Fight, Flight, or Forgive: Embracing the Third Way

Our minds and bodies are hardwired for two responses in the face of possible danger.

Fight or Flight.

When we are startled by something a part of the brain, the Amygdala, instantaneously prepares us to respond before we even know what startled us. Psychologists have even discovered that our adrenal glands begin to produce cortisol to fuel our muscles in preparation for the two potential responses. (I know, I sound smart…but don’t be deceived. I just read it in a General Psychology textbook.)

The response we make in that split second is up to us…mostly.

Dozens of factors influence whether we will respond to danger with aggression or not—our biological makeup, our genes, the violence we’ve been exposed to, even the weather!

Psychologist, Albert Bandura, conducted the famous “Bobo Doll” experiment, an example of “Social Learning Theory,” which proves that what we observe directly influences our behavior. In the experiment children were put in a room, one at a time, with various toys. For the experimental group of children an adult in the room would get up and attack a Bobo Doll for 10 minutes while shouting, “Sock him in the nose! Knock him down! Kick him!”

The child would then be taken to another room filled with toys, but they would be told not to play with them and to save them for someone else (this obviously frustrated the child). Then they would take the child to another room of toys, including the Bobo doll. The children who watched the adult attack the doll were much more likely to take out their frustration on the doll by beating and screaming at it.

In our culture violence is a virtue. From the home to the TV screen, from the playground to the military; we are conditioned to react to stress with violence. When the fight or flight response is triggered we are much more likely to choose to fight.

Our tendency toward violence blinds us to the reality of another response we can choose in the face of danger—specifically an attack from another person.

It’s what Jesus tells us to do in response to our enemies.

But, our minds aren’t equipped to respond with forgiveness on their own. Just as our mind needs the Amygdala and our muscles need adrenal glands to facilitate the appropriate response, our spirit needs some sort of stimulus to prepare us to respond with forgiveness.

And even then, stimulation isn’t enough. We may know that we need to respond with forgiveness, but how do we do it?

We need to be conditioned for the Christ-like response.

For those of us who have grown up in a culture that praises violence, you know that we can’t simply flip a switch and become peace-making, enemy-lovers. (If I’m being totally honest, I think I’d still try to kick the crap out of someone who attacks my family or me.)

I am terrified of the Third Way. It isn’t the efficient way. It might not be the effective way. It’s certainly the most dangerous way.

But, it is Jesus’ way.

So, how do we decondition ourselves from violent tendencies and recondition ourselves for love?

Here are a few of the ways I am trying…


I ask God to fill me with the love that led him to the cross. I pray that I can see my enemies through God’s eyes—as bearers of his own image. Recognizing that I am a deeply violent person, I invite the Holy Spirit to empower me with the peace that surpasses understanding so that I can pour it into a violent world.

Responding better to the little things

Now, I didn’t grow up in a violent household. My parents are pretty calm people. But, I watched friends, “role models,” and TV characters (mostly males) take out their anger in incredibly stupid ways…like punching and throwing things. Actually, it’s completely normal to watch a male express anger by beating the mess out of an inanimate object.

I’m embarrassed and ashamed to say that I’ve done the same thing a few times. As I’ve grown older though, I’ve learned to express anger inwardly rather than outwardly. I let things build up and make me bitter.

Someone who has smoked for 20 years doesn’t quit in one night. It takes baby steps and training wheels. Even after quitting there is a chance of backsliding. I suppose the same is true for breaking the habit of violence. If I can respond better to the little things I can be a better husband to my wife, a more respectable person, and hopefully I can learn to respond peacefully in the face of my enemies.

Filling my mind with peace

Reading, watching, and acting out violence isn’t exactly the way to learn how to make peace.

Now, I must confess that I enjoy old Westerns. I’m fascinated by war movies. I think Batman is awesome. Dexter is one of my favorite TV shows.

Maybe that makes me a hypocrite…but…I’m making an effort to read the works of peacemakers, to understand how Scripture leads us to bring the peaceable Kingdom to Earth, to look at the life of Jesus and make peace as central to my being as it is to his.


What are other ways we can recondition ourselves to respond peacefully rather than violently? What books, prayers, or other resources have helped you in your search for peace? For those who are not pacifists, do you think there is a need for reconditioning?


11 responses to “Fight, Flight, or Forgive: Embracing the Third Way

  1. Great point. It is sad that the vast majority of Christians are not conditioned/taught this third way. Churches simply don’t teach it even though it is clearly a foundational principle of Jesus.

  2. This article reminds me again how just how culturally indoctrinated we are to respond with violence. Take a look at just about any Quentin Taratino film (sadly, I do enjoy them for their entertainment) and you’ll see how every theme in his movies is related to revenge and violence.

    I think you make some great points, I would also add that we should see the value in peace and forgiveness and how healthy it is for our heart, mind, and soul.

  3. Nonviolent action – beyond the fight or flight response – must always be grounded in contemplation. Richard Rohr has written some fantastic work on this ( Prayer and contemplation has a way of helping ‘conform our minds’ to the will of God. No longer do we blindly participate in the way this world functions; with the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ running deep in all aspects of our culture.

    As our Anabaptist fore-bearers exemplified, we must surround ourselves and participate in a community of believers who are committed to the nonviolent way of Jesus.

    And, who could forget the Holy Spirit! Only the Spirit can inspire creativity, and action which seeks to embody truth and love.

    • I’ve heard a lot about Rohr, but I haven’t had the chance to read anything of his stuff. I’ll definitely check that out!

      I’m pretty limited when it comes to being in community with people committed to the nonviolent way. I live in the heart of gun-toting Arkansas. Nonviolence is sort of frowned upon by people in this area. Most of the interaction I get with anabaptist theology is online, so your input is more helpful than you realize! Thanks for sharing!

  4. I’ve become less violent as I’ve grown less prideful and less attached to this mess of a world.
    Or maybe I’m just too tired to be all that violent. Yeah, that’s probably it.

    • I think you’re right that commitment to this world influences our commitment to use violence. Though, for me, violence comes more as a natural response to the idea of danger toward my family or myself. So, it isn’t as much about commitment to the world as it is commitment to family. I just need to learn how to channel that commitment through a more Christ-like response.

  5. A good ol’ Wesleyan term relating to this is sanctification. Through the power of Christ, we are transformed to his likeness. Our “default” whether inherited or conditioned, directly contrasts with God’s Kingdom. Becoming like Christ is not natural for us, but it is possible through God’s sanctifying grace.

    • Great point. It’s easy to forget (not because it isn’t obvious, but because we overlook it) that “peace” is a part of who Christ is–and we should want to become more like him in all areas. Your point about our “default” position is interesting. Is that also a Wesleyan concept? (Sorry, I’m not too familiar with the Wesleyan tradition.)

      • I’m not sure if “default” was a word Wesley himself ever used, but the concept is has been outlined by later Wesleyan scholars–we are born into sin, yet God’s grace is active in our lives even before we come to know God. Following relationship with God we are transformed into Christlikeness.
        From one of Wesley’s sermons (“Original Sin”):
        “Ye were born in sin: Therefore, ‘ye must be born again,’ born of God. By nature ye are wholly corrupted. By grace ye shall be wholly renewed. In Adam ye all died: In the second Adam, in Christ, ye all are made alive… Now, ‘go on from faith to faith,’ until your whole sickness be healed; and all that ‘mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus!'”

join the conversation. . .

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s