Defiance, Not Compliance:
Turning the Other Cheek
From The Catalyst Summer 2014
By Leah Watkiss
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evil-doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-41)
This quote from the Sermon on the Mount is often shortened to the cliché “turn the other cheek.” It is a convenient excuse for inaction; a rationalization for being passive and accepting whatever injustices or unfair treatment we witness or experience. It’s the equivalent of saying “just ignore them” with the naïve hope that whatever or whoever it is will just go away.
I used to wonder how Jesus, lover of truth and doer of justice, could tell us to sit back and accept lies and injustice in this manner. But then I was introduced to Dr. Walter Wink’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, and my life has never been the same.
Wink starts his exegesis by looking at the phrase, “do not resist an evildoer.” He explains that a more accurate translation of this sentence is “do not retaliate against violence with violence” or “don’t react violently against the one who is evil.” This subtle yet powerful shift in language sets a whole new tone for what follows: rather than being told not to resist, the people gathered to hear Jesus are told not to resist violently.
Wink goes on to examine the phrase “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Why, Wink asks, does Jesus reference the right cheek specifically? The answer is both challenging and enlightening. Jesus lived in a right-handed world where left hands were reserved only for unclean tasks. Therefore, we can assume that the person doing the hitting would have used their right hand. The only way to strike someone on the right cheek with your right hand is a backhanded slap. Such a blow connotes an insult, not a fistfight, and was a normal way to reprimand someone over whom you had power (e.g. masters to slaves, husbands to wives, Romans to Jews). To strike your equal in such a manner was socially and legally unacceptable, carrying with it a huge fine.
With this new understanding of the context Jesus was speaking in, picture the scenario with yourself as the oppressor. You are a wealthy, powerful person whose slave has displeased you in some way. You reprimand your slave with a backhanded slap. The response you expect is the response you have always received from your slaves – the response you yourself would give if someone higher than you treated you the same way. You expect your slave to cower, submit, and slink away. Instead, your slave defiantly turns their other cheek and challenges you to hit them again. What can you do?
You would like to give your slave another backhanded slap to show them their place, but to do that you would have to use your left hand which would admit that your action is unclean. You could hit them on their left cheek, instead, but it would be embarrassing to hit your slave the way you should hit your equal. You’re confused. You don’t know what to do. Flustered, you could order the slave be flogged, but the slave has already made their point. They have shown you that they are a person with dignity and worth. You don’t own them, you cannot control them, and they do not submit to your rule.
And so, in light of Wink’s insights, Jesus’ instruction not to resist evil and to turn the other cheek transforms from an instruction to accept injustice into a challenge to resist systems of domination and oppression without the use of violence. Rather than ignoring an evil situation and hoping it will go away, Jesus is telling his followers to find creative, active, and nonviolent ways to assert their humanity and God’s love in the world.
As a Christian voice for justice in Canada, it’s important that CPJ and its members embody this understanding of what it means to “turn the other cheek” in our lives and our work.
We can do that by always looking for new ways to creatively, actively, and nonviolently challenge systems of exploitation and oppression that cause poverty, inequality, and environmental destruction.
As Jesus’ example demonstrates, even when we have no social, political, or economic power, we can still find ways to stand our ground, take control of the power dynamic, and cause people in power to see us in a new light without using violence. To do so is truly to be a citizen for public justice.
A COMMENTARY WORTH READING:
Wow. A complete misread of Jesus. Submitted by Aaron on January 13, 2019 – 2:55am
In this passage he’s speaking of the petty, small offenses, insults, theft of material things, etc. You don’t croak someone for stealing your jacket or pound them into the ground for insulting you. The great commission is to bring these lost people to God. Responding to them with like force is what they’d expect from their own tribe of low lifes. To respond in love might make them rethink who they are by seeing who you are. Now those who espouse pacifism misread this passage and others and ignore others still.
For example “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” People think He was telling Peter to be a pacifist. Nope. He was talking to Peter about the guards actions not his.
In fact He told Peter to sheath his sword. He didn’t say throw it away, just don’t use it at this time. Soldiers of that day “lived by the sword” meaning they supplemented their pay by extorting and generally bullying the people. Jesus was saying that they’ll get paid back for their sins, just not today. Also, Peter was being rash and stupid. They were sorely out numbered.
Another thing pacifists completely ignore is when Jesus told his disciples to sell their best piece of clothing and buy a sword. (He contrasted this command with when He first sent them out with nothing and everything went smooth. Now He’s saying that because they love Him the world will hate them and it’s gonna get rough.)
I’m guessing He was referring to the Roman short sword. In the hands of someone who knew how to use it, it was the Glock 19 of its day. Now they were a conquered people living under Roman rule. It was 100% illegal for a Jew to have one and Jesus, this supposed pacifist, is telling his disciples and friends to get gunned up.
In real life you have big and small evils. All throughout the Bible you have examples of using only the appropriate responses to give situations. Even in the above example when someone jumped up and said “Here’s two” swords Jesus responded with “That’s enough”, probably in a manner and tone that they understood to mean “Don’t go crazy, don’t be eager to fight. Just be ready to fight.”
I can’t find pacifism in Scripture. Cool, calm and deliberate demeanor, yes. Using appropriate force or lack of force for a given situation, yes. Even giving one’s life to save another, yes. But stand get killed? Nope, that’s suicide.
I remember a story told by missionaries deep some jungle. They’d failed in converting the locals to Christ and were praying their last because the warriors were headed their way to kill them all. When they arrived the warriors stopped and turned back. They were spared and thankful and continued to speak about Jesus. Eventually the chief became a Christian. At some point he was asked about that day and why they turned back. He told them that they were afraid of the dozens of warriors in white all with swords surrounding the missionaries compound.
A non-Christian cannot believe that story. He cannot understand the fact that there are battalions of soldiers in the unseen realms ready to fight for us. He cannot understand that the battles we must fight are important but we’re not alone in it. He cannot understand that giving it to God is not giving in or giving up. It’s just sometimes waiting for further orders.
Submitted by Aaron on January 13, 2019 – 2:55am
when a neighbor steals your
Submitted by Paul on December 20, 2018 – 12:53pm
when a neighbor steals your child to make a slave out of him and…you do not resist…he will soon steal a next child from you. How you plan to survive if all murderers, rapists and thieves are to be left unpunished and actually would be loved by you. Twisting this every possible way to make it look good shuts out your ‘rational mind’
Submitted by Paul on December 20, 2018 – 12:53pm
Thank you. This has been
Submitted by Teresa on January 5, 2019 – 2:22pm
Thank you. This has been profoundly helpful for me. Submitted by Teresa on January 5, 2019 – 2:22pm
Leah Watkiss represents Canada-At-Large on Citizens for Public Justice’s Board of Directors and does peace, justice, and ecological work for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto.
You might also like this article: https://www.gotquestions.org/turn-other-cheek.html