The Violence Within

Mom always called me her bulldog. I attacked almost every school project, piano recital piece or household chore with voracity and stubbornness that wouldn’t quit. I owned my identity as a pacifist Mennonite with the same kind of vigor. No matter what my Christian friends outside my denomination had to say about redemptive violence or using it as a last resort to protect the innocent, I never budged on my conviction. If we took Jesus at his word, violence was never an option. Never. The bulldog in me wanted to put my friends in their place.

I will never forget the moment when one of my closest friends told me that even though I claimed to be a  pacifist, I was one of the most violent kids at the high school. He was talking about my words and my attitude- the way did not hesitate to belittle those who disagreed with me, or smack them down with a clever argument; the way I disregarded any validity in their point of view and disrespected their faith in God. I began to see, that day, an ugly side of me that was indeed violent, just not with the usual weapons. I didn’t like it, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it.

My bulldog nature has always been drawn toward issues of injustice. She rises up to cry foul against racism and sexism, any systems that marginalize and dehumanize people created in God’s image. In college, women’s issues became one my deepest passions. I prided myself on being an independent, fearless woman who could take care of herself and who would work for justice for girls and women whenever I could. Once, when I was travelling to see family, I didn’t think twice about stopping in a small town to use a restaurant bathroom. Minutes later, I came back out to my car and saw a big man blocking my driver’s side door. He wanted to talk to me and touch me. I can only imagine what else he wanted to do. Somehow, I found a way to open that car door, get in and speed away, but I struggled to feel safe on my own after that. The encounter shook my confidence and stirred up an anger within me that I did not even know I possessed. I hated him and the way he stole my confidence. I raged at the unfairness and injustice of that situation.

Deep inside, I heard Jesus’ words about non-violence, loving our enemies, going the second mile, turning the other cheek. They whispered quietly, but I beat them back with a hot rage I never felt before. Why should he get to behave in whatever disgusting way he wants while I can’t walk home from the library by myself without feeling afraid? It was just plain wrong! I did not want reasonable consequences. I did not want justice. I wanted revenge… and more. I could picture myself beating at him, kicking him, hurting him. I began to look with suspicion upon all men who reminded me of him. This scared me. It was then that I had a revelation about Jesus’ call to nonviolence. That man’s violence against me was breeding more hatred and violence within my soul, which, if I acted out, had the potential to breed more violence in those who received my outbursts. Jesus was not asking me to ignore injustice or be silent in the face of abuse against women. He was asking me to find a way to stop the endless cycle of violence that poisons beloved humanity.

There have been many more situations when I have had to sit down with Jesus and my inner bulldog and examine my own potential for violence. As a mother, I have been tempted to force my will on my children. As a wife, I have been tempted to do violence with my words. As a minister, I have been tempted to categorize people in dehumanizing ways, and to point out all the things that are wrong with church institutions and Christian leaders who perpetuate injustice. Violence lives within me.

I have hope, though. Even a bulldog can learn the ways of peace. There is a man in my community whom I have gotten to know. He runs a business that exploits people, and in the past, I vilified men like him. In the past, I would have never have taken the time to listen to him or felt any compassion toward him. But since I have been captured by the idea that my God is on mission to reconcile all of creation to Himself, Jesus has pushed me into my neighborhood and into this man’s path. He whispered the invitation to me, “just love him.” Our slowly evolving friendship has had its awkward moments, to be sure. It’s not easy for me to keep my bulldog quiet, but this man, my neighbor, is human, just like me. He has a capacity for rage and violence, like me.

He is created in the image of God, just like me. And he is redeemable… just like me.

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