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What ‘Turn the Other Cheek’ Actually Means

What ‘Turn the Other Cheek’ Actually Means

“Turn the other cheek” is one of the sayings of Jesus that has become simultaneously very popular and very unpopular. Popular, because pretty much everyone has heard this quote and many could probably attribute it to Jesus. Unpopular, because almost nobody actually does it. It’s kind of like “love your enemies” — everyone agrees it’s a nice idea, but very few are interested in doing it.

But “turn the other cheek” is confusing in a lot of ways. Taking a nonviolent approach sounds all well and good when it comes to personal spats, but how does one apply this practice in a case of physical abuse? Or police brutality? Does Jesus expect his followers to take any physical beating that comes their way? At a certain point. doesn’t “turn the other cheek” become a way to ignore injustice? On the other hand, attempts to get around this often turn into sheepish “well, maybe Jesus didn’t really mean what he said” excuses that don’t seem particularly serious.

However, in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Dr. Walter Wink proposes another way of thinking about “turn the other cheek.”

To understand his exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount, we need a short linguistic lesson and another short lesson in ancient Jewish culture.

First, linguistically, the verse “do not resist an evildoer” isn’t a perfect translation of Jesus’ original words. Wink suggests a better interpretation might be “do not retaliate against violence with violence” or “don’t react violently against the one who is evil.” In other words, Jesus doesn’t say “don’t resist evil.” Nor does he say “fight back against evildoers.” Instead, he advocates for a different kind of resistance. A radical kind of resistance.

To get a picture of what this resistance might look like, we need to look at Jesus’ actual words. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,'” he says. “But I say to you, Do not resist an evil-doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-41)

Note that Jesus doesn’t actually say “turn the other cheek.” He says turning your “left cheek” after your right is struck.

Not a big distinction today. But to Jesus’ original audience, this would have been laden with meaning. In the ancient world, the right hand was clean, while the left was reserved for unclean tasks. If someone struck your cheek, they would have used their right hand to do so. And Jesus specifies that, in this case, someone is striking your right cheek. This isn’t a hook in a barroom brawl. It’s a backhanded slap — an insult. A backhanded slap is a master punishing a servant, or a soldier demeaning a civilian. It’s the sort of slap you give when you’re not expecting anyone to resist.

But what Jesus teaches here is resistance, of a different sort. Turning one’s left cheek is an act of defiance. To backhand them again would require the left hand, a tacit admission of the uncleanliness of your actions. To hit them directly would be to treat them as an equal. Turning the left cheek, in this framework, is to do far, far more than roll over and accept injustice. It’s to defy the violence of the world, but to do so from a place of active resistance.

In other words, it’s true that Jesus’ call is a call to nonviolence. But it is not a call to passivity. Instead, Jesus was telling his followers to stand against the way of violence not with violence, but with a different kind of power. We can see it in the life he modeled, all the way to the cross and beyond.

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