By Leah Watkiss
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 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)
This quote from the Sermon on the Mount is often shortened to the cliché “turn the other cheek.” It is a convenient excuse for inaction; a rationalization for being passive and accepting whatever injustices or unfair treatment we witness or experience. It’s the equivalent of saying “just ignore them” with the naïve hope that whatever or whoever it is will just go away.
I used to wonder how Jesus, lover of truth and doer of justice, could tell us to sit back and accept lies and injustice in this manner. But then I was introduced to Dr. Walter Wink’s exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, and my life has never been the same.
Wink starts his exegesis by looking at the phrase, “do not resist an evildoer.” He explains that a more accurate translation of this sentence is “do not retaliate against violence with violence” or “don’t react violently against the one who is evil.” This subtle yet powerful shift in language sets a whole new tone for what follows: rather than being told not to resist, the people gathered to hear Jesus are told not to resist violently.
Wink goes on to examine the phrase “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Why, Wink asks, does Jesus reference the right cheek specifically? The answer is both challenging and enlightening. Jesus lived in a right-handed world where left hands were reserved only for unclean tasks. Therefore, we can assume that the person doing the hitting would have used their right hand. The only way to strike someone on the right cheek with your right hand is a backhanded slap. Such a blow connotes an insult, not a fistfight, and was a normal way to reprimand someone over whom you had power (e.g. masters to slaves, husbands to wives, Romans to Jews). To strike your equal in such a manner was socially and legally unacceptable, carrying with it a huge fine.
With this new understanding of the context Jesus was speaking in, picture the scenario with yourself as the oppressor. You are a wealthy, powerful person whose slave has displeased you in some way. You reprimand your slave with a backhanded slap. The response you expect is the response you have always received from your slaves – the response you yourself would give if someone higher than you treated you the same way. You expect your slave to cower, submit, and slink away. Instead, your slave defiantly turns their other cheek and challenges you to hit them again. What can you do?
You would like to give your slave another backhanded slap to show them their place, but to do that you would have to use your left hand which would admit that your action is unclean. You could hit them on their left cheek, instead, but it would be embarrassing to hit your slave the way you should hit your equal. You’re confused. You don’t know what to do. Flustered, you could order the slave be flogged, but the slave has already made their point. They have shown you that they are a human person with dignity and worth. You don’t own them, you cannot control them, and they do not submit to your rule.
And so, in light of Wink’s insights, Jesus’ instruction not to resist evil and to turn the other cheek transforms from an instruction to accept injustice into a challenge to resist systems of domination and oppression without the use of violence. Rather than ignoring an evil situation and hoping it will go away, Jesus is telling his followers to find creative, active, and nonviolent ways to assert their humanity and God’s love in the world.
As a Christian voice for justice in Canada, it’s important that CPJ and its members embody this understanding of what it means to “turn the other cheek” in our lives and our work. We can do that by always looking for new ways to creatively, actively, and nonviolently challenge systems of exploitation and oppression that cause poverty, inequality, and environmental destruction. As Jesus’ example demonstrates, even when we have no social, political, or economic power, we can still find ways to stand our ground, take control of the power dynamic, and cause people in power to see us in a new light without using violence. To do so is truly to be a citizen for public justice.
Leah Watkiss represents Canada-At-Large on Citizens for Public Justice’s Board of Directors and does peace, justice, and ecological work for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto.