A Third Way

Recent, painful headlines have raised anew in all of our minds a dark cloud. How do we understand violence, our complicity with it, our response to it? Caught between an urge to respond and a growing sense of futility, responses of anger, grief and exhaustion all start to sound like the same question: where is the way forward?

A passage in Robert Barron’s The Strangest Way often draws my students’ attention when we read the book together. In his discussion of nonviolence, Barron offers this explanation of the term:

In the gospel sense, nonviolence is a third way between or above the two classical responses to evil: fight and flight. In the face of opposition or attack, one can, according to common wisdom, either fight back or run away. In the first case, as history has unambiguously and sadly shown, violence simply increases, since vengeance begets vengeance; and in the second case, violence is allowed to thrive since it is not opposed. Gospel love is a third path–neither violent nor acquiescent. It actively and provocatively opposes violence, but not through more violence, fighting fire with fire, as it were. Rather, it opposes evil through compassionate and forgiving noncooperation; it refuses to live in the world favored by the violent person.

We look together at Jesus’ instruction to “turn the other cheek.” “Notice,” I have to say, “that this is not what your parents taught you. They all gave you the same, very practical advice when the question of fistfights on the playground came up at the dinner table.” And when I point to them, the students respond, all together: third way“Just walk away…” But Jesus doesn’t give that option. To fully grasp how foreign, and how difficult, this teaching is, we have to see that he insists that his followers neither to fight nor to walk away.

“But,” my students ask, “what does that look like?”

Sometimes, we together talk about nonviolent, group-action protests, and the training that is required to engage in such protest successfully. Passive resistance and sit-ins, the strategies of Gandhi and King, give at least some concrete example. Going limp, refusing to fight back, however, continue to be forms of what-we-are-not-doing. What do we do?

My proposal, to be explored in posts to come, is that we have a rich account of remaining, and it is a Marian one.

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