That Time Mennonites Taught Me How to Fight Back

Credit: Ken Douglas

The other girls and I sat on the floor and watched the attack.

He grabbed her from behind and pinned her arms to her sides. She extended one leg behind him and pushed backwards against him. He fell to the mat.

“Great!” he said as he jumped back up, “Who’s next?”

I thought it was weird for a Mennonite college to offer a free self-defense class, but I came anyway. I’d left Arkansas a few months earlier. Dad was afraid I’d never go to college if I didn’t get right back on the educational horse, so there I was.

I didn’t participate in campus life. I rarely made it to chapel (and usually slept in my seat when I did). I spent most of my time hiding in the library, avoiding all the squeaky clean students. But, the poster announcing a self-defense class caught my eye and I ventured out of the stacks.

It was my turn. The instructor stood behind me.

I hate it when people stand behind me.

He grabbed me.

I hate it when people grab me.

I tripped him, maybe a little more forcefully than I should have since he wasn’t actually attacking me. “Don’t forget to go for the nuts,” he smiled as he stood back up.

After we practiced getting out of various holds, he gave us some other tips.

My fingers curled into fists when he said, “It’s better to yell ‘fire’ than ‘help’ or ‘rape’. People actually respond to someone yelling, ‘fire’.”

I wasn’t sure if I was angrier with people who yell “help” and “rape” when nothing’s wrong or the people who won’t stop because, well, it wasn’t happening to them.

I wasn’t so sure this class jibed with the whole pacifism thing, but I didn’t really care.

I still checked the closets every time I walked into my dorm room. We’d been careful not to tell too many people where we were, but small towns aren’t very good at keeping secrets.

I wanted to know I could defend myself if I had to.

I attended that class for a lesson on self-defense, not pacifism. I wound up learning about both, thought it didn’t sink in for a while.

I’m not in control of what other people do, but I am in control of my response. Every time I face a situation where I could retaliate, I choose pacifism.

But, being unable to fight back takes away that control. It means I’m passive by default and that’s not really pacifism, is it?

So, now I know to scream “fire” and go for the nuts.

If I’m attacked, maybe I’ll say, “Screw pacifism. I’m getting out of here any way I can.”

Maybe I won’t.

Either way, it’s my choice.

Pacifism is empowering in its own way. When you can hurt someone, but choose not to who’s really the one in control?


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1 Comment

  1. Timothy March 23, 2015 at 11:21 am

    My mom enrolled me in taekwondo as a kid. She taught us, “never start a fight, but if someone else starts it, you finish it!”

    Later in life, I asked her why she taught us those things, and asked how it moved with the command to turn the other cheek.

    Her conclusion was the same as yours. “You have to know you’re worth fighting for. Once you understand that, you can choose to be passive, otherwise you’re just being walked over.”


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