Warning: this article contains profanity and may not be suitable for children.
I heard angry yelling coming from the street outside. Up to that point, it had been a relaxing Saturday morning in the summer. I walked out onto my front porch to see what was happening.
I live in the city in what could be called a modest middle-class section of town. For the most part it’s a fairly quiet, older residential neighborhood full of smaller single-family homes. Nothing too fancy, but green lawns, lots of kids and dogs, a decent school within walking distance. Groups of middle school boys on bikes can be a bit of a nuisance during the summer, but otherwise it’s pretty safe.
When I stepped outside, I saw a teenage boy and girl in the middle of the intersection. He was lying on the ground, wearing red sweatpants and no shirt. She was standing over him, pulling on his hand, begging him to get up and stop yelling. I don’t remember what he was screaming. He was mad at her for some reason and refused to get up off the street. He didn’t look hurt. He looked deranged.
I yelled out to them–mostly to her–“Are you okay?”
He jumped up. “We’re fine! Go back inside. It’s none of your business!” He looked to be about fifteen. Young enough to still be called a child, but also big enough that he gave me pause.
But I couldn’t just ignore him. “You’re yelling in the middle of the street in front of my house. This is my neighborhood. I’m not going to just go back inside.”
“This is my neighborhood too, motherfucker! I live right down the street. And I can yell if I want to.” He pointed to his house on a corner of the opposite side of the street a block away. I knew the house well. It was owned by an unscrupulous landlord who owned several rentals in the neighborhood. All of them were problem properties: old, run-down houses with tenants who caused frequent visits from the police. In my job as a community organizer, I often heard complaints about the landlord. As I said, the neighborhood was generally very safe, but that house had long been a source of concern. There was once a drive-by shooting that put holes in a couple of its windows. No one was hurt, but it was still scary.
I stood there looking at him, trying not to get drawn into a fight. I’m no fighter, and even if I was, he was still just a kid.
He took my hesitation as an opportunity for more offensive language. “Why are you still standing there, staring at me? What, you like looking at boys? Are you a pedophile? Why don’t you kiss my ass, you sick bastard!” At that, he turned around and mooned me.
I kind of lost it then. “Get the hell out of here, you little shit! I’m calling the police!”
Mortified, his girlfriend grabbed his arm and started pulling him down the street. He went with her, but continued to yell profanities at me and drop his pants to show me his behind. I pulled out my phone and called in a complaint to the police. They arrived at his house within a few minutes. I don’t know what they said to him, and I figured it wouldn’t resolve the situation, but I didn’t know what else to do.
I heard nothing else from him that day, but the next day when I was out jogging, my wife was in the yard gardening, and he yelled at her as he walked by. (He frequently walked by our house to get to his girlfriend’s place.) “Hey! Tell your husband to stay away from me. If he comes anywhere near my house, I’ll sic my pit bulls on him!”
Not sure how to respond to this strange threat, she slowly said, “Okaaay,” and he continued down the street, apparently satisfied with his efforts at intimidation.
When I got home and heard the story, something happened inside me. A switch flipped. Normally, I’m a gentle person. I abhor violence, and as a Christian, I believe Jesus taught his followers to handle conflict peacefully. But when I learned that this punk had spoken threateningly to my wife while I was away, all my pacifist leanings were swept away by a wave of anger and fear.
I didn’t care anymore that he was just a kid. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted him to be afraid of me, to know without doubt that if he came anywhere near my family or tried to harm them, I would not hold back from causing him as much pain as possible. I didn’t go after him. I knew I couldn’t do that, but I found myself planning ways to hurt him if he came too close. I even pulled a metal baseball bat out of my garage and put it just inside my front door. I started thinking of other places I might put weapons. What if he had a bigger weapon or came with friends? What would I have to do to protect my family?
Part of me knew I was losing it a little, and so I kept most of these thoughts to myself. After a several days went by without incident, I finally started to calm down a little. Then one day his girlfriend was walking by our house while my wife and I were outside. She stopped and said, “I want to apologize for the way my boyfriend acted the other day. He was really upset. Just don’t tell him I apologized, though, because he wouldn’t like that.”
