Turn The Other Cheek: The Radical Case for Non-Violent Resistance

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In my first post in this series, we ended with the question: What’s a third way forward which avoids the risks of both flight and fight? Today I want to consider the radical case for non-violent resistance.

It’s one of the most famous – and misunderstood – tenets of the Christian faith: turn the other cheek. It occurs twice in the New Testament. Once, in the Gospel of Luke; and with more precise language, in Matthew, in the famous section known as ‘The Sermon on the Mount.’

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. And if anyone sues you for your outer garment give your undergarment as well. And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it for two.” (Matthew 5:38-41)

Many simply dismiss Jesus’ teachings about nonviolent resistance out of hand, as impractical idealism. And with good reason.

‘Turn the other cheek’ has come to imply a doormat like quality – a command to lie down and let people walk all over you – that has made the Christian way seem cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice. It seems to break the back of all opposition to evil, and counsel submission to the evil.

And ‘going the second mile’ has become a platitude, meaning nothing else than extend yourself. And it encourages collaboration with the oppressor.

That’s a frequent misuse of this passage, a misuse that has at different times, been committed by dictators and church leaders alike.

But that interpretation doesn’t fit with the life of Christ. Jesus resisted evil, called the powerful to account, and healed the most vulnerable. He was also willing to pay the ultimate price for living this way; he was crucified.

Jesus’ teaching, viewed in the commonly misunderstood way is impractical, masochistic, and even suicidal. An invitation to bullies and spouse batterers to wipe up the floor with their supine victims. Jesus never displayed that kind of passivity. Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, such distortions are clearly neither in Jesus or his teaching.

The normal or natural human reaction to being slapped, sued unjustly, or forced to carry a soldier’s pack would be irritation, outrage, or violence. The structure of violence is quite simple: Do unto others as they have done unto you. Consequently, we always mirror our opponent and become the very thing that we hate.

Jesus offers a third way. One which marks a historic mutation in human development. The revolt against the principle of natural selection. With Jesus a way emerges by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, and engaged without capitulation. Jesus’ counsel is resistance but without violence.

The Greek word translated “resist” in Matthew 5, is “antistenai” {‘anti’ meaning ‘against’ and ‘stenai’ meaning ‘stand’}. ‘Antistenai’ is most often used in the Greek version of the Old Testament as a technical term for warfare. It describes the way opposing armies would march toward each other until their ranks collided in a cacophony of steel against steel. Disembowelling each other until one of the lines broke and fled.  This was called “taking a stand.” As you see, it is connected with war. The translation ‘resist’ is much tamer in comparison.

Ephesians 6 in the Bible, uses this same imagery as well. ‘Put on the whole armour of God so that you may be able to withstand (antistenai), on that evil day and having done everything to stand firm (stenai).’ In short, ‘antistenai’ means more here than simply to resist the evil. It means to resist violently. To revolt, to rebel, to engage in an armed insurrection – like Barabbas in the gospels – where the same word is used.

So, when Jesus says “do not antistenai one who is evil,” he is telling us not to resist evil with violence. Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way. One that is assertive and yet, nonviolent. The three examples that follow confirm this reading.

We will consider each of them in turn, in the following posts.

Credit: In this article, I share the insights of the late Walter Wink – a Bible scholar and theologian – with a very influential voice in the Christian theology of nonviolence. Walter unpacked the language of ‘turn the other cheek’ in Matthew’s Gospel and taught that Jesus was pointing to a third way: not fight, not flight, but an active, nonviolent challenge to the oppressor.

Credit: Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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