No less of a public philosopher than Sir Charles Barkley once said, “People always say turn the other cheek. If you turn the other cheek, I’m gonna hit you in the other cheek too.” Sir Charles’ take on this teaching of Jesus made him a better basketball player than philosopher or theologian, but his is not an uncommon take on that famous teaching. The ‘eye for an eye’ and ‘Turn the other cheek’ might be the least understood lesson Jesus taught us, and so some background.
“First, consider the eye-for-an-eye rule of the Hebrew Bible (Exod 21:24: But if injury ensues, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.). That was a good law. In the Ancient Near East, a common way to settle perceived injustices was unmitigated vengeance (you injure my brother’s eye and I and my brothers will take out both of yours—maybe even kill you). So the Mosaic law of an eye-for-an-eye was meant to mitigate that instinct for unbridled retaliation. Moreover, Jewish legal procedure soon developed the practice of substituting financial recompense as the appropriate response to claims of personal injury—much like our practice today in the Western world.
“As reasonable as that approach was, Jesus called for an even further advance against the human zest for “getting even”—which is where the famous “turn the other cheek” saying comes in. A puzzlement to most Christians, this saying has been an occasion of mockery on the part of the enemies of Christianity, as in “Why follow someone who teaches you to be a bunch of wimps and doormats?”
“But that is to miss the point. We need a cultural context to catch the meaning of Jesus’ example. In a mainly right-handed world, a slap across the right cheek is back-handed, and in first-century Palestine a back-handed slap was meant not so much to inflict physical injury as to dishonor the person slapped. If someone dishonored you with the demeaning back-handed slap, you were expected to reclaim your honor by responding in kind. Thus Jesus’ suggestion would, in that context, be a surprising move, indicating that you simply refuse to be dishonored so easily.”1
My only encounters with such things run along the lines of Bugs Bunny slapping Elmer Fudd or duels in movies set in medieval times. These things we usually “initiated by one party in the dispute slapping the other with a glove, and then saying something derogatory regarding their opponents parentage. Often this would be followed up by a shout of “I challenge you to a duel!”, and then a fight to the death.”2
Much of this ended, at least in the Western world, when people stopped carrying swords in public. Getting slapped in real life is something altogether different; it involves a power dynamic, it establishes a relationship defined by physical and psychological dominance. Think domestic violence, sexual trafficking, gang hierarchy. That’s the top of the list. Now think any situation in which a person attempts to get bigger by making you small. That list is likely endless.
The answer Jesus gives us to this problematic power dynamic is to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile. Is He being literal? Yes, at the time, when those two examples meant something real in the day to day life of His listeners. For us, at least most of the time, they are meant to get us thinking of ways we can defy those who seek to exercise unjust power of us, ways of ending oppression without becoming oppressors ourselves. If the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just sprang to mind, that’s because he all but perfected the method Jesus teaches us today.
Is Jesus ruling out the use of force when necessary? No, He is not. There are times when one must defend him or herself and defend others with physical force, and there’s nothing wrong with being really good at that. The Lord smiles upon those who step into the line of fire to defend life and liberty here and around the world, and I couldn’t be prouder of my family and friends who have and who still do. St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 “allows the state to bear the sword for the enforcement of law and the prevention of evil, still stands as part of the canon.”3 Rather, Jesus is ruling out revenge, violence for violence’s sake; He reminds us that His Father wants all people to turn from wickedness and live, even our enemies, and exhorts us to love our enemies, to pray for them, so that they may not stay enemies.
Easy, right? Nope. But in Christ nothing is impossible, and we become better, more godly, in the attempt.
1Dennis Hamm, SJ: http://liturgy.slu.edu/7OrdA021917/theword_hamm.html
3Reginald B. Fuller: http://liturgy.slu.edu/7OrdA021917/theword_indepth.html