We generally think Jesus is telling us to passively accept violence and insult when he tells us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5: 38-41). He’s instead giving us some imaginative examples of how to stand up for ourselves. The Greek word translated “resist” in Jesus’ teaching is antistenai, meaning literally to stand (stenai) against (anti). This is a technical term for warfare, describing two armies marching toward each other and, when they meet, standing against each other in hand-to-hand combat. According to New Testament scholar Walter Wink:
Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but to refuse to oppose it on its own terms. We are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way. One that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent.1
A better translation is, “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil but, instead, turn the other cheek.” This requires explanation. We imagine someone making a fist and punching me in the face but that’s incorrect. In the ancient world, the left hand was used for unclean tasks. Therefore, the hitter would be striking with his or her right hand. Right hand, right cheek—the only possible way is with a backhand. By turning the other cheek, you make it impossible for that person to backhand you again. He could make a fist and punch you but that would make you his equal. Walter Wink explains:
The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.2
Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence takes place in a court setting where a creditor sues a poor man, demanding everything including his cloak or outer garment. This is sheer humiliation. Jesus is telling the poor debtor to show how unjust the system is by stripping of his undergarment as well and standing naked before his creditor. The shame of nakedness in Judaism fell less on the naked person than on the person seeing or causing nakedness.
The third example is of a Roman soldier compelling a Palestinian to carry his pack for one mile, a common, hated occurrence that created lots of resentment. Wouldn’t agreeing to go a second mile simply be aiding and abetting your oppressor? Not necessarily. A soldier who forced a civilian to carry his pack for more than one mile was breaking military code. We can imagine our civilian carrying the soldier’s pack, chatting with him, and then when they arrive at the mile marker, cheerfully keep on walking and say, “Hey, you look tired; let me carry it another mile.” What’s going on here? Is he insulting the soldier’s strength? Will he report the soldier to his commanding officer and get him in disciplined for violating the military code? From a situation of being forced into labor, he has now taken back the initiative.
In all three examples, Jesus is demonstrating how to stand up for ourselves without resorting to counter-violence, which would play into the hand of our oppressor. A third way between passively submitting or violently fighting back is taking a creative, nonviolent transforming initiative. Instead of responding on our oppressor’s terms, we’re making him or her respond to us on different terms.
[i] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (New York: Galilee, 1998), 100-101.
[ii] Ibid., 101.