What Does it Mean to Turn the Other Cheek?
We were watching a movie the other night. One of the “bad guys” had just done something terribly bad to the hero’s family, and then taunted the hero, saying something like “You’re a good Christian, let’s see you turn the other cheek”.
The concept of accepting/welcoming violence as a Christian value is one that non-Christians love to misunderstand and to make fun of. Parts of verses are often quoted at us by people eager to deride our faith. They say things like “Can I slap you on the cheek, and if I do so, will you then encourage me to slap you on the other cheek, too?” and so on – there’s every chance you’ve been on the receiving end of such mockery, yourself, and felt uncomfortable.
Let’s look at exactly what it means when Jesus encouraged us to turn the other cheek.
As background, the Old Testament was fairly specific on crime and punishment issues, and on war and other forms of national struggle. Curiously, much of the concepts of justice in the Christian world have extended the Old Testament concepts of appropriate punishment and consequences for inappropriate actions, and of prohibitions (and consequences) for certain actions, rather than the more forgiving nature of the New Testament.
This is curious because, in almost all things, the New Testament and Grace of God through Jesus Christ frees us from Old Testament law. How can there be punishments or consequences when there are no laws to break?
This question points to a relevant point. There is a distinction between the laws in our society and imposed by our government, and the conduct of behavior advocated to us by Jesus. In cases where there seems to be a conflict between Christian behavior and national laws, which one is more important?
You might answer that question by saying “Of course, what Jesus says is most important”, but the question was a trick question. Sorry for that! In reality, we have to consider both and coexist and conform (to a greater or lesser extent) with the expectations and requirements of the society we live within (see our article “Reconciling the law of the land with the law of God“), as well as honoring and observing the teachings of Jesus.
We’ll focus this article on what you should do, as a good Christian, if some other person harms you or someone close to you. Let’s start off with the most oft-cited scriptures on this topic.
The Sermon on the Mount
The section most frequently cited when it comes to how we should respond to enmity and adversity is within the lengthy passage recounting what is popularly termed “The Sermon on the Mount” and most clearly detailed in three chapters of the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 5, Matthew 6, and Matthew 7).
You should be familiar with the entirety of these three chapters, but for this article, we are looking particularly at Matthew 5:38-39 (part of the section headed “Retaliation” in the ESV). In separate articles, we’ll look at the second part of this section and also at Matthew 5:43-48 (the section headed “Love Your Enemies” in the ESV), and of course, over still more articles, at the rest of this sermon which is packed full of important guidance for what is appropriate Christian conduct in general and in adversity.
Both these two parts are within the section termed “Personal Relationships” in the AMP, and of course these section headings are merely suggested labels by editors and publishers, not part of the actual teachings of Christ. We often like to use the AMP Bible in our citations but we won’t this time because it “gives too much of the show away”, leaving us little to comment further. So let’s start by looking at these two verses in the Lexham English Bible translation
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
39 But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer, but whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also.
So how should we understand what Jesus is clearly telling and teaching to his followers? While it is our belief that the Bible is intended to be easy to understand, there are some sections that seem a little more remote from “perfectly easy” than others, and these important sections would be a case in point.
To start with, Jesus might be speaking as much figuratively as literally. Secondly, he is using examples that are familiar to his listeners, and which make sense, but which have not remained obvious over the two millennia subsequently. That isn’t to say that what he says is impossible to understand, it merely means we need to make a bit of extra effort, or to rely on interpretations where scholars have already made that extra effort for us.
This would be like us saying about someone “He is as moral as Jeffrey Epstein” – today it is probably obvious to most people that we’d be being sarcastic when saying that, because Mr Epstein was credibly accused of an appallingly long list of sex crimes before he apparently committed suicide in a NY jail while awaiting trial, but in ten or twenty years, he’ll probably be totally forgotten. Another example – “He deserves the same reward for his bravery as Eddie Slovik” – that means nothing to most people these days, but Slovik made a name for himself in 1945 when he became the only US soldier since the Civil War to be executed for desertion.
Understanding the Meaning and Context of This Statement
We’d like to pretend we know all about every verse in the Bible ourselves, but we absolutely don’t, and we too rely on such sources for guidance. We are careful to always use at least two commentaries/guides so as to hopefully filter out any biases, and to get the fullest possible understanding of the passage we’re looking at.
From these sources we learn that turning the other cheek has a particular meaning. A slap is not an act of great violence, but more a form of formal insult. Striking backhand a person deemed to be of lower socioeconomic class was a means of asserting 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. An 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 not weakly submitting, but quite the opposite – he was demanding equality.
Similar points apply to the verses that follow (giving your cloak and going two miles).
The underlying point here is not to retaliate, and not to seek revenge (see also, for example, Romans 12:19).
But there is a world of difference between receiving an insult and staying quiet, as this example teaches us; and being brutally attacked and not defending yourself – of stopping a harmful act while it is being conducted, of preventing a harmful act in the first place, and of subsequently carrying out a similar harmful act yourself against the evildoer, some time later, out of a desire for revenge.
A slap is a short sharp and very brief event. Once it has been done, it has been done. But someone beating you up, or raping your wife/daughter, or whatever, that is an entirely different thing. The Bible does not say “stand aside and let wicked people harm you and your family” and certainly it does not say “after they’ve finished their evil, invite them to repeat it”.
So, what about self-defense? Is that compatible with “turning the other cheek”?
The first part of answering this question is to restate that turning the other cheek is thought to mean accepting an insult and not reciprocating. It probably does not literally mean “if someone hits you (whether on the cheek or anywhere else on your body) move to make it easy for the person to hit you a second time”.
