Turn the other cheek: a demand for equality

” ‘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.”

Matthew 5:38-41

(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 …

A stuffed humanoid lion toy.<– 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:

Attempting to strike on right cheek with right hand<– I attempt to strike him – clearly I’m going to hit him backhand.

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 …

Attempting to strike on left cheek with right hand (1)Attempting to strike on left cheek with right hand (2)

<– Ummm … that’s not happening.

That’s really awkward.

That’s pretty much impossible.

 

 

Slap on the left cheek with the right hand

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)

——————————————

(Citation: information presented here is not from Wikipedia although retrospectively I was impressed to see that their page (as viewed by me at the moment of writing) seems actually very well-informed – it’s from chatting to a Vicar at my (Anglican) Church, and this is something he’s said in sermons / Bible study type situations before and is confident of the validity of)
*(Eagle-eyed and Bible-literate readers will realise that I’ve missed out “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” which is the following verse and it is after that verse that most translations put their paragraph break. Ah well, my blog, I can break where I like – you can always go and look all of this up).
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2 Responses to Turn the other cheek: a demand for equality

  1. Jack V says:

    That’s interesting. I certainly generally agree with the sentiment. And that he specifically says “right” cheek makes sense — but it always makes me twitchy to accept biblical criticism without extensive background notes, which are obviously impractical in a blog post.

    Although by extension, I certainly shouldn’t accept the widely-touted “pacifism” reading without justification either.

    I was talking to Rachel about how I would interpret Jesus’ comments (before I saw this) about always forgiving and going an extra mile. I think I said that while I had no authority to imagine what he would have meant, I would generally not want to disagree with him without good reason, and I saw it as (a) partly a high standard of ethical behaviour which I respect, but know most people will never live up to (and if I’m honest, know we need a mix of people as long as there are bad things in the world) and (b) a much greater emphasis on the afterlife than life than most people are able to have and (c) not a call for INFINITE forgiveness, but for forgiveness as long as there is any room for faith in the person: not assuming they won’t sin, but always hoping and there always being room for redemption. It doesn’t require you to _believe_ someone who is generally untrustworthy, but it requires you to _hope_. This would lead to defending yourself from someone who is actually going to hurt you, but walking away if you still can, even if you feel stupid to do so.

  2. “it always makes me twitchy to accept biblical criticism without extensive background notes, which are obviously impractical in a blog post.” – absolutely, me too … I’m usually hesitant to pass on things like this that I’ve heard / read / etc as I’m not sure about the sources really.

    In this case I’ve chosen to trust Tim (one of the Vicars at my church) because I believe that he’s well-informed / trained / read, and a thoughtful person, etc etc – if I’d just read this in a magazine article (or even book where I didn’t know much about the author) I would be much more wary.

    Wrt going the extra mile, apparently (again via Tim who I trust has done his homework etc) the situation is as follows: a Roman soldier had a lot of Stuff. Therefore they were allowed to grab a civilian and demand that they help carry said Stuff, for a mile.

    However, if they abused this privilege and made them carry stuff for two miles, the civilian could report the soldier and the soldier would be flogged. Hence a person deliberately insisting on ‘going the extra mile’ would lead to a rather amusing farcical situation where the soldier is trying to grab everything back and insist on carrying it himself … again a form of non-violent resistance. And not doormat-ness.

    The next verse, though, I find really hard – “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” it doesn’t seem to fit with the previous bits. I do believe in giving, definitely, and I believe in sometimes giving more than might seem ‘sensible’, but I think that that should be driven by having compassion on others’ need, not by someone going ‘hey, gimme this’.

    Thinking about your point (b), I’m not sure that Christ actually had as much emphasis on the afterlife as all that … I think that a lot of things have been interpreted that way (certainly in sermons I’ve heard / books I’ve read) when really he wasn’t necessarily talking about the afterlife at all. Jesus is always saying ‘the Kingdom of God is among you’ and often giving advice on stuff to do now, although I guess the rewards can be in heaven.

    “It doesn’t require you to _believe_ someone who is generally untrustworthy, but it requires you to _hope_. This would lead to defending yourself from someone who is actually going to hurt you, but walking away if you still can, even if you feel stupid to do so.”

    Absolutely! 🙂

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