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Turn the Other Cheek MEANS Resist Them Non-Violently

Turn the Other Cheek Means Resist Them, NonViolentlyI. THE PROBLEM: Jesus says to turn the other cheek.

[See a summary of this post.]

Is it ever appropriate for Christians to resist authority? Many of us feel there is much in the behavior of our national leaders that cries out for criticism and resistance. Are Christians permitted to do that? Does “turn the other cheek” mean we should be doormats?

“Doormat” was not Jesus’ style, nor the style of his followers in New Testament times. He and they were compassionate, and they were non-violent, but they were not doormat quality. In fact, “turn the other cheek,” thoughtfully understood, actually encourages subversive, even dangerously subversive behavior.

Matthew 5:38-42

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 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.


I have four arguments.


  • First, when Jesus uttered those words his topic was the avoidance of violence; so we should expect the instruction that follows to deal with ways to avoid violence, which is a different focus than instruction about submission.
  • Second, Jesus and his disciples did not behave in subservient or unjustly cooperative ways toward secular or religious authorities.
  • Third, the phrase “do not resist” is a poor English choice for the Greek wording Matthew used.
  • Fourth, the physical event of being struck on the right cheek presents an interesting problem.

More explanation:

the subject at hand was violent retaliation.

It is not possible to imagine the real Jesus of history coaching other people in door-mat-ness. That was just not his way of thinking or operating.
“It was said, an eye for an eye.” That’s violence for violence. But Jesus would apparently have agreed with Gandhi, “An eye for an eye, and we all go blind.” So he says, “BUT I say unto you”, and then encourages a non-violent response. What we do not often notice, however, is that the non-violent response he suggests is not a passive response, and could in fact lead to more abuse.

Jesus himself was not submissive to the unjust or irrational use of authority.

Jesus and NonViolent Resistance - Walter WinkHe set a very different example. He often publicly pointed out injustice or hypocrisy, and frequently irritated or even enraged “the powers that be.” It is not possible to imagine the real Jesus of history coaching other people in door-mat-ness. That was just not his way of thinking or operating.

the phrase “do not resist” sends a message very different

from what the underlying Greek conveys. I dislike fussing about Greek words and translation problems, since the translations we have are extremely reliable. But there are a few places, and this is one, where we understand better if we translate better. This really should be rendered more like “do not retaliate violently,” or “do not get violent against”.

Jesus was a resistant kind of person. He did not practice nor counsel non-resistance. He did, however, counsel non-violence.

“It was said, an eye for an eye.” That’s violence for violence. But Jesus would apparently have agreed with Gandhi, “An eye for an eye, and we all go blind.” So he says, “BUT I say unto you”, and then encourages a non-violent response.Click To Tweet

– turn the other cheek.

Imagine being struck on your right cheek. You probably get hit by the striker’s right hand, which means you get backhanded. Backhanding does not happen in a fair face-off. Backhanding is an insult, punishment, or just plain abuse. Back then it represented a clear situation of oppression or dominance. So you could 1) fight back (not smart), or 2) meekly take it, maybe with “Yes, Sir”.

An alternative “third way”:

Now Jesus suggests a third approach. Offer the other cheek. You are not fighting back, but neither are you meekly taking it. You are asking for more. You may get it or you may not, but either way you’ve made a point or two. You are not exactly what they think you are, and you know it; you are a person, and deserve more equal treatment and respect as a person; you are aware of the truth behind the fraud. You are amplifying awareness of, and insulting, their bullying behavior and the system that allows it.


SO if my take is accurate:

1. Jesus insists on integrity and justice.

And the pursuit of those values often precipitates conflict with powers and customs, and often requires deliberate resistance.

2. But Jesus also insists on non-violence.

The point is, we can often (always?) be both a) non-violent and b) resistant, cheeky, or openly subversive. We can be non-violent and still act and speak in ways that resist and undermine falsehood and unjust power. And that, I believe, is a good part of what Jesus is after in this short teaching. Christians clearly have a role to play in exposing and resisting evil.


See Jesus and Nonviolence, by Walter Wink.

Walter Wink treats most of these issues in this excellent little book Fortress Press, 2003. It’s a very easy read, but a substantial survey of the issues both historically and theologically – quite an achievement in such a small space! I highly recommend it.

From Jan, 2005. Edited, 2016.

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  • “Morality” is not a specific concept that can be considered any kind of a qualification. It is a very relative thing that each individual sees according to his or her own beliefs. Some like to believe in a “universal morality” that everyone should follow, but these individuals are usually more interested in forcing their beliefs on others than actually seeking anything “universal”. A few beliefs may be common enough to be considered “universal”, but even with those there are gray areas.

    Murder, “Thou shall not kill”, is a good example. We all agree that killing other people is wrong, but may support it as a necessity in preventing crime, or in war. What about euthanasia? The whole abortion debate also centers on this. Killing children is generally considered bad, but is a fetus a child? Some believe it is, others don’t. There is a lot of gray in this issue, which would at first glance appear very black and white.

    Individual issues can be discussed, but morality, as a general concept, means whatever an individual believes it does, and his morality may differ from yours.

  • Yes, I like that story. It shows where the moral commitment of the Danish people really was, and just how effective that kind of mass activity – with wide-ranging unity of commitment – can be. I’d call that one “non-violent resistance.”

    Passivism -> being passive?

    Pacifism -> (peace-ism?) being against war, even to the point of refusing to fight or to support war efforts

    Non-violence -> commitment to not use violence

    Non-violent resistance -> deliberate actions to resist unjust actions by the government or other entities, but with a commitment not to use violence even when it is used against you. This was the mode of operation of Gandhi and of Martin Luther King and many others around the world in the last couple of decades.

    Some very important and interesting ideas!

  • We don’t often think of passivism as active. I read an essay in college that has always stayed with me. It was about Denmark and the Jews in WWII. The nazis invaded and demanded that all Jews wear yellow stars (to make them easier to identify and isolate them from the rest of the citizens). This was their modus operandi everywhere they went.

    King Christian of Denmark stumped them, however. He issued an edict that *all* of Denmark’s citizens (the royal family included) would wear yellow stars. The nazis knew the king was not a Jew. They were thrown into confusion as to who the actual Jews were. Every time they attempted to isolate the Jews, the king took up their cause. The nazis eventually gave up and pulled out of Denmark. Nary a shot was fired.

    Being a passivist requires a person be very clever sometimes.