go one step deeper and see the truth which underlies fear. That truth is: “All fear is a response to difference.” Remember that movie where the hero feels fear as a person points a gun in his direction? He thinks the gunman wants something different for his life than he (the hero) does. But it turns out that the gunman is about to shoot a would-be assassin lurking behind the hero, and the hero ceases to be afraid of him. He realizes that the gunman and he both want the same thing for his life.

Most of the differences that trigger our fears are less dramatic. There’s a reason, for instance, that it’s impolite to whisper around others. It makes them feel excluded, different, unwelcome, threatened. And we might feel the same around those whose language we don’t understand. But if we are afraid of the whisperer or “stranger among us” (Exodus 12.49, 22.21, 23.9, etc.) it is for the same reason we are afraid of anyone. We see a difference, which leads to a sense of threat; we respond to that feeling with fear, and to fear with anger.  If we saw others as being the same as us (or as wanting the same), there would be no feeling of threat. The chain of responses leading to anger would be never occur.

The solution, therefore, is to intentionally introduce identity. We either change the other person, change ourselves, or try to change both people. In most situations, #2 is the most loving and—Jesus wasn’t crazy—the easiest.  But in choosing to change ourselves, we have three options: A shift of focus, a shift of framing, or a shift of attributes.

  1. We shift our focus from the way in which the other person is different from us, to the ways in which he or she is the same as us.
  2. We shift the way we frame the situation so that we feel ourselves to be the same as the other person —so that what they are doing becomes “understandable.” Instead of thinking, “I’m being attacked,” we reframe the situation as, “She feels threatened and wants to defend herself, just like I would.”
  3. We shift the attributes that make us different from the other. We purposefully learn the language of those with whom we could not communicate. We refit ourselves with so many layers that we want the A/C to be as cold as our boss does.

If Descartes and Frankl are right that we have the most power over own attitudes and actions — and if it is through refocusing, reframing, or refitting that we can instigate identity, eradicate fear, and soothe anger—then  Jesus is not crazy. The yoke and burden of blessing and loving can be easy and light.

We just need to understand two simple truths: Anger is a response to fear—fear is a response to difference. Thus love, both in its emotional and active aspects, is put within our reach. And with help from the Giver of the Infused Virtues/Habits (Summa Theologiae, I-II.55, 62) truth plus discipline plus grace can equal the “life more abundant” (John 10.10).

My credentialed critic felt misrepresented and threatened by what I had written. Seeing this changed my reaction to him. It freed me to respond more calmly.  And I noticed we agreed on some important points. We even belonged to the same group. When I wrote to tell him this, the tone of our correspondence turned and we both experienced the transformative power of a light burden, an easy yoke.

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