Staying the good course

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2006

For years Sidney Harris of the Chicago Sun Times was my favorite newspaper columnist. In one of his columns he wrote about walking with a friend along a street in downtown Chicago. His friend stopped at the corner news stand to buy a newspaper. The newsstand proprietor was grouchy and rude. Sidney Harris' friend was polite and pleasant throughout his dealings with the proprietor. After wishing the proprietor a good day, Harris' friend resumed their walk. Sidney Harris asked his friend how he could be so pleasant with such a rude person. Harris' friend replied, "I'm not going to let him determine how I behave."

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It is an interesting idea that we turn control over to others if we allow those others to determine how we behave. It is an even more interesting idea that we can decide what kind of persons we want to be and then act unswervingly according to that decision.

That's partly what is behind the famous "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" quotation that we often hear. The idea is that one acts according to a strict sense of justice rather than overreacts out of anger or a lust for vengeance. It is a hard call for restraint. Before the ethic expressed in "an eye for an eye" the ethic, which one can still experience, was that if one suffered a slight injury, one inflicted a massive injury in reaction. That ethic of unrestrained response showed up, for instance, with the Nazis murdering one hundred villagers for every soldier killed by the resistance.

Unfortunately unrestrained reaction seems to be a most common human choice. One can see it on school playgrounds when one child bumps another, and the bumped child pushes the other child down. One can see it in professional sports when one player says something inappropriate to another player, and the second player slugs the first one. One can see the same unrestrained overreaction in African villagers being murdered because of a cartoon in Denmark.

Among the Christian scriptures, the Gospel of John tries especially to portray Jesus as one who is inner directed or God directed so that his behavior reflects that direction, rather than the influence of those around him, friend or foe.

Jesus' teachings, admirable though largely ignored, about turning the other cheek and blessing those who make life very difficult come from the next step ethically after unrestrained reaction and strict justice. But the basis is that one decides how one wants to live and behave, and then doesn't surrender control to others in that quest.

In my young years I was so impressed with some of the civil rights activists who were able to stay on the course of non-violent resistance in the face of horrendous provocations. I met young people with burn scars from cigarettes being pushed against their necks and arms while they sat at lunch counters. Some of them bore scars of beatings by police and law abiding citizens.

If I overreact to the provocations around me, the odds, if not the certainties, are that I will be worse than those doing the provoking. Even if I operate by a strict sense of justice, I won't be behaving any better than the provokers. How can the world or my neighborhood be a better place if someone doesn't determine to make it better and then stay unswervingly on course?

When we try to overcome evil with greater evil, even when we try to overcome evil with strictly limited evil, evil still wins. The only way toward a better world is to determine to try to overcome evil with good and do one's best to stay on course even in the face of horrendous provocation.

That's a tough course and one that requires practice. Maybe we could practice on one another right here in Juneau.

• Juneau resident Dan Wanders is the pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

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