Date: 27/09/2020
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To turn the other cheek

Jesus said "You have learned that they were told 'Eye for eye;tooth for tooth' But what I tell you is this 'Do not set yourself against someone who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left. "  Matthew 5:38-39.

This passage from the Gospel has often been used to criticise Christians for not standing up to a perceived wrong, for being passive, weak even.  It can make Christians who are assertive and proactive feel guilty for their lack of forbearance.  This is an extract from the book Son of God, by Revd Angela Tilby, an Anglican priest, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 2001.  There was also a BBC programme. 

I have had occasion to refer to the interpretation she describes to support an assertive view and I think it deserves repetition here for future use.

Jesus’ teaching on non-violence is so well known that it has become part of everyday language.  “Turning the other cheek “or “going the extra mile” (Matthew 5:39-42) have often been seen as examples of extraordinary Christian forbearance in response to others assertive behaviour.   This interpretation has been useful to bullies and control freaks. ….

Playwright Dennis Potter, in his play about Jesus “Son of Man” had a scene in which Jesus was struck across the face.   Jesus “turned the other cheek” by thrusting the other side of his face towards his assailant, defiance in his eyes, but without the slightest attempt to retaliate.   The gesture startled the aggressor, displaying back to him the consequence of violence and making him look rather foolish.


Is this what Jesus meant?  One of the scholars who has researched this aspect of the teaching of Jesus is Tom Wright formerly of Oxford University and now a Canon of Westminster Abbey in London.   Putting the words of Jesus into context, he shows how Jesus introduces these teachings on retaliation by comparing what he is saying with what had been taught in the past.  The law of Moses said an injustice should be avenged, but in proportion “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Deuteronomy 19:21) In it’s time this was sensible and humane teaching.  We all know that the tendency of those who have been assaulted is to do even more damage in retaliation than has been done to them.  But Jesus is facing a situation where violence is not between equals.   Ultimately the Romans were in charge and expected compliance.   This meant that a different strategy was called for. Tom Wright explains that in the first-century world of Jesus a blow given to the right side of the face was given with the back of the hand.   It was meant to humiliate as well as hurt. Turning the face was a kind of defiance, since the aggressor would either have to use the left hand to repeat the blow or strike with an open hand.   Either way, turning the other cheek was an assertion of equality, a refusal to accept the intended humiliation.  The instincts of the dramatist come together with scholarship to suggest a very different understanding of “turning the other cheek” from the traditional meek and mild one.  It is not about those who are dominated accepting their punishment, but the exact opposite. It requires them to assert their dignity.