Thursday, August 24, 2006

Ethics and Violence: Turning the Other Cheek

The previous post touched on self-defense and just war. Next we have far more difficult material: turning the other cheek. After clearing away some misconceptions about turning the other cheek, we take a hard look at justice and mercy, strength and weakness, and loving our enemies.

Turning the other cheek: whose cheek?
Does turning the other cheek mean letting other people trample on your rights? I can't really see any way to let someone hit you twice without their trampling on your rights. But does "turning the other cheek" have limits?

First, it's your own cheek you're allowed to turn; you can't demand that someone else subject themselves to bullying and abuse. Someone else may possibly suffer mistreatment graciously for the love of God; but that is not something we can demand of each other. The only person who can accept suffering is the one who is suffering; it cannot be demanded of someone else that they endure injustice. If we see someone suffering unjustly, it becomes our responsibility as a matter of justice to protect the innocent and suffering. We cannot take turning the other cheek and transform it into an obligation for anyone being wronged to continue enduring injustice indefinitely. To take seconds on mistreatment is a decision a person may take upon himself; it is not a decision that can be decently forced on another person.

Turning the other cheek: what it is not
There are other things that, in this broken world, masquerade as turning the other cheek. There are people who, with confused self-hatred, cannot see anything wrong with their being injured. Those who cannot understand that they are actually suffering injustice -- who cannot understand that what is happening to them is genuinely wrong and worthy of outrage -- are not "turning the other cheek"; they are merely indulging in a morally confused self-punishment, devoid of both justice and grace. There are also those who are too timid to resist evil; these also are not "turning the other cheek" but displaying cowardice and covering it with a pretty religious cloak. Then there are those who are unable to turn the other cheek because they are still getting pounded; the other person simply will not stop abusing them. When evil overwhelms us, God may still bless the defeated, but there is no room for the choice to turn the other cheek, no room for the deliberate show of non-retaliation.

All of these examples of not really "turning the other cheek" share something in common: they make "turning the other cheek" into something less than justice instead of something more than it.

Turning the other cheek
Matthew 5:38-45
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, nd do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, "Love your neighbor ... and hate your enemy!" But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Luke 6:27-31
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.
Both Matthew and Luke record Jesus' teaching to turn the other cheek; both record it along with his teaching to love our enemies. So if I hate the person abusing me, I have not turned the other cheek. If I see no point trying to stop them from abusing me, I have not turned the other cheek. If I see nothing wrong with being abused, I have not turned the other cheek. If I turn the other cheek to be a hero or a martyr rather than a blessing to those who curse me, I have not turned the other cheek.

Christ started by reminding us of the ancient laws of justice: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". Consider that it actually is justice; consider that it also doubles the amount of harm done, the number of people harmed, and the number of people inflicting harm. And, after all is said and done, it may or may not stop the cycle of hatred and retribution.

Someone who truly turns the other cheek is not subdued; he is still acting of his own accord. He is not pretending that evil is not really wrong or does not need to be stopped. In fact, he determines that evil must be confronted, and that he will confront it here. Turning the other cheek is an act of confrontation, not an approval of injustice. If he ignores justice, if he ignores that there was a wrong done and merely bows before it, he has not been a blessing to those who are doing the evil; he has merely been an easy mark. Those who bow before evil are not a blessing to the world. Those who turn the other cheek do not bow before evil, they stand and face it squarely. After someone has been struck on one cheek, the fact that he is still on his feet makes it clear that he could fight back. Anyone who sees him raise his head and meet his attacker's eyes and turn his other cheek -- not mockingly or in provocation, but not in fear either -- he will know: everything about his stand condemns both the first blow and the next one (if it comes) as unjust. This is the kind of confrontation that stops evil, not by challenging the strength of the attacker, but by challenging the heart of the attacker.

This is the challenge to the attacker: Can you really attack someone who refused an open invitation to attack you in return? Can you really hate someone who has done you no harm, who has reason to hate you but is trying to bless you? Can you see that they keep from trying to hurt you, not from fear, but from love of God and hope for your redemption?


DugALug said...


Man, I have a tough time for this. For instance, European jews essentially tried this during the 30's and 40's, and the anti-semetic sentiment worsened. At what time must someone step in so that true justice can prevail.

I might say, you only have 2 cheeks, but then there is the scripture when Peter asked how many times to forgive: I chuckle at this, because I have thought that I have forgiven my mom more than 490 times (seven times seventy), and she has me, probably 10 times that. Does that mean that we have the right to not forgive each other?

I am having a time rectifying all of this.

Thanks for trying to tackle this issue.

God Bless

Weekend Fisher said...

Yep, I'm fairly sure I'll keep on the same subject for another couple of posts, because lots of people wrestle with that kind of thing. I expect we all do.

And with the build-up to WW2, if someone sneaks up on you in the night and takes your things or destroys your shop, if there is no confrontation of the evil I'd suspect that doesn't really count as turning the other cheek, more like glossing over evil, and IMHO there's a huge difference. I think the buildup to WW2 had a lot of fear of the oppressor, resentment of the oppressor, weakness of the oppressed ... but not a lot of confrontation of the oppressor.

I like the 2 cheeks comment, and the last line of this post does kind of tip my hand to where I'm going next with that. And as for Peter's 70 x 7 ... lots of people don't take a good look at what Jesus said. The 70 x 7 is very memorable and I'm glad people remember it. But there's a requirement to confront the evil, escalation from the one who was wronged if it's not resolved, there's the issue of whether the other person ever acknowledges that they were wrong, all in the same passage. It's almost like we (the Christian community) haven't really given it much thought since grade school Sunday school. We miss a lot, and much of the mess we have on our hands is because of it.

Boy I ramble don't I?

DugALug said...


Ramble On, this is a great post, and I like your thoughts here.

I know you are right about 490, but it is kind of one of those funny things that comes to my mind. It is like, with the adulterous woman, and Jesus saying 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone.' In the back of my pescimistic mind, I always think, why wasn't Jesus hurling boulders? It is a silly question, but it does bring of a point about 'righteous anger'. Even if you are in the right, it doesn't necesarily justify a harsh reaction.

Now look! I ramble on too!

God Bless

God Bless

JCHFleetguy said...

Great post.

The teaching I have heard - which may help dugalug - is that (if we assume that most people in the 1st century AD were right-handed as well) this is a back-handed blow to our right cheek. This is not a full-on punch; but a blow to our dignity and pride - as is stealing from us.

DugALug said...


Thanks for the thought, I will have to think about it.

God Bless

Sharktacos said...

with the 7x70 response Jesus is actually humorously reversing the vengeful boast of Lamech

"If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times" (Genesis 4:24)

In other words, he is advocating "escalation of forgiveness" in the same way that our flesh wants to escalate violence.

I wonder if Peter got the reference.

Weekend Fisher said...

Definitely. There are lots of references to 7's and multiples of 7's in reference to forgiveness. I think the first one is as you said. Then 7x7 years is the timing of the year of Jubilee (where debts are canceled and property is restored), and 70x7 years is the time until Messiah comes in Daniel. Day of Atonement is in the 7th month ... There are more, too, I've never tried for an exhaustive list. But you'd really hope Peter would have got it. I think this is a lot of why 7 is the most popular number in the book of Revelation. Sabbath blessing and rest applied in its widest application.