Transforming Abuse through Mutual Submission (Eph 5:18b-21)

Consider a basic revenge flick such as “Taken,” or “The Revenant.” These movies often begin with a shocking injustice — the murder or abduction of a child, for example. The body of the film is then dedicated to the protagonist’s struggle to balance the scales of justice, so to speak, by chasing, outwitting, outmaneuvering, etc.,  the “bad guys” and finally taking sweet revenge. Twists and turns occur along the way, but classic revenge flicks often make us question the logic behind the violence portrayed on screen. Don’t get me wrong, injustice demands a response, and it should always make us upset. However, most revenge stories end in a spectacle of bloodletting, but the sacrifice leaves us unfulfilled, unconvinced that the cycle of abuse is truly ended. If revenge fails to transform injustice, how else might we respond, what kind of response does justice demands?

In many ways, chapter four and five of Ephesians address the above question, describing a better kind of response to “the darkness of injustice.” At the end of chapter four, the reader is first urged to avoid certain activities: “don’t engage in lustful greed” (4:19), for example. And then, in chapter five, there is a call to expose the harm: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (5:11-12). The author repeats these two imperatives — abstain and expose — along with a third: the author calls the reader to pursue change by transforming relationships defined by greed and abuse. We read,

“Instead, be filled with the Spirit,

  • 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,
  • 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
  • 21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:18b-21)

Although speech, song, and thanksgiving are important factors in transformation, I will focus on the third command, one whose dutiful terminology makes us squeamish: submit to one another. The term is even stranger if you consider how it’s used in our text. Think about it, if we all submit to each other, in a conventional sense, nothing would ever get done. Understanding mutual submission in Ephesians, therefore, requires expanding how we think about what it means to submit. For this reason, I want to push our understanding of this concept and see how mutual submission might be capable of transforming our relationships.

Before exploring our examples it important to stress that nothing said below should suggest for a moment that those experiencing abuse ought to submit to their abusers or let the harm continue. On the contrary, before pursuing transformation the author calls us to expose the darkness, naming the abusive relationship for what it is and putting a stop to injury. Addressing the fundamental issues behind abuse, however, demands more. Such a solution often requires a long, arduous journey of recovery.

The novel “Indian Horse” by Richard Wagamese tells the story of survivors of Canada’s residential school system, focusing especially on the loss that a group of boys experience. In this story (that you can hear recited by Wagamese in the video above) Wagamese describes a group of boys who sneak off school property to catch suckerfish out of a nearby stream. The story paints a vivid picture of the way, in his words, “the children of residential schools were denied the basic human right to be who they were created to be.” The children of residential schools were cut off from their culture, family, and land. The world they receive by nature of their birth, the world that provides a sense of self and belonging, was taken from them as they were quite literally ripped from their homes and communities. The point of the residential school system was to “educate” the “Indian” by forcing upon them a foreign culture and religion with the aim of eliminating the rich and diverse way of life found in Indigenous communities. In all these ways and more, the residential school system was violent and abusive.

At the time, Canada and the residential school system held a vision of reality that could not tolerate the legitimacy of Indigenous ways of living. Not until recently, has the nation of Canada begun to admit to itself that its vision of reality, or at least a large part of it, was abusive and false. Through work like Richard Wagamese’s, we as a nation are learning to consider the alternative vision of reality held by Indigenous communities and what it might mean to submit to one another by allowing this perspective to affect our daily lives.

It’s reasonable to imagine that anyone who experienced injustice like that of Indigenous children in Canada might desire some form of vengeance. Yet Wagamese offers a different kind of vision for reconciliation, a different calling.

Following the cue of Ephesians, we might ask how Wagamese’s stories work to expose injustice and transform broken relationship. First, they reveal injustice by letting those absent from the scene of injury see and feel the abuse of the residential school system. Second, through telling a story, Wagamese doesn’t presume to have the ability to force change on his listeners. Rather Wagamese’s stories encourage us to join him on a journey. On the one hand, we, the audience, are invited to submit to Wagamese through entering into his story and trying to understand the abuse of residential schools. On the other hand, Wagamese submits to his audience by recognizing the importance of their perspective, that they are illegitimate and should not be abused through coercion as he was. Rather than dividing us, stories can encourage unity. Through stories, Wagamese hopes that his audience, Canadian society in general, will be moved in the direction of reconciliation.

Like Wagamese’s stories, we can again ask how the civil rights movement exposes and transforms an unjust situation. Non-violent resisters were willing to submit to the will of their abusers; although, they do so strategically in a way that aims to expose abuse and bring about change. By occupying public space and confronting the racist elements in society, the violence of the system was made explicit for everyone to see. Through self-sacrifice, non-violent resisters bring white society along with them on a journey of discovering racial prejudice and policies. This harrowing journey continues today.

Like storytelling, the ideal of mutuality guides non-violent resistance. Both strategies submit to the idea that one cannot coerce the will of another and that we are all co-participants in the creation, discovery, and maintenance of reality.

See, the problem with revenge is that it doesn’t change the nature of abusive relationships, it simply swaps the identity of the victim. Imagine for a moment that the civil rights movement adopted the aim of usurping the control of white America. In such a situation, black Americans would no longer be abused, but abuse itself would not cease. True transformation requires a different course of action, one defined by the aim of mutual submission.

During this season of Lent, when we consider what it takes to join Christ on his journey to Golgotha, we would do well to study the work of Richard Wagamese and the civil rights movement. All three — Christ, Wagamese, the civil rights movement — avoid adopting an abusive posture, but rather expose injustice and work for change using a different means. In Ephesians, we read, “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God… (5 1-2) “be filled with the Spirit… [by submitting] to one another out of reverence for Christ (5 18b & 21).

So walk in wisdom; avoid participating in injustice but rather break its cycle, expose it, and be transformed through submitting to one another:

“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you” (5 14b).

*The theme of mutual submission runs throughout the entire book of Ephesians. Here in chapter 5 mutual submission is addressed extensively in the section that follows the above quote where we learn about how wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters are to relate to one another. This section begins with the infamous line, “wives submit to your husbands…” (5:22a) Although I’m not convinced that the hierarchical character of this section can ever be fully displayed, I do believe that many forget that the household code is an attempt to expand on the nature of mutual submission. Unfortunately, addressing this controversy adequately requires more room than this blog post allows.

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