To take Jesus’ advice as a call to compliant capitulation is a dangerous mistake. It is an interpretation that fails to see his cultural context. It would be like taking Paul’s command for women not to braid their hair as universal condemnation of woven locks (1 Timothy 2:9). Or, you might literally heave a tin can of fiery coals at your enemy’s face because Paul said loving your enemies led to heaping burning coals on their head (Romans 12:20). Such shortsighted interpretation moved me to investigate the cultural meaning behind Jesus’ most mysterious actions in my latest book Reenacting the Way (of Jesus). Here’s what I discovered about the real meaning behind Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek toward an aggressor (props to Walter Wink et al for this insight).
In Jesus’ day Roman soldiers strutted arrogantly around Israel. The Jewish land was Roman occupied territory. There was no love lost between the occupying soldiers and the Israelite population. When a soldier decided that he needed a Jew’s goods or services, resistance was futile. The Jewish subject better be quick to fetch water, strong enough to carry a load, and ready to give away his shirt or else. If the subject could not perform the request to the soldier’s liking, then a quick backhand to the face was not far behind. This was the situation Jesus addressed in the Sermon on the Mount.
“If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek toward him.” The statement seems to imply that one should invite an aggressor to leave no part of the face out of a good beating. This statement does not sit well among Bible readers who believe that a man should protect his property and family against aggression. It really does not sit well in the mind of the careful and culturally informed reader.
Jesus does not just tell someone who takes a fist to the face to expose the uninjured side. He gives clear instruction to expose the left cheek. This leads to a couple important questions. Why would Jesus indicate that the first blow will come to the right cheek? Why would he instruct someone to offer the left cheek to an attacking Roman soldier?
The answer is simple. Roman soldiers tended to be right-handed. When they struck an equal with a fist, it came from the right and made contact with the left side of the face. When they struck an inferior person, they swung with the back of their right hand making contact with the right cheek. In a Mediterranean culture that made clear distinctions between classes, Roman soldiers backhanded their subjects to make a point. Jews were second-class. No one thought twice about the rectitude of treating lesser people with less respect.
When Jesus tells fellow Jews to expose the left cheek, he is calling for “peaceful subversion.” He does not want them to retaliate in anger nor to shrink in some false sense of meekness. He wants to force the Roman soldiers to treat them like equals. He wants the Jews to stand up and demand respect. He wants to make each attacker stop and think about how they are mistreating another human being. It is the same motivation behind his command to “go an extra mile” after a soldier forced you to carry water for the first mile (Matt 5:41). It is intended to activate the soldier’s conscience.
Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” is ultimately a call to peaceful resistance. It is the mantra of reformers inspired (at least in part) by Jesus like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Elsewhere in the Bible the books of Proverbs and Romans call it “heaping burning coals upon your enemy’s head.” That expression is an ancient Near Eastern mourning ritual. People put ashes on their head to express deep sorrow or regret. The apostle Paul’s call to “overcome evil with good” and thereby “heap burning coals on an enemy’s head” is a call to shame evil people into repentance. It is a peaceful plan to subvert cultural evils.
A Long-Term Plan for Change
“Turning the other cheek” is not blanket acceptance of brutality. It is a strategy for motivating others to change. Specifically, it’s a method for reforming people who abuse their power.
If you meet evil with evil and blow for blow, the cycle of vengeance will never end. Palestinians displaced from their land who shoot rockets at Israelis will only escalate the Middle East crisis. The same goes for Israeli soldiers who break into Palestinian homes and leave it full of bullet casings after killing their neighbors without explanation or warrant. Violence will beget violence unless someone is strong enough to rise above.
Nelson Mandela knows how “peaceful subversion” works. It doesn’t happen quickly. It takes an inordinate amount of courage and character. For Mandela it took 27 years in a prison on Robin Island. But eventually the Apartheid’s treatment of black South Africans brought them universal shame. The world could no longer allow the Apartheid to continue its reign after witnessing so many stark examples of extreme brutality and injustice. Mandela did not fight back (though he had considered plans to do so and members of his movement unfortunately did). Mandela also did not silently submit to an existence of inhumane treatment. He stood up. He raised his voice. He took it on the chin and in so doing demonstrated the inhumanity of their aggressors. An entire country is different because he did.
“Peaceful subversion” is one among many of Jesus’ plans for changing the world. You’ll miss it if you misunderstand his cultural context. Jesus didn’t command us to get beat up. He commanded us to activate people’s consciousness of injustice.
In our day-to-day, it may mean responding with kind and selfless words when a boss has come on the attack with accusatory and thoughtless one-liners. You follow up his attack with a stop by his office where you compliment his demonstrated strengths. You show him how to empower someone thoughtfully so that he sees the contrast between his diminutive assault and your perceptive edification. You don’t fire back with a cheap shot. You step back into his space with love. He may just fire away again, but he might also become aware of his heartlessness. Don’t expect it to work immediately. It took Nelson Mandela 27 years in prison.