Flip the script

The Christmas story, explained in terms of what psychologists call "non-complementary behaviour".

A group of friends sit around a backyard table on a summer evening. The wine is French, the food is excellent, the conversation free-flowing. It is a magical evening.

Until, suddenly, it isn’t. Someone else is standing there, a man holding a gun. “Give me your money,” he says, “or I’ll start shooting.”

The problem is, nobody has any cash on them. The tension escalates as the guests try to reason with the man. Then someone says: “We’re here celebrating. Why don’t you have a glass of wine and sit down?”

The man’s expression changes. He tastes the wine; it’s good wine. He sits down and eats some cheese. Before he leaves, he asks for a group hug.

It’s a true story, told recently in an episode of National Public Radio’s Invisibilia program titled “Flip the Script“.

The episode focuses on what psychologists call “non-complementary behaviour”. Normally, people respond to kindness with kindness, and to hostility with hostility. Complementary behaviour like this is instinctive.

To meet anger or hatred with its opposite instead is incredibly difficult to do – but if we can pull it off, it has the potential to be a circuit-breaker, to completely transform intractable situations.

This works on a small scale, in marriages and workplace spats. It works, too, on the world stage: most famously, perhaps, Martin Luther King’s dogged determination that he and his fellow activists would meet prejudice and violence with peaceful resistance dramatically rewrote the script of civil rights in America.

King drew the inspiration for this counter-intuitive strategy from several places, but most powerfully – by his own account – from Jesus of Nazareth.

This Jesus was the master of non-complementary behaviour. He constantly baffled those around him, “flipping the script” on them. People who expected condemnation from him received compassion; those who flattered or fawned over him were rebuffed; religious authorities trying to catch him out repeatedly found themselves caught in their own traps.

He instructed those who followed him to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. And he went to his death in precisely the way he preached. He did not resist arrest, was silent at his trial for crimes he had not committed. Pilate, the Roman prefect, found his silence and self-possession deeply disconcerting, and tried to free him. As he was nailed to a beam of wood, Jesus prayed that his executioners would be forgiven for what they were doing.

That’s Easter. But if we rewind to Jesus’ birth, the Bible casts the Christmas story too in radically non-complementary terms.

The tale of the baby in a manger, flanked by shepherds, announced by angels, is traditionally framed as the story of a world that decisively rejected its Creator, visited by him in completely unexpected form. Though abandoned by his creatures, this God refuses to abandon them in return, to match rejection with rejection.

Researchers have found that non-violent resistance movements succeed twice as often as violent insurgencies.

The story no longer surprises us, but only because we’re not paying attention. Christians see this as the story of a God who, to a people he describes as rebels, sends not an avenger but a rescue mission. To a people groaning under foreign occupation and eagerly awaiting a liberator, he sends, not a freedom fighter with crack leadership skills, but a helpless newborn.

In a world where the ratcheting up of family feuds, racial tension, or civil war is the default human setting, this flipping of the script from power to embrace weakness is a circuit-breaker.

The early followers of Jesus believed that his visit, and his death and apparent resurrection, had freed them to be vulnerable and humble; to show mercy and forgiveness to their enemies; to respond to power with love instead of fear. The Roman Empire tried to crush them. Within a few hundred years, it embraced their God-of-the-cross instead.

Of course, Christians have often stuck to their old complementary ways rather than risk the non-complementarity modelled by the one they claim to follow. They’ve coveted power over others, and responded to criticism with hostility.

But when they have pursued Jesus’ unlikely looking path to peace, Christians – and others – have met with startling success.

Researchers have found that non-violent resistance movements succeed twice as often as violent insurgencies. The Invisibilia episode “Flip the Script” tells the story of an anti-terrorism program in Aarhus, Denmark, whose founders decided that treating local Muslim youth like terrorists was pushing them towards terrorism – classic complementary behaviour – and instead started countering radicalisation with tools like listening, caring, and mentoring.

“Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon,” wrote Martin Luther King. “It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”

Meeting hate with love goes profoundly against human instinct. Yet Christmas – and Easter – intimate that such a logic, such a love, lies at the heart of the universe, and at the heart of human history.

If that is so, then it shouldn’t surprise us that such counter-intuitive behaviour changes the world. Maybe it’s the only thing that can.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity. She has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge and is the editor of 10 Tips for Atheists … and other conversations in faith and culture.


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