“Turn the Other Cheek?”
Matthew 5: 38-41
Nine-year-old Robert got a new bicycle for his birthday. His parents had saved for a long time to buy it. One evening the new bicycle was stolen. Robert said, “I hate what Jesus says about giving away your cloak when someone steals your coat! It sounds like I can’t even try to find the guy who stole my bike and get it back!” 1
Robert’s not the only one. Most of us don’t like this passage; at the very least, we scratch our heads over it.
· Is Jesus here asking us to be doormats?
· Is Jesus telling us to endure abuse and tolerate humiliation?
· Does this passage instruct women to stay in circumstances of domestic abuse?
Biblical scholar Walter Wink addresses this passage in startling ways in his award-winning book called Engaging the Powers. He explains this passage one phrase at a time. Let’s start with the “turn the other cheek” part. Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” What could be the significance of Jesus specifying the right cheek? Imagine for a moment that you are a poor slave in ancient Palestine and your master is facing you and about to strike you. Not only is your master probably right handed, but the rule in those days was that he cannot use his left hand since it was used only for unclean tasks. So, he must use his right hand. So, think about it: if he uses his right hand to strike you, he would hit your left cheek -- unless he backhands you, to hit you on your right cheek, as Jesus specifically mentions.
In those days, hitting someone with the back of the hand was a gesture that had a very specific meaning: it was used only by those in a position of power to humiliate someone with less power.
· Masters would backhand slaves.
· Romans would backhand Jews.
· Husbands would backhand wives.
· Parents would backhand children.
The clear message was, “Remember your place: beneath me!”
Now, if you do as Jesus says, and turn the other cheek, but your master must still use his right hand, then he can no longer backhand you. Now he must treat you as an equal, not as one who is inferior. So, by turning the other cheek, you have reclaimed your dignity, and communicated, even without words, that you refuse to be humiliated. And, amazingly enough, you have also invited your master to reclaim his true dignity, by exposing the lie he believes, that one human being is better than another. And you have done all this, non-violently, without striking back.
The next part of the passage says, “If someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” This isn’t really addressing petty thievery, like Robert’s bicycle, but Jesus says, “If someone wants to sue you…” In Jesus’ day, the economic system was highly exploitative: wealthy landowners used high interest rates for loans to force poor people into defaulting and losing their land. Again, imagine that you are a poor person in ancient Palestine, and you cannot repay your debts because of the exorbitant interest rate… Your creditor demands that you give him your coat, your outer garment, either as the only payment he can finally squeeze out of you, or as collateral, to ensure that you will return tomorrow to work more, to repay your loan.
And Jesus says, “If someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well…” The Greek word used for cloak here, “chiton”, means the plain gown worn by men and women underneath their clothes; they would sleep in this “chiton” and just add clothes on top of it for going out in public. This “chiton” could be worn by itself in public without embarrassment, but since nothing was worn underneath it, giving it away would mean that you would have on no clothes at all. Now, in Jesus’ culture, it was not so scandalous to be naked yourself, but it was scandalous to look at someone else who was naked. So, by giving your creditor your “chiton”, he musts now look at you with no clothes on, and that scandalizes him, not you. Now he experiences the humiliation that he had tried to bring on you. As Walter Wink says, “The creditor is exposed to be not a legitimate moneylender, but someone who participates in reducing an entire segment of society to landlessness and destitution. Giving the creditor the “chiton” is not simply vindictive; it actually offers the creditor a chance to see, perhaps for the first time in his life, what his practices cause; it gives him the opportunity to repent.” Once again, you have regained your dignity by taking back your power to choose your own response, all without violence. And, you have offered your oppressor an opportunity for transformation. 2
Now Jesus goes on to a different scenario: “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” In those days, Palestine was occupied by the Romans, and Roman law allowed the Roman soldiers to require the local inhabitants to carry their packs. Well, of course the packs were really heavy, and of course, the Jews hated this practice of forced labor. But, the Romans were shrewd enough to want to avoid riots, so they passed other laws limiting the amount of forced labor that could be required. In the case of packs, a Roman soldier could force a local civilian to carry it for only one mile. If the soldier demanded more, he himself could be punished.
Imagine, then, that you are a Jewish “local”, and a Roman soldier grabs you and demands that you carry his pack. You know how far a mile is, because the Romans also marked their roads with mile markers. You come to the end of your mile, but now, instead of returning the pack, you cheerfully keep on carrying it… The Roman soldier is now confused, and afraid he will be punished. Imagine him pleading with you to give his pack back to him!
Once again, you have regained your dignity, refusing to behave as a victim, all without striking the soldier, or otherwise getting caught up in the cycle of violence.
