The Art of Resistance

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 30, Issue 6
November – December 2017

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One of the more depressing comments on human fate comes from the Greek historian Thucydides. In describing how the Athenian ambassadors characterized their imperial dealings with their weaker neighbors in the Aegean (in this instance the Melians), Thucydides baldly delivers this dictum on Athenian lips: “The powerful do what they can; the weak suffer what they must.” The Melians did not take the Athenians advice. They refused to join Athens and were soon defeated, the men slaughtered and the women and children enslaved (The Peloponnesian War 5.7).

In a recent book, And the Weak Suffer What They Must (Vintage, 2017), the economist and former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, argues that the austerity policies of Europe continue to play out along those fateful lines. But we do not have to look outside of this country to sense how little many people feel that they can do as the wealth gap widens at their expense.

The Borg represented an unstoppable vector of victory that would tolerate no dissent.

In fact, even our science fiction envisions this ironfisted take on life:

We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.
Star Trek—First Contact (1996) Moviesoundclips.net. Rikeromega3 Productions 1999–2013. Retrieved September 26, 2013.

The Borg represented an unstoppable vector of victory that would tolerate no dissent. Their ever-increasing and augmenting cube hurtled through space terrorizing the various life forms throughout the galaxy. Even Captain Jean-Luc Picard fell under their sway. Happily, the crew of the Enterprise found a way out of this cosmic cliff-hanger. But what can we do in our own lives when confronted with what seems to be the inevitable?

But what can we do in our own lives when confronted with what seems to be the inevitable?

In times past people resorted to prayer. But for so many of us today this no longer seems to be an adequate response. Wouldn’t this be an evasion of what is staring us in the face?

Perhaps it might be wise to return to that line of Thucydides. The Greek is a bit more complicated than the English translation given above. Yes, the superior ones will do what they can (dunata) simply because they can. But the weak “come to terms” (zugchorousin). Now the word used suggests a certain sly possibility: “to find room for,” “to accommodate.” This imperial utterance may unwittingly contain an unlikely possibility. If we have “ears to hear” there may be some shrewd wisdom to be gleaned. The Melians resisted and were obliterated. But is there something offered more than “flight or fight,” more than “submit or die”?

In the Art of War Sun Tzu advises that you most know the ground on which you will face battle. You need to know well the atmosphere, space, and contours of where you will meet. Only then can you see if there is a chance to maneuver. You need to see if there is any breathing room for action.

What would happen if, when faced with an apparent ironclad dilemma, we found some breathing room where, at first blush, there didn’t seem to be any?

What would happen if, when faced with an apparent ironclad dilemma, we found some breathing room where, at first blush, there didn’t seem to be any? What if we found room enough to take a deep breath, long enough to look beyond the horns of the dilemma?

What if this is prayer?

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Recall the wisdom of that shrewd peasant: “What you treasure is your heart’s true measure” (Luke 12:34; Matt 6:21). In those moments of desperation, when the forces of life seem to be crushing us, ordering us to go in a fated direction, what if we were to stop that fearful momentum and look about for space to breathe, to take time to notice something never seen before? What if we resisted the inevitable options and found more than meets the eye? What if we refused to let others determine the depths of our hearts? What if we found another way that would surprise even those who thought they could lord it over us?

Another way of putting this is that prayer is a fundamental art of human resistance.

Another way of putting this is that prayer is a fundamental art of human resistance. The root meaning of jihad as “struggle” throws light on this. Our act of resistance may well begin whenever we face what appears to be overwhelming power, and we still say in response, “You’re no god! You do not have the final word. Even if I do not know what will come of this, I refuse to let this be the final determination.”

Prayer no longer is the pneumatic system that keeps the gods pumped up and in play. It has a much more necessary function. It is the place where we can imagine that there is more to come. As a mode of resistance, prayer becomes the space where we recall that we are not alone. All imperial forces love to divide and conquer; all want us to believe that we are on our own. Prayer is that refusal to forget the faces that make us who we are and can be. Despite distances of time and space, prayer detects those lines of human entanglement.

Prayer is that movement into the interior particularly when the forces of dissolution are so strong. We discover that we enter into the depths of a shared humanity through the suffering we endure. We do not discover another world; rather we detect something far more precious. What that is can only be gestured at.

Some who are reading this will be amused at these words. But I can say two things from my experience. First, I have gone remarkably wrong in life when I do not take the time to breathe, to look beyond the givens of my apparent fate. Even with the best of intentions I have been unwise. Second, when I do take the time to slow down, I am remarkably surprised by my company. 4R

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

The Fourth R 30-6

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