Turning the Other Cheek Doesn’t Mean Walking Away From a Fight

Turning the Other Cheek Doesn’t Mean Walking Away From a Fight

May 28, 1963. Whites poured sugar, ketchup, and mustard on the heads of demonstrators.

May 28, 1963. Woolworth’s sit-in. Whites poured sugar, ketchup, and mustard on the heads of demonstrators.

Contrary to popular interpretation, Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek” does not mean that God expects you to walk away from a fight. In fact, it means quite the opposite. Jesus isn’t offering a way that necessarily defuses conflict, but a way that exacerbates it. Look closely. Jesus didn’t say walk away from a fight. He said to hang around for more of the fight. He said to peacefully provoke your aggressor and prepare to take whatever he or she dishes out.

Interpreting this set of teachings as some sort of “Que Sera, Sera” passivity, completely misses the point. To be clear, this is what Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42)

Let’s make a few observations. (Yes, I love making lists).

1. Jesus is deconstructing an old way of dealing with wrongdoings.

Jesus was a revisionist. He is challenging centuries of Jewish thought—thoughts that are imbedded in the culture and religion. The old notion was this: “Whatever someone does to you, do it back.” It’s an understanding predicated by human mimetic tendencies. Jesus knew that humans tend to react to other humans by mimicking them. Moreover, Jesus was challenging a justice theory that was reactionary in practice. Jesus would later introduce a proactive approach to justice: “What you want others to do to you, do to them.” It is pretty important we understand the gravity of Jesus’ challenge here! He is preparing to systematically revision biblical teaching (Exodus 21:22-27) that is deeply embedded in the culture and religion of his audience. Jesus isn’t introducing new conflict mediation methods. He is exposing a flawed system and replacing it with something much better. He is replacing it with an approach he himself will exemplify through his own life and, particularly, his death.

2. According to Matthew, Jesus didn’t just say turn the “other cheek.” He said to give them your “left cheek.”

Jesus is addressing a very particular kind of slap. In Jesus’ culture, the left hand was rarely used. Even today, among some middle-eastern peoples, use of the left hand is discouraged. This is especially true in matters of establishing power or dominance over others. If you were going to hit someone, you used your right hand; the hand of power. For someone to slap another on the right cheek, means they would have to give them a back-handed slap. Such strikes were considered the ultimate insult! The poor and oppressed Jews had probably suffered many back-handed strikes at the hands of the Romans.

Thus, Jesus is addressing people who had felt the sting of ultimate humiliation. They had been hit on their right cheeks. By telling them to turn the left cheek to their abusers, Jesus is teaching them a way to respond to their abusers by regaining their own sense of dignity. Instead of letting the abuser control the personhood of the victim, the victim is told to force the hand of the abuser. Turn the left cheek! Then, they have to decide to use their inferior hand to deliver a back-handed strike, or give you a less humiliating palm strike on the left cheek.

Jesus isn’t teaching “passivity.” I would like to make that distinction now. Biblical pacifism is not and endorsement of “passivity.” NO WAY! In fact, Jesus is telling his followers to regain control of the situation by doing two things: 1) Managing the violence they are receiving, and 2) Not participating in the system of violence to which they are already subject. Turning the left cheek takes a lot of different forms, as Jesus expounds….

3. Coats, miles, and loans, OH MY!

The commandeering of personal possessions by the Roman military was common practice at the time of Jesus. Jesus’ Jewish listeners would have been familiar with Roman demands for clothing, labor, and other materials. Jesus takes the teaching of the “left cheek,” and applies to all the scenarios.

There were laws that dictated how much a Roman soldier could take from a Jew, and how far he could make him carry a load. Jesus’s admonishment to be generous in these areas would have put the Roman guard in a precarious position. By going the extra mile, the Jewish runner would be forcing his Roman abuser to break his own law.

This is the pacifism of the Gospels. Jesus did not run from his abusers. He cunningly resisted them. He forced their hands. He exposed them for what they are by allowing them to do what they do. He stripped them down and made their violence naked. He did it by refusing to participate in their schemes, and by holding all the cards in his hand. This kind of pacifism has been exemplified in the modern world through various movements, but none quite as notable to my context as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The sitting in seats, the marches, the bus ride, all forced the system to do what the system does, thereby exposing it for the evil it is. Walter Wink once shared a story of black woman in South Africa during Apartheid. He witnessed a white man walk up to her on the street and spit in her face. Her response? She took her three children, lined them up in front of her, and said, “Thank you sir. Now, one each for the children.” The man walked away in shame. He didn’t have the courage to do the same to her small children. She didn’t walk away. She stood tall, didn’t spit back, and regained control of the situation. This is what Jesus was talking about. This is biblical pacifism.

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