This past Palm Sunday marked the beginning of Holy Week for Christians -- a week of remembering Jesus' suffering and death. Upon reflecting on the circumstances surrounding Christ's death, I found myself asking: Was Jesus a passive doormat or a strong leader? What leadership lessons did Jesus teach as he walked toward his death?
The two most common human responses to threat are flight or fight. Flight is the passive response, and fight is the defensive response. Many Christians have interpreted Jesus' willing acceptance of death as a passive response.
Yet there is another interpretation. According to biblical scholar Walter Wink in his book Engaging the Powers, Jesus demonstrated a "Third Way," a way of responding to threat that was neither fight nor flight:
Jesus, in short, abhors both passivity and violence. He articulates, out of the history of his own people's struggles, a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, the oppressor resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralized without being destroyed.
The Third Way includes both respect for oneself and respect for the best self of the one who is attacking. It includes compassion for oneself and compassion for the attacker. It includes the ability to see beneath the surface, to see the humanity of the attacker.
The Third Way is just as challenging in everyday life as it is in large socio-political arenas, and Jesus calls us to live it in both places. We progressive Christian activists are prone to practice the Third Way in the larger arenas while neglecting it in daily life. For example, when my husband points out that I didn't follow through on something I agreed to do, my natural response is defensiveness. In that moment, I can easily feel attacked. If I respond defensively, my husband is likely to turn up the volume on the criticism, resulting in my feeling even more defensive, creating a vicious cycle. If instead of responding defensively, I can take a deep breath and see the humanity of my husband and the truth in what he is saying, I can respond with compassion. I can listen deeply. I can respond from my heart. When I choose the Third Way, the cycle of criticism and defensiveness is more likely to be interrupted, resulting in more satisfaction for both me and my husband.
Leading by the Third Way does not mean being a doormat. It involves discerning when and how to confront. It involves compassion at all times. It involves refusing to be manipulated. It involves unmasking the attacker. It involves calling forth the best in the attacker.
When Jesus stood before the religious leaders of his time, the chief priests and scribes, he responded to their entrapping question, "If you are the Christ, tell us," creatively, by saying, "If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask you, you will not answer." Jesus refused to be manipulated. He turned the question back on the religious leaders, challenging them to face themselves and to face truth. When they refused, Jesus maintained his own dignity and his own identity. He did not allow the religious leaders to define him.
Because Jesus met violence with love, even to the very end (praying for forgiveness for those who condemned and crucified him), the violence was undone. The rulers, both religious and secular, were unmasked, revealed for all to see who they really were.
Responding to perceived attacks with defensiveness only exacerbates the vicious cycle, whether it be in the workplace, in the home, or in the larger world. Responding to attacks through the Third Way opens up the possibility of transforming the vicious cycle through love. Jesus was not a doormat. Instead, he modeled the strong leadership of transforming love.
Margaret 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 website.