Let’s go back now to the beginning of this passage. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” Jesus here is quoting the Old Testament, and most of us today totally misunderstand this. In Old Testament days, there were no limits on retribution: if you knocked out my tooth, I could kill you in revenge; if I injured your ox, you could kill me in revenge. So, when God told the Hebrew people “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, it was putting a huge limit on the vengeance; it really meant “only an eye for an eye, no more than a tooth for a tooth.” This provision was absolutely revolutionary in its time. So Jesus starts this passage by recalling this amazing limit on retribution, and then he takes it even farther: “You have heard that it was said, “only an eye for an eye, no more than a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer.’” The Greek word translated here as “resist” means to resist violently, to rise up in a military sense. In other words, Jesus is telling us here not to respond to violence with more violence. Instead, when someone tries to abuse or humiliate us, Jesus invites us to find a creative, non-violent response to reclaim our dignity. In difficult situations, it can be easy to think that we have only two choices: either suffer abuse or take revenge, but Jesus here “shows us there is a different way to be human – a way that doesn’t plot revenge and doesn’t join the armed resistance movement, but which wins God’s kind of victory over violence and injustice.” 3 Walter Wink calls this “Jesus’ third way of nonviolent engagement”, by which we renounce vengeance and retaliation, without succumbing to passive acceptance of abuse.”
So, what could this all look like in a day and time very different from Jesus’ day?
· Rosa Parks simply sat down in the front of a bus. By doing this, she exposed the segregation law as ridiculous, and reclaimed her dignity, without resorting to violence. (Many people don’t know that she had actually been trained in non-violent resistance by leaders of the civil rights movement, at the Highlander Center in Tennessee.)
· Years ago, during the apartheid days in South Africa, some white Afrikaner soldiers with bulldozers came upon a group of poor black South African women living in a squatters’ village. The soldiers told the women they had two minutes to clear out before the bulldozers would level their village. What could the women do? Most of their men were away at work. Should the women get out guns and use violence to protect themselves from the violence of the Afrikaners? Should they acquiesce and passively allow their homes to be destroyed? They thought quickly, and creatively. They knew how puritanical white Dutch Reformed Afrikaners are likely to be. So, they stood in front of the bulldozers and took off all their clothes. The soldiers turned and ran and never came back. Their village was spared. 4
· A rabbi discovered that the walls of his synagogue had been defaced with ugly graffiti, including swastikas. He called the police, who found the culprits, a group of local high school students. The young men were arrested and charged with vandalism. As the judge was about to sentence them, the rabbi intervened. He said, “I don’t want these boys to have a police record, but I do want them to learn respect for my religion. I suggest you release them on the condition that they spend thirty hours studying Judaism with me.” The judge agreed, and the students began regular classes with the rabbi. Their former ignorance was replaced with understanding and respect for the Jewish faith and for the rabbi. 5 These boys were transformed in a way prison would never transform them.
· During World War II, when the Nazis informed Denmark’s King Christian that they were about to take over his country and that Jews would be required to wear the yellow star, King Christian replied that if the Danish Jews were forced to wear a yellow star, then he, too, would wear one. As a result, the yellow star was never introduced in Denmark. Then the Nazis ordered the Danes to establish a ghetto for the Jews. King Christian refused, saying that if there were such a ghetto, he and his family would move from his palace to be with the Jews. The Nazis then devised a secret plan to arrest all the Danish Jews on October 1, 1943 (the Jewish New Year). The Nazis prepared four cargo ships, waiting to take the Jews to concentration camps in one mass deportation. The Danish government discovered the plan and alerted the Danish people, who went out into the streets and searched for Jews in order to warn them. All over Denmark, rescue groups sprang into action. They escorted the Jews to small villages by the sea where they were smuggled across the water in fishing boats into the safety of Sweden. The solidarity of the Danish people on behalf of the Jews was so great that when money was needed for rescue operations, “you simply went to a bank and asked the teller for 5,000 or 10,000 kroner, stating your purpose, and the money was promptly handed to you.” There is no record of anyone ever taking advantage of this for personal gain. Through non-violent engagement almost all the seven thousand Danish Jews were saved, to the point that Adolf Eichmann admitted that “the action against the Jews of Denmark had been a failure.” 6
Walter Wink writes, “Hitler and the Nazis have often been used as the ultimate excuse for resorting to violence, by those who assume that non-violence would be impotent against such evil. But not only in Denmark but throughout Europe, whenever organized nonviolent engagement was tried against the Nazis, it did work. Unfortunately, it was not often tried.” 7
In these days we live in, of ISIS and international terrorism, I don’t know exactly what all this means. But I do know that we are not to passively suffer abuse, whether personal or as a nation, AND that we are not to respond to evil with violence. Responding to evil with violence is the easy choice, the lazy choice. On the other hand, it takes self-discipline, creativity, and great strategy to choose non-violent engagement. Violence may initially feel gratifying, but in the long run, it only invites more violence, and the cycle continues. It seems to me that this is one of the greatest challenges of our time: having the courage and the creativity to think differently, to make every effort to follow in Christ’s way of preserving our own God-given dignity and responding to evil non-violently, even in ways that offer the oppressor the opportunity to recognize his/her own evil and repent.
May God grant us the wisdom, courage, and creativity for living in the pathways of Christ.
Tandy Gilliland Taylor
Triune Mercy Center
May 21, 2017
1 Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, SJ, Don’t Forgive Too Soon: Extending the Two Hands that Heal, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997), p. 4.
2 Ibid., p. 7.
3 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part One, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002), p. 52.
4 Linn, Linn, and Linn, p. 1.
5 Ibid., p. 18.
6 Ibid., p. 23.
7 Ibid., p. 24.