My friend and I walked out of the corner liquor store, where I bought a Twix chocolate bar and a bottle of honey green tea. It took longer than usual to make my purchase because the store clerk stepped out to ask a group of people outside who appeared to be loitering to move away. My friend, who was becoming anxious about the situation, asked me to hurry up and make my purchase. I told him that I couldn’t because there was no one to pay and I didn’t think stealing would ameliorate anyone’s anxiety. After the clerk returned and I bought my treats, we walked through the group of loiterers who had apparently migrated a couple yards. They seemed to be yelling at each other when another young man arrived in front of us and started walking towards us quickly and aggressively. I quickly became aware of my wallet and iPhone in my pocket, which I certainly had no intention of losing. The young man continued to walk towards me until he got right in my personal space and face with the intention of scaring the shit out of me. If “assault” is an act intended to cause an apprehension of harmful or offensive contact that causes apprehension of such contact in the victim, then legally, he assaulted me. Although I was certainly afraid, I found myself not reacting out of fear. I merely continued to walk, which seemed to throw him off. He then asked me for a dollar. So I handed him one of the Twix bars that I started to eat because my hands were full and I needed an open hand to reach for my wallet. This seemed to throw him off even more. He stepped back almost in fear as if I were threatening him with a knife. My intention was not to pretend my Twix bar was a weapon, but to engage in an exchange. I said to him, “Ok, just hold this and I’ll get it. If you want me to give you a dollar, then I need you to do your part and hold my Twix.” I can’t remember if he held my Twix or if my friend took it, but I got out my wallet and handed him a dollar. I think he said, “Thanks” and that was it, I thought.
I was actually really happy with how things went down. I responded to an assault not by running away or throwing a fist, but by asking him to hold my Twix. I resisted the human compulsion to fight or flee and moved into a third way of non-violent resistance. I demanded that he acknowledge me as a person with whom he must engage in an honest exchange. I didn’t just give in and say, “Here take my dollar and leave me alone.” I said, “Ok, let’s make a deal. You hold my Twix bar for a few seconds and I’ll give you a dollar.” And he clearly was not expecting this response from me because he stepped back in fear, as if my chocolate bar was about to hurt him.
My friend, who seemed to be reading the situation a little differently, said to the young man, “Hey man, you don’t need a dollar.” He told me later that he was trying to stick up for me and defend me because he thought I gave in too easily to the man’s request. The young man responded to my friend saying that he was an artist and that he needed the money. And I said, “Ask and you shall receive. You asked and you received.” And as cheesy as that might sound, I really meant it. When someone asks for something they make themselves vulnerable. When he asked me for a dollar after I clearly did not respond from his assault by running away or fighting, he himself changed the power dynamic. He was asking me for something and he empowered me to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and I responded with a conditional yes.
After the man said he was an artist, I asked him to show me his work, which he did. And although his artwork looked like that of an elementary school kid, I appreciated him again being vulnerable in showing it to me. I learned his name and spoke briefly with one of his apparent friends and then walked away.
What I haven’t mentioned is that the young man who assaulted me was black and so were all the other people loitering outside the liquor store while my friend and I are white. So there is a whole other subtext of race that I haven’t even begun to tap in this reflection. However, the story is still compelling, at least to me, probably because I was in it.
What does this have to do with the Gospel of John?
This “assault” happened a few days ago and I haven’t given it all that much thought since. However, as I was reading and meditating on John 18:1-11, I couldn’t help but remember it. I do not mean to say that I was Jesus or that my friend was Peter or that the young man was the Roman detachment of soldiers set to take Jesus away.
I just find it fascinating and kind of funny that Jesus responds to aggression not by running away or fighting, but by engaging in an exchange that literally knocks the Roman soldiers off their feet. And I also find it interesting that Simon Peter felt the need to defend Jesus, when Jesus actually had things going just the way he wanted them to go.
Again, I am not trying to aggrandize or apotheosize myself or my actions. Ultimately, I think that experience of being assaulted gave me new eyes to see John 18:1-11 as a radical example of Jesus embodying the non-violent third way. Matthew expressed Jesus’ non-violent response to the Romans by having Jesus tell Peter, “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword” (Matt 26:52). And Dr. Luke makes Jesus’ non-violence even more clear when he has Jesus heal the wound inflicted by Peter (Luke 22:51). Now I am starting to see how creatively non-violent Jesus is in John’s account…