One of the biggest disappointments for me in the progressive world is that we are still operating out of a retributive justice framework. The desire to see people pay is one of the only things we have in common with fundamentalists. If we want to offer a truly just and generous alternative to that approach, it will take a reimagining of what justice is, and how it can be applied restoratively. It will require a change of goal, from retribution to restoration and transformation. Within this reimagining one of the questions that comes up is what did Jesus mean by “turn the other cheek”?
Here’s a spoiler: I think Jesus’s teaching on “turning the other cheek” might be one of his most misunderstood. I recall hearing a sermon once in which the speaker said (paraphrased), “Jesus said turn the other cheek. Once they hit the other one, then I’m gonna hit back.” I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind.
I’ve also heard lots of folks interpret this as a command to be a doormat, to never stand up for ourselves or resist dehumanization. After all, Jesus says in Matthew 5:38-39:
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.”
That bit right there, you must not oppose, is the culprit that leads some to interpret this as a command to never resist or push back on anyone, for any reason. The good news is that “what we have here is a failure to communicate,” specifically on the part of Bible translators.
The word that is translated as you must not oppose/resist, here is antistenai. This is a compound word, comprised of two words that literally mean to stand (stenai) against (anti). In his book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Walter Wink says that translators often fail to take in to account the way the term was most often used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (called the 'Septuagint'). He writes that it was most used “as a technical term for warfare. It describes the way opposing armies would march toward each other until their ranks met. Then, they would “take a stand,” that is, fight.” Due to this common usage, Wink concludes that the word antistenai “means more here than simply to “opposing/resisting” someone who would harm us. It means “to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in armed insurrection.”
Considering this, I don’t think what Jesus had in mind is that we would be a doormat. I actually think that Jesus is saying, “Don’t resist violently. Instead, here are some strategies for resistance that lead to the possibility of transformation.”
How does turning the other cheek do that? How is it resistance at all? It seems like the opposite of resistance…on the surface. There’s more going on here, though.
In Jesus’s day to be slapped on the right cheek was to be on the receiving end of a backhand. It was the way a Roman soldier would slap a Jewish citizen. It was the way a man would slap a woman or child. It was a way of letting someone who was deemed to be beneath, less than, and powerless know the place they should occupy.
What happens when you turn the other cheek? Interestingly the left hand wouldn’t be used to slap, because it was used for other, unclean, bathroomy things. This means that, in order to slap a second time, on the left cheek, it would require an open handed slap. Which is an action that would occur between equals.
Do you see what Jesus is up to here? He’s not advocating that oppressed people be content in their oppression. He’s teaching his followers, for whom the likelihood of being on the receiving end of a Roman backhand was high, how to resist the dehumanization that act intended. The first slap was intended to deprive them of dignity, but in order to slap the other cheek, the abuser would be forced to acknowledge that they were slapping an equal.
It seems that Jesus’s intent was to not only give his followers a way to assert their dignity and humanity, but it was also to give the Roman soldier (or whoever was in that position of power) an opportunity to rethink their actions. Why am I doing this? Why am I treating someone this way? As Wink puts it:
“Jesus is not advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy's also becoming just also.”
Perhaps the work we have before us today is to think of new and creative ways to resist the dehumanization of empire, without using the empire’s playbook. Because when we play the eye for an eye game, everyone loses. What would happen in the world if we committed ourselves to the work of restorative justice?