I don’t completely understand why, but more than anything else, her apology melted my anger. It was replaced with sadness. With that apology, I could just see a long future for her of messed up, abusive relationships. She would try to take care of guys like him who couldn’t deal with their anger, thinking if she just loved them enough or sacrificed enough, or apologized enough, they would love her back and become better people. How many years would it take her to learn that it wasn’t up to her to fix unstable boys or broken men?
“Thanks,” I said, “I’m not going to tell him, but it’s not you who should apologize. It would mean a lot more if it came from him.”
“I know, but I still wanted to say I’m sorry. ”
She turned and continued down the street to his house. I thought about her: her youth, her naiveté. And then I remembered that the angry young man I would make my enemy was really nothing more than a confused boy who was probably facing a lot more difficulties at that moment than me. I was supposed to be the adult in this situation, and instead I was letting my own fear and anger change me into someone else.
Over the next few days I saw the two of them walking down the street past my house several times. He always made sure to swagger, demonstrating his bravado, but I also noticed that he never looked at my house. It was impossible to catch his eye.
Finally, one afternoon when I was in my driveway getting something out of my truck, they passed by closely enough that he couldn’t pretend I wasn’t there. I spoke first. “Hey, can we talk?”
“No, we can’t talk! I got nothin’ to say to you. You called the cops on me. I don’t want to talk to your old ass. Don’t think I won’t fight you just because you’re old.” (I’m thirty-six, I thought. I guess that’s old to a teenager.)
I persisted. “I don’t want to fight you. I just want to talk things out.”
“Well I don’t want to talk to you.” He repeated his threat from before. “Just stay away from me, or I’ll sic my dog on you.”
“I’m not scared of you, and I don’t want to fight.”
He looked confused. “Fine, just leave me alone.”
“Fine. If that’s what you want.” And that was the end of it. They walked off, and we never had any problems after. Several months later, his family moved out of the rental house and I don’t think I’ve seen him since.
I wish I could say that we worked things out, that the conflict was eventually transformed into a more friendly, neighborly relationship, but that never happened. He wasn’t ready for that, just like he wasn’t ready to have a healthy relationship with his girlfriend. He was an angry kid, and who knows? He probably had reason to be angry.
One thing I know is that he had no idea how to react to the combination of me being direct, confrontational, but ultimately unwilling to use violence. He kept giving me every opportunity, provoking me to see if I would retaliate. It was sometimes very difficult not to react in the way he wanted me to. I quickly lost my temper in our first exchange, and it was confusing to him when I wouldn’t do so again. Not knowing what to do with me after that day, he just left me alone.
I once heard the Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan talk about the story in which Jesus tells his followers, “You must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.”* Crossan explained that this offering of the left cheek is more than simply letting yourself become a doormat who allows others to practice whatever harmful behavior they like.
Instead, turning the other cheek is a nonviolent, confrontational statement. It says, “I will not run away. I will not hide. I will not ignore your behavior. Nor will I cower before you. I will not let fear or anger take over my soul. I will not perpetuate the cycle of violence. No, I will stand firm, with dignity, and exercise my right to exist on my own terms.”
This is not natural for most human beings. It certainly did not come naturally to me even in this relatively small confrontation. In the beginning I failed. I let anger and fear take over my soul. I hate to think what might have happened if things escalated any further than they had.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Jesus (or other non-violent leaders) to be faced with so much injustice, oppression, and brutality and still choose the way of nonviolent confrontation. To be able to recognize those who would harm you as broken children of God and respond with truth-telling love even to the point of offering one’s own life…no wonder people believed he was divine. This is not a path most humans would choose. It’s too hard.
I hope, as a Christian, I will do better the next time I am attacked by the world’s brokenness and faced with the choice of how to respond. Rather than fear and anger, I hope I can choose love.Like this? Click to subscribe!
*Matthew 5:39 or Luke 6:29.