I’ll be honest, I’ve never understood Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek”. Maybe I’m too proud or too young, but responding to someone’s wrongdoing by freely letting them do it again seems to go against my sense of reason. It is the path that I feel most resistance to. For that matter, “love your enemies” feels like another impossible instruction. Sure, I’d be willing to pray that a person learns love and regrets what they’ve done. But love them? Why should anyone who has been hurt have to show love to a person who has no love for them?
Maybe you disagree with me and read those words thinking “Of course everyone deserves love! Forgiveness and kindness are always the right choices”. And if you did, I will admit that your instincts are probably kinder than mine. But maybe you found yourself nodding your head and thinking “maybe Jesus is asking a bit too much from us this time”.
There has been thousands of interpretations of this phrase across time, but I will show you a few that could help us to understand it better.
Many theologians, like N.T Wright (former Bishop of Durham) and P.T Penley, tell us that the answer lies in the historical and linguistic context of the phrase. They see meaning in the fact that Jesus doesn’t generally talk about turning your cheek, but specifically focuses on turning from the right one to the left: “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other one also”. They highlight that Roman soldiers would slap Jewish citizens on the right cheek, using the back of their hands – the type of slap reserved for their ‘inferiors’. However, backhandedly slapping a person on the left cheek (which is what you are forcing them to do when you turn your cheek) would indicate that the recipient was an equal.
Thus, this act of “turning the other cheek” has been interpreted as a subtle assertion of the oppressed person’s humanity: pointing out their equal status of being human, to the attacker. Jesus doesn’t suggest that we offer ourselves up as a sacrifice or invite our aggressor to hurt us again, as I initially thought; he is encouraging a nonviolent strategy of highlighting that the attacker is mistreating a fellow human being. Barbara Reid says that the aggressor is then “shamed” and “humiliated” by this highlighting of their wrongdoing.
Although this interpretation seems convincing, I would still question if this is always the right method of getting justice. Although the peaceful protests led by individuals like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were ultimately successful, countless other protests have been ignored because the oppressor felt no shame and believed that their actions were the right way to treat other people. I’m sure everyone can agree that “shaming” would never have gotten Hitler to end the Holocaust.
But perhaps this phrase isn’t about getting justice. Maybe the focus is on the protesting individual, their sense of empowerment in asserting that they are a human being. There is a quiet power in someone claiming their status as a human being but also showing that they will not stoop to the level of their attacker. They are inoffensive but self-respecting.
Alternatively, some theologians argue that the phrase isn’t meant to be a practical instruction at all. It doesn’t matter whether the phrase can apply in situations of oppression – that is a different discussion altogether. C.H Dodd instead argues that the phrase is a metaphor for the state of mind you should be in when you are talking to your oppressor. You should have the qualities of “patience” and “un-self seeking respect” for them, however inhumane they may be. I would like to qualify that this respect is not for their words or actions – which I think it would be immoral for you to validate- but you respect the fact that they are a fellow human being. Just as they should see you as an equal human being rather than something inferior, so should you see them as a human being, rather than a devil. He also says that your only aim should be to “overcome evil with good”. Standing up to an oppressor should not be about getting revenge for your hurt, as we would instinctually feel, but should be part of a quest to bring any kind of goodness where there is evil. In the words of St Francis of Assisi, “where there is hatred let me bring your love”. Which, of course, is much easier said than done.
Similarly, Robert C. Tannehill sees significance in the fact that these phrases go against our “natural tendency” and instinct to fight back to oppression – to hit back when we have been hit. Think of a time where a sibling was hitting you or someone school insulted you at school – I’m sure at least in one of those instances you responded to them by matching their action. We innately hate the idea that anyone could get away with hurting us, especially that they could get away unscathed. Tannehill says that the phrases are meant to feel difficult and to specifically counter our instinct of “self-protection”. The phrase is a call for you to see the situation in a different way, a little distanced from your sense of hurt and desire to prevent the hurt from ever happening again, and then you can choose how to act accordingly.
Whether you prefer the idea that the phrase is a call for nonviolent protest or a way to cultivate a mindset of goodness, I think you will agree that the meaning of “turning the other cheek” is not easily found. I can see now, that like all things in life, this is something which can only be learned through personal experience.
The Son of God sets a standard of perfection and it takes a lifetime to strive towards it.