Practicing Jesus' Third Way in the Public Square

By Margaret Benefiel 11-13-2009

In the midst of the hate speech that's surfacing in the public square these days, I've been asking myself how I can respond to such speech nonviolently. How can I engage with compassion those who sling word-arrows, inviting the slingers to transformation?

Earlier this year, Julio Diaz, a New York City social worker met violence with compassion when he stepped off the subway and a teenager pulled a knife on him and demanded his wallet. After giving the teen his wallet, Diaz engaged him as he began to walk away, offering him his coat and inviting him to dinner. The would-be robber accepted the dinner invitation, and the conversation over dinner, through Diaz's masterful engagement with the teen and the teen's openness to listening, resulted in the teen returning the wallet and giving up his knife.

When they heard about the incident, many readers of the story asked themselves what they would have done, judged themselves as incapable of rising to the challenge in the way that Diaz did, and left it at that. Diaz became a hero, one who practiced unattainable heroics ordinary mortals can never expect to perform. It was easy to put him in the category of heroes like Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi, and excuse oneself from having to act like him.

But treating the story in this way misses its most important lesson. There are hints in the story of Diaz's practice, practice, and more practice. People like Diaz and Tutu and Suu Kyi have been living this way for a long time. As Walter Wink points out in Engaging the Powers, in a world that teaches fight or flight, those who want to practice Jesus' third way, the way of encountering violence with compassion and transforming it, must rehearse that third way. We need groups of people who gather to talk about situations they face every day, small and large, subtle and not so subtle. We need opportunities to brainstorm and role play "third way" responses.

We may not be able to start with Jesus' third way at knifepoint. On a scale of 1-10, the situation in which Diaz found himself was a "10." Only because he had been practicing "1's," "2's," "5's," and "8's" over the years was he able to rise to the occasion when he encountered a "10." Fortunately, most of us don't encounter robberies at knifepoint regularly. But we do encounter "1's," "2's," and "5's" frequently. And at this moment in the U. S., we are hearing racism and other forms of hate speech in the public square. How do we respond when we hear a co-worker repeating a talk-show host's racist remarks? How do we respond when we are the target of a neighbor's anger because of our political views? Do we intervene when we see a bully in the office or on the playground getting away with hate speech and if so, how?

Where do we get support for responding differently from our knee-jerk fight or flight responses? What are our opportunities to gather with others and practice Jesus' third way?

I may not have the wherewithal to stand up and confront a talk-show host today using Jesus' third way. At the same time, with the help of other like-minded people, I can begin to practice that third way in the myriad situations I encounter every day, and begin to build up my third way muscles. And in the unlikely event that I am ever confronted with a "10" situation, as Diaz was, I just might be able to rise to the occasion.

portrait-margaret-benefielMargaret Benefiel, Ph.D., author of Soul at Work and The Soul of a Leader, works with leaders in health care, business, churches, government, and nonprofits to help them stay true to their souls. Visit her Web site.

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