Giving the ‘shirt off your back’ is not an invitation to more abuse. It is a subtle expression of self-worth and can confuse and shame the bully.
Have you ever tried to challenge someone’s behavior, and it just gets thrown back at you?
You may feel like you are being bullied or tormented by this person. They seem to feel justified in what they are doing, and you just take it.
You haven’t got the word power or even the emotional power to push back, but you want things to change.
Confronting head-on doesn’t work, and they seem pridefully impenetrable to you.
I am doing a little series on non-violent confrontation based on what Jesus said to the people of his time who were bullied and held under the thumb of the Roman empire.
When Jesus said that if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, then give your cloak as well was not about just giving and giving without any consideration of your needs.
It wasn’t about putting other’s needs before your own.
It was advice that this action could get under the skin of the abuser and cause them a deal great of potential shame for their actions.
It’s probably best explained in the form of a story.
Eli had been through tough times, but nothing like this. It was extortion. The taxes were so high that he went into debt with Joel, one of his neighbors, to get the funds to pay the taxes.
Then last week, he had run out of money. He couldn’t pay Joel the exorbitant interest he charged, so Joel took the farm. But still, that wasn’t enough. All he had left were the clothes he was wearing.
He saw Joel moving the market square. People stepped aside when they saw Joel coming. He was miserly and a bully. He was the wealthiest man in town but the loneliest. You can’t bully people into liking you.
Joel reached Eli and grabbed him by the sleeve of his cloak. ‘You’re coming with me to see the Elders’ he screeched.
The Elders always sat at the gateway to the town, and people would come and ask them questions and seek wisdom.
Joel knew that Eli had no money, so wanted one of his last possessions, his cloak. ‘This would teach him a lesson’ he thought. ‘I’m going shame him by taking his cloak.’
Joel came to the elders and said ‘It says in the Torah that if someone owes you money, then you can demand that they give you their cloak.’
The wise old greybeards nodded and confirmed this.
‘Yes, that is true, but you must give it back to them in the evening so they can be warm at night.’
‘Then I demand that Joel give me his cloak.’
Quite a large crowd was gathering to watch what would happen next.
Eli quietly took off his cloak and handed it over to Joel.
‘Please, have my shirt as well.’
Then with a quick motion, his shirt came off, and there he stood naked.
The shirt was now in Eli’s hands, and shock filled the small village.
Everyone turned away from looking at Eli. There was a deep sense of shame associated with looking at someone naked.
Joel quickly handed back both shirt and cloak to Eli and demanded he put them back on. Joel fled the village feeling completely shamed that he had taken Eli to the point of this desperate action.
Read more background here Jesus Third Way.
Eli had a dignity within himself that wasn’t defined by clothes or lack of them. He had stood up to the bully and offered his all. The one with supposedly the least power became the one who flipped the power dynamics upside down.
Joel was following Jesus’ teaching.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist [with violence] an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; Matthew 5:38 – 40
We no longer live in a village where this sort of thing could happen, but there is still some relevant teaching here for us.
Jesus was saying that we can break the domination of others by creatively bringing them to a place of facing the shame of their actions.
We want to bring others an awareness of what their abusive actions are like. We want to do it in such a subtle way that it disturbs the fabric of their thinking.
The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. Martin Luther King
Not ‘guilt-tripping them’ but more inviting them into the reality of their actions.
That if they were an observer, or even if they were you, they would feel a sense of shame for their actions.
Overwhelm evil with good.
Paul, the apostle, the one-time super bully, writes in a letter to the Romans a simple verse that can easily be memorized.
Do not be overcome by evil,
but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21
By the way, the word ‘overcome’ in the greek is ‘nikaó’ (from the word Nike’ meaning to ‘subdue (literally or figuratively) conquer, overcome, prevail, get the victory.
If you want to challenge an abuser, then return kindness to their abuse. (Warning note, written below)
Do something counter-cultural. Normal thinking would be to either flee and run from the abuse or fight and give it back – ‘Eye for eye, tooth for a tooth.’ With both responses, no one learns anything, and the abuse will just continue to happen in the next relationship.
It all begins with self-respect.
This all sounds quite philosophical, doesn’t it, but some of the greatest movements of history have sprung up through a violently non-violent approach to evil.
This idea of returning good for evil begins in your heart, with you growing a sense of self-respect. It’s that little seed of telling yourself that you have worth and value. That who you are is not defined by anyone else. That is the starting point of a revolution.
It then grows into an awareness that you do have power in this situation. You have the power to choose your response. You can choose to keep on taking the abuse, retaliate, or confuse them with love.
Tell me how
1. Start by believing in yourself. That you have worth and your value is not determined by anyone or anything. This is a foundation that you need to stand on.
2. Memorise Romans 12:21.
Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. Romans 12:20, 21 ( The Message)
3. When the abuse happens, tell yourself the truth.
‘I am defined by God’s love and not by them. What they are doing says more about them than it does about me. I have the power to choose my response.’
4. In prayer, ask God for a creative response that confounds the abuser. It could be buying the abuser lunch or getting them a drink.
5. Realise that you may well not see the shame response.
In my little story above, Joel ran from the village. In most cases of using this approach, you won’t see any noticeable change.
The abuser will not want to admit their shame, but slowly over time, with repeated experiences of being confounded, there may be a subtle change. It just takes time and repetition.
Some abusers will just continue to take and take and take. Despite your best efforts to love and show kindness, they will continue to abuse.
If this is the case, the most loving thing you can do for yourself and them is to get help from others and possibly get out of the relationship.
Your self-dignity is more important. Draw the boundary lines very clearly and express the consequences of continued abuse.
Quotes to consider
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
Questions to answer
- What growth needs to happen in the heart to enable returning kindness to abuse.
- Is it right that we should bring people to places where were they feel legitimate shame and guilt for their actions? Are we agents of the Holy Spirit to bring stubborn people to a conviction about their actions?
- What are some other examples of overcoming evil with good?