Turn The Other Cheek?

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In my last post, we looked at how Jesus’ call to non-violent resistance, has often been misinterpreted to mean that we are not to resist evil, because of the poor translation of a word.

Today, we will consider the first of the three examples that Jesus gives, that confirm his call to non-violent resistance – “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

I want to share with you a video clip, in which the late Walter Wink – a Bible scholar and theologian with a very influential voice in the Christian theology of nonviolence – helps us to understand the meaning of this phrase in its original context, using a role play. He believes that Jesus was pointing to a third way of responding to injustice and oppression: not fight, not flight, but an active, nonviolent challenge to the oppressor.

Notice Jesus’ audience here. “If anyone strikes you” – the kind of people Jesus was talking to, were people who are used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, “refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.”

This act of defiance renders the oppressor incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. The master can have this slave beaten, but he can intimidate him no longer. By turning the cheek then, the party who is considered socially inferior, is saying, “I’m not inferior to you. I’m a human being. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I’m a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”

Such defiance is no way to avoid trouble. Meek acquiescence is what the master wants – in the case of a slave. Such cheeky behaviour could result in a flogging or worse – even killing, but the point has been made. The ‘powers that be’ have lost their power to force people to submit to evil. And when large numbers begin behaving thus, (Jesus was already depicted as addressing a crowd), you have a social revolution on your hands.

In that world of honour and shaming the superior has been rendered impotent to instil   shame in a subordinate. He’s been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, the first principle of non-violent action is that of non-compliance with everything which is humiliating.

How different this is from the usual view that this passage teaches us to turn the other cheek so our batterer can simple clobber us again. How often that interpretation has been fed to battered wives and children, and it was never what Jesus intended in the least. To such victims he advises “stand up for yourselves! Take control of your responses! Don’t answer the oppressor in kind, but find a new third way that is neither cowardly submission, nor violent reprisal.

In the next post, we will consider the second example that Jesus gives, of non-violent resistance.

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