How About Self-Defense and Protection of Property, Friends and Family?
So, in the two verses above, we are told to accept and not respond to minor insults. But what about more serious actions against us, our friends and family, and our property?
This is where non-Christians go off the rails, not only do they misunderstand what turning the other cheek means, but they then incorrectly generalize it to other things as well as minor insults and how to respond to them. Fortunately, the New Testament does talk about self-defense and protection of property and gives us specific guidance. Jesus tells us (in Luke 12:39) (AMP)
39 “But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time the thief was coming, he [would have been awake and alert, and] would not have allowed his house to be broken into.
We’re given an even clearer indication of what “would not have allowed” means when Jesus says (in Mark 3:27) (AMP)
27 But no one can go into a strong man’s house and steal his property unless he first overpowers and ties up the strong man, and then he will ransack and rob his house.
Clearly, the strong man needs to be overpowered (implies a struggle) and bound (to stop the strong man from continuing to fight to protect his house and property) because the strong man won’t passively permit his home to be burgled.
Slightly earlier in Luke, Jesus tells us (Luke 11:21) (AMP)
21 When the strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his belongings are undisturbed and secure.
While this verse is in the context of another point, it seems to be affirming and endorsing the concept of being armed and guarding one’s property. If the concept of being armed and guarding property is repeatedly supported, it seems likely that guarding one’s family is also a good thing. Indeed, in John 15:13, Jesus gives a ringing endorsement of putting oneself in harm’s way to protect one’s friends (AMP)
13 No one has greater love [nor stronger commitment] than to lay down his own life for his friends.
It is unclear if this means “peacefully sacrifice one’s own life to save one’s friends”, but it might also mean “risk and potentially lose one’s own life by forcefully battling an evil that threatens one’s friends”. If one is resisting to the point of risking one’s own life, it is possible that part of the resistance may risk one’s opponent’s life too.
A clue that resistance can be more than passive resistance is given in Luke 22:36 (AMP)
36 Then He said to them, “But now, he who has a money belt is to take it along, and also his [provision] bag, and he who has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one.
A sword is not a peaceful implement. If used, it can only do two things – definitely injure, and possibly kill an opponent. This seems very much at odds with the “conventional wisdom” (usually foisted on us by non-Christians!) that we as Christians must be pacifists, doesn’t it.
What About the Ten Commandments?
One last thing. What about the sixth of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:13)? In the King James Version, this was translated simply as
Thou shalt not kill.
That’s about as simple and clear a statement as possible, isn’t it. It seemed to be a blanket ban on all killing.
But, if that is/was so, it is difficult to reconcile that statement with other texts – earlier, in Genesis (Genesis 9:6) and shortly after in Exodus (Exodus 21:12). How to reconcile a blanket ban on killing with these two verses demanding capital punishment – killing another person – in response for certain crimes?
The answer is surprising to people who revere the King James version of the Bible as being the most reliable and inspired version (a topic for another article in itself!). It seems the Hebrew word used – “rasah” – has a specific meaning that refers to unlawful killing or murder, rather than any form of killing at all. For this reason, it is common now to see the sixth commandment translated with the word kill being replaced with the word murder. The AMP version helpfully goes further and says
13 “You shall not commit murder (unjustified, deliberate homicide).
In other words, lawful killing is permitted. Unlawful killing is not permitted. What is lawful and what is unlawful killing? Perhaps it is appropriate to accept the standards of the community we live in for guidance on that (see, again, our article “Reconciling the law of the land with the law of God“).
Loving Our Enemies, etc
We’ll certainly agree that we as Christians strive to have peaceful lives free of conflict, and we are also told to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:43-48). This love is not in the sense of emotional feeling, but in the sense of selflessly doing things to benefit others – the Greek word “agape” is the underlying word in this context.
Should our love for our enemies be greater than our love for our friends and family? If we are having to choose between loving and protecting our friends and family, and “loving” our enemies, it seems to us that it is appropriate to place our friends and family first, and our enemies second.
Perhaps another explanation of the loving one’s enemies is in the context of “love the person, hate the crime” – and indeed, that section of Matthew is all about explaining how our enemies are also God’s creation; and as such, deserving of our love. It does not say “allow/enable their crimes”, it just says to respect and seek out the good in our enemies – to show by our actions that we are forgiving and willing to create peace between us and to change relationships from enmity to friendship.
On the other hand, we are also told to respond to someone wishing to sue us and take our shirt to also give them our cloak (Matthew 5:40). This seems to be in the context of lawful taking (suing) rather than robbery, and it too may be indicating a form of passive resistance. If you give a person both your shirt and your cloak, you’d be naked, and at the time, public nakedness was considered to bring shame not just to the naked person, but to the people viewing the nakedness too.
So we don’t see the “give your cloak too” verse as suggesting that we should stand aside as they plunder our possessions. If a person is desperate for support and assistance, we’d have a Christian obligation to help, but if a person is merely a criminal seeking to profit by stealing from us, that’s a different scenario entirely.
Turning the other cheek simply means don’t retaliate or seek revenge from a minor insult that creates little personal harm or loss or cost.
It does not mean that you should not protect your belongings, and it does not mean you should not protect your friends (and family). As we’ve seen in the other verses, of course you should protect yourself, your friends and family, your home and your belongings; you should arm yourself to be more effective in protecting these things, and you should be willing to escalate your response to such threats even to the point where you are risking your own life to do so.