Back in the days when he still had a career, Mel Gibson made a film called ‘Ransom’. In it, he played the role of a dad who was blackmailed to secure the return of his kidnapped daughter. Now, ‘Mad’ Mel being no ordinary man, he refuses to play ball. Everyone around him questions this, arguing that the safest thing to do is precisely what the bad guys want. It’s certainly the easiest option. But actually, in this case, Mel’s got it right. If he gives in to the kidnappers, there’s no guarantee that he’ll get his daughter back. Or that the demands will stop. Instead they may even get worse. And this is also how emotional blackmail works.
But what is emotional blackmail? Well, I reckon it looks just like on the TV. (Give or take Daniel Craig, some gold bullion and a few lasers).
Here’s the scene. You’ve got a victim, (who feels they’ve got a debt to someone else), a blackmailer (who exploits the victim’s weakness), a demand (some sort of payment for cooperation ) and a threat (loss of something important, exposure or punishment). The victim typically starts by resisting, but eventually gives in and then becomes caught in a pattern they can’t escape from.
The blackmailer has to be someone emotionally close enough to the victim to be able to punish or hurt them if you don’t do what they want. In fact, the closer they are to you, the more damage they can do and the more trapped you may feel. It’s for this reason that family and friends are the most common and effective perpetrators.
So here’s an example. The mum who ‘needs’ you on call, 24-7, even though you’ve got three kids, bills to pay and a feral dog. She ‘doesn’t want to be a burden’ but ‘can’t believe how much you’re hurting her’. After all, if it wasn’t for her you wouldn’t even be here.
Or this. The guy who pressurising his girlfriend into sex because ‘he’s so into you he doesn’t want to have to break it off if you don’t do what he wants’. Not to mention the (little-known but scientifically proven) fact that a specific part of the male anatomy actually falls off when out of action for long periods.
Then there’s the ex who’ll stop your contact with the kids if you don’t give in to his demands. The uncle who’ll cut you out of his will if you won’t give in to his every whim. The kids who want expensive trainers because ‘everyone else in school’ has a pair.
And unfortunately, it’s a game we’ve probably all played at one point or another. Especially us ladies. Of course I’ve given it up now … but ‘in the past’ I’ve turned on the waterworks to persuade my parents not to ground me. Or claimed ‘hoover elbow’ when the chores stack up. And that might have been yesterday, but today – I’ve changed!
The blackmailer always looks like they’re in charge. But like the playground bully, they’re usually deeply insecure and will accuse others of the very traits they themselves display. Emotional blackmailers are like kids throwing a wobbly when they don’t get what they want. There’s a lot of fear in there and a whole lot of sin – but even when I’m at the receiving end, I’m reminded that that’s my heart too.
So how to respond? Well, it’s not easy. But it’s also the only escape route : Turn the other cheek.
When an aggressor hurts you there’s two ways they can win. One way is this: you cave in and do what they say. The other is when you react in kind, by striking back. But in both cases you’re playing their game and perpetuating the power struggle on their terms.
Jesus gives us a third way. And it’s a worked example – His life and His response to the attempts of others to manipulate and blackmail Him. I’m not just talking about the Pharisees. When we rebelled, He didn’t nail us with lightning bolts. But neither did He kick back, give in to our sin and let us have our way. Instead, He absorbed the blow and responded with a grace that changed our relationship forever.
So when Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek it’s not cheap talk. He’s speaking from experience. He stood with arms outstretched to His enemies. He didn’t repay evil for evil – even though it cost Him His life. This looks like weakness. But it’s real strength. And it’s a response we can make to others because of His work and His Spirit in us.