In the Bible it is written, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mat 5:38-39) These words in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount suggest that we ought to let people take advantage of us and not defend ourselves when others seek to harm us. Is this the correct interpretation of the text?
A brief search of common literature and exposition on this topic reveals that the general understanding and consensus of the Christian community here promotes pacifism in the face of injustice and cruelty; we are told that Jesus expects us to not defend or stand up for ourselves or our loved ones when others seek our harm. This causes many Christians to either become stupidly vulnerable to wicked, spiteful men and perhaps also then a laughing stock to the world, or to defend themselves with a polluted conscience … as if they are disobeying and sinning against their Lord. It is an insidious dilemma promoted by the enemy, and our ignorance of the whole of Scripture can bring us much harm and confusion here regardless how we respond to such teaching.
In seeking out truth it is vital that we compare scripture with scripture and ensure that any concept which we think we might see in a text is in perfect harmony with all related scripture. Interpreting any text in isolation or without due regard to the cultural context in which it was written can be quite harmful to us; this particular text is especially problematic when it is not carefully considered.
We might begin by observing two cases in Scripture where a godly person was smitten on the cheek and did not meekly turn the other so that their assailant might strike them again. The first example is Christ Himself: when struck by an officer in the palace of the high priest He said, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou me?” (John 18:23). Rather than turning to invite the officer to strike Him again, Christ resists the abuse by challenging the man’s wicked behavior. And in a similar case the Apostle Paul said, “God shall smite thee,thou whited wall: for sittest thou to judge me after the law, and commandest me to be smitten contrary to the law?” (Acts 23:3) In neither case do we find senseless vulnerability to be the godly response to abuse. It seems clear then that there may be details in this particular context in Christ’s teaching which would shed more light on His intent.
Firstly, note that when Christ tells us not to resist evil He gives us an example of someone smiting us on our right cheek; Christ did not actually say, “whosoever shall smite thee on thy cheek, turn to him the other also.“ It is unreasonable to think that Christ was supplying an irrelevant and arbitrary detail here: He must have said right cheek for a reason, so let us consider this very carefully.
If someone strikes you on your right cheek it is very likely that they are using their left hand to do so. In mid-eastern culture the left hand is considered unclean (people in these lands have historically used the bare left hand to clean themselves after a bowel movement), so to strike or slap someone with the left hand is considered an extreme form of insult. And even if one happens to strike another on the right cheek with their right hand, they will generally need to do this in a back-handed manner which is, again, rather demeaning.
So we are evidently not merely considering someone taking advantage of us in an indiscriminate or arbitrary manner, but someone responding to us in a way that indicates we may have harmed or offended them in some problematic way; the context implies that we may have an obligation to respond in a conciliatory manner in order to rectify our own wrong. If we continue to look at the context of Christ’s entire commentary here, we will find additional support for this insight.
Christ continues in the above context with a second representative scenario: “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.” (Matt 5:40) In this next example we are being sued, evidently in a Jewish court where the “Eye for an Eye” concept of Mosaic Law is being applied, and the plaintiff wins and is awarded our coat; others judging the case have examined the details and concluded that we are in the wrong and that the right and fair thing is to give them our coat (one of the two garments generally worn in ancient Israel: a lighter garment like a shirt or a tunic). In such situations Jesus is evidently saying that we should go above and beyond what the Law of Justice strictly calls for in righting the wrong we have done; we should give up more than the Law calls for and voluntarily offer them our cloak as well (the commonly worn outer garment), not merely settle for an even compensation when making our amends.
Christ continues with a third example: “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” (Mt 5:41) In the days of ancient Israel’s Roman occupation it was permissible under civil law for a Roman soldier to require a private citizen to help him carry his soldierly burdens for about a mile. Such laws did not allow the soldier to commandeer the citizen and make him a slave for a day, but provided for moderate assistance when the soldier was in need. “Compel” in this sense evidently then means that the citizen has a moral obligation to obey civil law and assist the soldier when requested. However, in a spirit of actually being helpful in such a circumstance, in showing respect for civil servants and leaders even when they are unpopular, it is appropriate for the servant of God to “go the extra mile” … to evince a spirit of genuine helpfulness rather than mere grudging compliance when assisting those who might not otherwise deserve or expect it.
So Christ is presenting us with two explicit situations in the immediate context which imply that there is some type of moral obligation involved in our response, and He is encouraging us to do more than what is required of us by the mere justice of the Law. Whereas the Law does not necessarily require us to go above and beyond in fulfilling our duties and righting our wrongs, merely requiring a just and even compensation (“an eye for an eye”), and whereas teachers of the letter of the law may justify a kind of self-serving nit-picking to ensure that we are not overcharged in response when we have an obligation to others, Christ is encouraging us to move beyond mere justice and exhorting us to remove all doubt about our holy character and godly affections in the eyes of those we have harmed or have an obligation to serve. In such cases the loss of additional property or time in our response to moral duty is inconsequential in comparison to the command to actively love our neighbors as ourselves, maintaining a good name and displaying a godly character, which are rather to be chosen than great riches. (Pr 22:1, Ec 7:1)
We may also finally observe that the traditional interpretation of turn the other cheek suggests that we are to actually invite abuse, to welcome harm to ourselves … it demands that we intentionally reposition ourselves to make it convenient and easy for others to harm us even more than they already have. If this harming is sinful on the part of our oppressors then we are inviting them to sin rather than resisting them and encouraging them to stop sinning. This is not only damaging to ourselves, but it is ensnaring our oppressors even more, training them in their maliciousness and rewarding them in it. This is not love … this is outright foolishness … even if ignorantly endured for the sake of Christ. The only reasonable way to understand the text is in a context where there is a legitimate moral insensitive in our being willing to endure additional harm to ourselves, when doing so can be viewed as promoting a greater good within that context.
With this full scriptural and cultural context in mind it is much easier to understand that turn the other cheek means to go above and beyond the call of mere justice in our moral obligations. We should not resist evil by refusing to incur additional inconvenience or make more than compensatory recompense when trying to make amends or right a wrong. If we have insulted someone or publicly harmed their character in some way, such that they are justified in punishing us with a slap of the left hand to the face, then by all means … turn to them the left cheek also; submit to a degree of humiliation that significantly exceeds what you are justly due. Let no one question your sincerity or your willingness to live in peace and integrity with others; go above and beyond the call of duty in such things.
From a thorough investigation and consideration of the context then it is clear that Christ is not requiring or even commending a pacifist mentality in response to cruelty or injustice, and this conclusion is consistent with the whole of Scripture. We observe, upon close inspection, that ignoring justice even in our own case is demeaning to justice itself, encouraging and promoting brazen selfishness in others around us, and is therefore unloving to ourselves, to our oppressors, and to anyone else in our proximity who might also be similarly abused as a result of our ignorance, irresponsibility and pacifism. While retaliation is certainly forbidden by God (Pr 20:22, Rom 12:17), we are responsible to defend both ourselves and others when threatened with harm. As Jesus was parting this world He said to His disciples, “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one .” (Lk 22:36) This can only have one basic implication: swords have only a single primary function, and it puts an end to a strict pacifist mentality.
When persecuted for Christ’s sake in this life it is often a better witness to suffer wrong patiently and without resistance (1Pe 2:20, Jas 5:6), yet in common offenses of simple injustice we should generally not be passive, but should require appropriate recompense and justice as generally provided for in Torah and reflected in the civil laws of our culture. This is loving our neighbor as ourselves in every respect. However, when we find ourselves in the wrong, we must consider Christ’s exhortation and go above and beyond the Law in rectifying the situation; we should not be content with mere justice.