The vanity license plate on a pickup truck here in Elko reads, “Bowup.” For those unfamiliar with the expression, it is “Bow up.” It means to assume a fighting posture. The neck and back curve defensively. The elbows bend. The fists clench. You get the picture. I gather the license plate is an invitation or an admonition to any and all to “bow up” to fight for anything that comes along.
I learned the expression “bow up” from my father. He would tell the story of some conversation at work or at a baseball game. At some point in the story, one of the characters would “bow up.”
Invariably, in my father’s telling of the story, the character who bowed up would have demonstrated himself to be some kind of fool, defensive, reactive, unable to keep his dignity. The bowed-up posture is not a dignified one. By bowing up he had already lost regardless of whether a fight ensued or who “won” it.
But there’s another side to the equation. In my Texas culture, there were also certain indignities that were not to be borne. Some slurs or offenses had to be regarded as “walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.” The problem for the more thoughtful of us -- and a lot of us were more thoughtful than we let on – was that we were not sure where that line was drawn. We were most likely to bow up not because we were genuinely angry but because we thought perhaps we ought to be angry and that our dignity would be lost if we did not take a stand – though paradoxically, bowed up is not a stand but a demeaning posture and by taking it we had forfeited our dignity. It was lose-lose.
Our fragile self-esteem can be cloaked in all sorts of things – righteousness whether political or old style puritanical, superiority of our intellect, depth of our spirituality, fidelity to the institution with which we have identified our pride – the list goes on. The cloak around our self-esteem is the trigger for our reactivity. It is our point of vulnerability.
As I look around these days, it seems a lot of us are bowed up. It is a posture we have assumed. The various political or religious claims and taunts of the day prompt the posture. But this license plate skipped all that. It went straight to the point. No need for pretexts. Just a straight prescription for an existential posture. It is as if the fear and the posture are connected by the issue that exercises us. But this vanity plate cut out the middle man.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about postures. One text is obvious. “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other.” New Testament scholar Walter Wink read that teaching as more clever than it seems. He treated the first blow as a backhand slap of a superior to a slave. If you turn the other cheek, he can only strike you with the forehand slap that challenges an equal to combat. It is actually a brilliant way to preserve dignity.
The other posture text is less obvious. It is translated as “do not resist evil” or “return evil for evil.” Wink says this is actually a term for military maneuver in which one army mirrors the formation of the other. Jesus means there are more effective ways to combat an adversary than to mimic him. But mimicry is out reflexive action.
We encounter a lot of bowed up people these days. Our mirror neurons respond automatically with an impulse to mimic them. Plus, we are apt to feel threatened, and like a Texas teenage boy insecure about his virility, we may fight out of fear of disgrace. There is a lot at work to make us speak and act precipitously.
Jesus did not generally recommend that approach. If he had a vanity plate, I don’t know what it would say, but I seriously doubt it would be “bow up.” It might be “bless” – not condone evil, not cooperate with wrong, not agree with what is factually false. But it might very well be “bless.” It might have a hint of a suggestion that we look past the outrageous thing someone else is saying or even doing to find their subterranean human worth and say with God, “That’s good,” and perhaps find a way to remind them who they are. It might be a gesture toward healing their wound instead of jabbing at it.
The basic function of blessing is not approval but connection. The basic function of cursing is not passing judgment so much as breaking relationship. We live by connection. We grow by connection. We are transformed and we transform each other through connection. There is a dignity in the resolute determination to bless this world and all who live therein.