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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.

II. FOUR KEY POINTS:

I have four arguments.

Summary:

  • 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:

First,
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.

Second,
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.

Third,
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

Fourth,
– 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.

III. CONCLUSION:

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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48 Comments

  • I hear what everyone is saying (although I did not read eveyone’s comments) but I am troubled a little bit by what these verses are implying. To submit to the government makes sense at times yet, what about, say, the Nazi governemnt? You cannot honestly say that as Christians we should have let Hitler continue on his merry way to committing mass slaughter of the Jews?!? What were we supposed to do? Talk/reason with him and try to negotiate peace? I’m sorry, but that would never have worked! We had to take VIOLENT action in order to stop him from getting away with total genicide. I know I am right..there is just no other way around it, though I must admit I have failed to find Biblical support. I just cannot see how God could support His pepole standing by and letting this evil man murder all of those innocent people. God just wouln’t do that.

      • That would be this verse : ARKON is an ancient dictatorial ruler. But i think these verses are trying to get us to let God be the ruler, he can turn the heart of the king !

        Rom 13:1-5 1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers For there is no power but of God the powers that be are ordained of God. 2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works but to the evil Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power do that which is good and thou shalt have praise of the same. 4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good But if thou do that which is evil be afraid for he beareth not the sword in vain for he is the minister of God a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. 5 Wherefore ye must needs be subject not only for wrath but also for conscience sake.

  • An important note is the specification of the right cheek as being struck. In the class structure of the time, being struck on the right cheek meant the back of the hand which proclaimed your position to be inferior to your antagonist. Presenting your left cheek is a demand of equality by striking with the open palm. It is not demanding a second strike, but demanding a dignified strike if it is at all deserved. This is clarified further with the next line which invokes Jewish law. It is not legal under the Jewish law of the time to take the last clothing from a poor man and leave him unprotected for the night. In addition, public nudity was considered a shame against the viewer not the one undressed. You should not allow your brother to reach such a state that he doesn’t have clothing for his back and to protect himself in the cold of night. The final line in the passage is directed at Roman Law, which allows for a Roman soldier to demand anyone in the Roman controlled territories to carry a soldiers pack for one mile, but the soldier must not make them go further than one mile. By offering to go further you are in effect causing the soldier to break Roman law and put himself at risk of punishment.

    In this way, Jesus is providing three separate examples to clarify his point and show how it applies no matter whose laws you must live under, be they Jewish or Roman.

  • Of course, there are plenty of characteristics like these. Like you say though, we disagree on the specific application, which is where that grayness comes in, and the difficulty in “moral” being an absolute description.

    You mention caring about the powerless. Our president probably genuinely cares about the powerless. He just believes it’s not moral for the government to actually help them.

    He was elected because people found him to be a moral person. Saying he was “moral” was a way to avoid telling us where his compassion truly lay. Had they rejected that relative term and instead asked him how his government would help the poor, the outcome might have been different.

  • Hmm. Good issues.

    But aren’t there things that are widely respected moral characteristics – even if we strongly disagree about some of the specific applications of the characteristic? e.g. integrity, representing whom you claim to represent, not selling your decisions for ‘considerations’, caring about the relatively powerless, general integrity, doing your homework, being sober while making crucial judgments, a generous spirit … ?

    Larry

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