Turning the Other Cheek
And other Difficult Concepts that were EASY to understand THEN and HARD to understand NOW
As I was growing up in the Christian faith, I was told many times to “turn the other cheek”, when I had been wronged. There were times when I had huge difficulty in understanding why Jesus would tell us to be willing victims. Spouses of addicted persons and abused family members have been scolded by well-meaning, but historically ignorant, religious leaders that they should just pray and turn the other cheek. God would take care of it. If the behavior continued, it was the victims’ fault for inciting it, or failing in their Christian duty to simply turn the other cheek. I wasn’t alone. Many of my friends have also had difficulty in understanding the idea. Here is what history, prayer, reflection, a lot of research and common sense tells us.
History must be learned in the context in which it was made. Over the years, this teaching of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount has been badly taken out of the context in which he taught it. It does not mean to submit to victimization. Jesus is God, not a victim. To use this concept as Jesus almost definitely meant it, takes an immense amount of patience, imagination and courage. Jesus was teaching us how to respond to oppressors with non-violence, while still holding them responsible for their actions, and putting them in the position of risking breaking the laws, the traditions, and the beliefs of his society if they continued with their oppressive behavior. He was not teaching us to cower or passively allow abuse. He was teaching us how to stop it, while not committing sins ourselves, or creating a violent situation that was bad for all society.
Turning the other cheek is to respond to an aggressor without violence, while holding the aggressor accountable for their behavior and for further aggression. For Christians, the phrase originates from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament, but Jesus was also teaching from the accepted religious text of his time, the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible, which preceded the New Testament, has the first reference to turning the other cheek. Lamentations Chapter 3 verse 30 reads “He giveth his cheek to him that smites him…”
By figuratively “turning the other cheek” (a commonly held notion and phrase of the time), your actions may not be violent, but they can hold the offender socially and morally responsible for their actions.
This figurative notion is historically seen long before the time of Jesus. The earliest evidence can be seen in Greek writings. The sentiment is spoken by Socrates in his conversation with Crito in 399 BC before his execution in Athens. “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.” This moral guided Socrates (logical to the end) in his argument to a conclusion that he should not attempt to escape from punishment despite being wrongfully imprisoned.
Jesus would have been influenced by the teachings of one of his contemporaries, the Pharisee Hillel the Elder, who is famously quoted as describing the Golden Rule to be an effective summation of the Torah, and also “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14) In this way, personal dignity is both to be given to your brother and demanded for yourself. (Get it? Put them in a position where they protect their dignity by doing right!)
In the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him 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, NIV
A parallel version is offered in the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke:
But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
—Luke 6:27-31. NIV
At the time of Jesus, striking someone deemed to be of a lower class with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance. If the persecuted person “turned the other cheek,” the discipliner was faced with a dilemma. The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed. The other alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality. Thus, by turning the other cheek the persecuted was in effect demanding equality. By handing over one’s cloak in addition to one’s tunic, the debtor has essentially given the shirt off their back, a situation directly forbidden by Jewish Law as stated in Deuteronomy 24: 10-13:
When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not enter his house to take his pledge. You shall remain outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. If he is a poor man, you shall not sleep with his pledge. When the sun goes down you shall surely return the pledge to him, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you; and it will be righteousness for you before the LORD your God.
By giving the lender the cloak as well the debtor was reduced to nakedness. Public nudity was viewed as bringing shame on the viewer, not the naked, as evidenced in Genesis 9: 20-27:
Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount can also be seen as a method for making the oppressor break the law if they continue the oppression. The commonly invoked Roman law of “Angaria” allowed the Roman authorities to demand that inhabitants of occupied territories carry the Roman soldiers’ messages and equipment the distance of one mile post, but prohibited forcing an individual to go further than a single mile, at the risk of suffering disciplinary actions (The occupied people had to give service to their oppressors, but the Roman authorities did not want to provoke an uprising, and so limited the service a Roman soldier could demand of them. These Jewish people were difficult to control!)
In his sermon, Jesus was placing criticism on an unjust and nearly universally hated (by the people Jesus was preaching to) Roman law and clarifying the teaching to extend beyond Jewish law. This would also have allowed Jesus’ early followers a more time to missionary to the soldiers. It could also protect Jesus’ early congregations from the oppression by annoying the soldiers so that they would not seek followers of Jesus to carry their equipment in the future (the soldiers did not want to be bothered with all Jesus’ followers’ preaching and proselytizing.)