” ‘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 wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
(I’m only going to write about the turning the other cheek bit of this passage – but it seemed a bit artificial to just pull that half-verse out, so I’ve quoted several verses above*.)
Turning the other cheek. Now often proverbially used to mean “if faced with aggression, turn away and don’t retaliate” – I’ve certainly encountered it in that context. Alternatively, sometimes used to say: if faced with aggression, if you stand there and willingly take it, that will embarrass your enemy and show them up for the bully they are (etc), so by being passive you are achieving something.
That’s a reasonable sort of statement, I think.
But there’s another totally different message also underlying this – about equality. To help me demonstrate, I have a glamorous assistant …
<– This is Leo. He’s my second-oldest soft toy, and I love him very much. (Therefore I am not actually going to slap him). He is also roughly humanoid and in particular has a head that will serve to illustrate the points being made …
So we begin: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek…” – I set out to strike Leo on his right cheek.
I am using my right hand, not only because it is extremely likely that I (representing an arbitrary person) am right handed, but also because in the culture of the time my left hand is used for unclean things and would not be used towards a person.
Here we go:
A backhanded slap across the face. This is the oppressor to the oppressed, the higher-status to the lower-status. There are clear dynamics of power here (certainly at the time and we probably still would feel this to some extent today).
Supposing I have hit him: the passage then tells Leo to turn the other cheek.
Right. Suppose I (being the oppressor) want to strike him backhand again …
<– Ummm … that’s not happening.
That’s really awkward.
That’s pretty much impossible.
So instead, I am forced to do this:
A slap in the face, yes (or a punch, that would also work). But this is a statement of equality, or a challenge. This was not the oppressor to the oppressed, this was putting the participants on equal terms.
So turning the other cheek isn’t about saying “You can be aggressive / unreasonable / oppressive and I will stand here and take it and ignore it and perhaps masochistically ask for more.”
It’s more about saying: Come on then. You can hit me, but treat me as an equal. I am not inferior to you, and if you want to continue to hurt me, you’re gonna have to acknowledge this.
I’ll admit that that’s a message I find it a lot easier to get behind.
It’s not about being a doormat or never retaliating to anything. It’s about responding – in a nonviolent way, sure – in such a way as will disarm your oppressor and (one hopes) make them think.
(The other bits in the verses I quoted – about going the extra mile and giving your cloak – also have explanations like this that are easy to miss. We can discuss those in the comments, or I might write about them in later weeks)