It was a normal summer day for the most part — a day filled with football, a game of tag, or tops, frequent visits to the water ice stand, and Mr. Softee in the evening. Or so I thought. Little did I know it would be a day that would change my life.
We were outside playing, and as usual, a disagreement occurred over something that led to a small scuffle. I hated fighting; it was something I would often avoid if I could. That day it was between Greg, a neighbor from up the street, and myself, which led to him shoving me and me walking away. Greg was usually cool, but he could be a bully at times. I usually ignored him, and that day was no different. My brother Tyrone was there. Tyrone was the opposite of me — he never backed down from a fight, and in fact was usually the one starting it. When I began to walk away, Tyrone started to mouth off and escalated the situation. This would be my problem soon enough.
My dad either was watching the entire time or heard Tyrone yelling, and he came to the porch. He saw me walking away and became extremely angry. “Get out there and kick his ass right now, or I will kick yours!” he yelled. My choice was either to go out and fight Greg or to face my dad. Greg seemed to be the best choice, so I went out and began punching on him, and he on me, until I was out of control and hitting as other kids and my dad watched. It finished with me getting the best of him that day, to the oohs and aahs of the other kids — and the pleasure of my dad.
My dad had long ago taught each of his sons to stand up in a fight, and that day he witnessed me violating that teaching. “If someone hits you, hit hem back. And if you can’t beat them, you pick up something and bust them upside the head.” That was the rule of the house. It went further to include someone who is bothering one of your brothers as well.
I didn’t particularly like this rule, but that day as my friends cheered me on and my dad looked proud, I felt good. I knew I would gain some respect by beating another kid. My dad’s philosophy and reputation for not raising punks was intact. He had passed it on to me.
How many things like this have been passed on to us? I am afraid there are many destructive things passed on to us that go against who we are, but we model this behavior but please a parent or to feel secure. I am not a fighter and prefer to walk away from violence, but I became a bully after that, pushing my way onto people. And if I were losing a fight, I would pick up anything to hit someone with to win the fight. Thanks, Dad, for passing this on to me.
I am sharing this because I want to be a voice for people who think they have to choose violence to solve problems or to prove themselves. I don’t believe that violence is ever helpful. It only causes more violence. When a person is violent and I answer with violence, there is no other recourse but to continue the pattern. When a person is violent and we answer with love — by turning the other cheek or walking away — we offer a way out, a way to stop the cycle.
Last year, 506 murders happened in the city of Chicago — the majority of them in black communities. Similar rates of violence swept through places like Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., New Orleans, and the list could go on and on. I have in my life begun to declare myself a pacifist. I have made this change because I think, as a black man, the only recourse for me is to try and stop violence that happens in so many black communities. Turning the other cheek, responding with a gentle answer, forgiving a misunderstanding: these are the paths to recovery in my neighborhood.
The “if someone hits you, hit them back” mentality is destroying black men at an alarming rate. Dads, teach your boys to talk it over, look the other way, or keep walking when things begin to escalate.
I have three sons — two in college — and I would like to see them become even greater men than they already are and to live long lives. I have taught them the way to offer options in the midst of conflict to follow the teaching of Jesus. Don’t return evil for evil; return evil with good. In doing so, you win your brother or sister and keep more young black men alive.
This is not just a theory — the more we teach non-violence and offer pacifism as a legitimate way of life, the more we make black communities safer and keep our sons alive. I have stopped the cycle in my life and passed it onto my sons. It can be done. The rules of the world must change. We must first decide that walking away is not for “punks” as my dad would put it, but is in fact the smartest and bravest decision a person can make in the midst of conflict.
If someone hits you, love them enough to walk away.
Leroy Barber is president of Mission Year, a national urban initiative introducing 18- to 29-year-olds to missional and communal living in city centers for one year of their lives. He is also the pastor of Community Fellowships Church in Atlanta, Ga., and author of New Neighbor. He is also a member of Emerging Voices.
Image: Brown boxing gloves, Csehak Szabolcs / Shutterstock.com