Msgr. Charles Pope: On Bullies and Standing Your Ground

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By Msgr. Charles Pope, October 5, 2018

There is a passage in the Sermon on the Mount that is often misunderstood:

But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matt 5:39).

Many think this passage tells us that we should accept abuse—even death—at the hands of another. Pacifists often take the general advice of this passage and turn it into an absolute.

It is important to note that the attack described is not a deadly one. If it were, one might have an obligation to protect one’s life, even with deadly force if necessary. A slap on the cheek is not a mortal blow or even dangerous to one’s health. Rather, it is an attack on our dignity. It is not necessary to return insult for insult, even if we must protect our reputation.

Further, when the text says that we should not “resist,” it is important to understand the meaning of the word. The Greek word used is anthístēmi, which most literally means “to stand against.” Certainly, we are to resist evil, but we do not need to do so by returning blow for blow. The Lord advises us to stand our ground, neither becoming like our enemy by striking back, nor by running from him in fear. No, are to stand our ground (histemi) by looking him in the eye and saying, “I will not strike you back and become like you; neither will I flee from you and give your evil victory. You are going to have to live with me as I am.”

It is a kind of middle ground between fight and flight. We are to stand our ground before evil, remaining in our world of the Kingdom, not using the tactics of the kingdom of darkness.

Somehow this occurred to me when I watched this clip from The Andy Griffith Show, in which Barney Fife stands down two bullies who have refused to stop selling fruit illegally by the roadside: