What Does “Turn the Other Cheek” Really Mean?

January 13th, 2009 by

On January 10th, VOR posted Dr. Brown’s The Hollow Sound of Anti-Israel Protests article on our Daily Kos diary.  Daily Kos is known as one of the most liberal sites on the net, thus it is no surprise that response to the article in the comments section was quite negative (perhaps vitriolic is the more precise word), with most of the venom directed at Dr. Brown for things unrelated to the article.   One of the more interesting (and less hateful) comment threads involved Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek”, suggesting that as believers in Jesus, we ought never support any side in a war, with nations needing to “turn the other cheek” upon being confronted militarily.  The following is a sampling from the thread:

As your sister in Christ, might I suggest turning the other check is in both party’s interest if they really want this conflict resolved.

by grannyhelen on Sat Jan 10, 2009 at 03:09:58 PM PST

I thought that Christ’s maxim was that if someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other cheek toward them.  I don’t recall him saying, if someone slaps you on one cheek, bludgeon them with a sledge hammer.  Please clarify.
by Leftywingnut on Sat Jan 10, 2009 at 03:24:37 PM PST

I find it sadly amusing that so many so-called self-identified ‘Christians’ have to do all sort of logical gymnastics to twist Christ’s simple and direct language to suit their ends, as opposed to listening in their hearts and reading the specific words on the page.

These same ‘Christians’ love Leviticus when it tells them to persecute gays, but fail to abstain from eating shell-fish, wearing a cotton/poly shirt, or eating a bacon double cheeseburger.

Often times they moan about efforts against public prayer (in government chambers) without acknowledging Christ’s clear directive to pray in private rather than make a public display of their superior piety, ‘like the hypocrites.’

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God.”
by Leftywingnut on Sat Jan 10, 2009 at 03:49:12 PM PST

Are we “do[ing] all sort[s] of logical gymnastics to twist Christ’s simple and direct language to suit [our] end” when we support Israel in their war on terror? We want to obey Jesus in all ways, so what does He want us to do when He commands us to “turn the other cheek”? Should we abstain from defending ourselves from somebody physically attacking us? Should we denounce rather than support nations for defending themselves from terrorists? Consider the following:

Interestingly, while it is not uncommon for anti-missionaries to attack some of these passages, it is often the Jewish background to the passage that elucidates its meaning. Note, for example, that Luke 6:29 states, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also,” but Matthew 5:39, which occurs in the context of legal retaliation (see Matt. 5:38!), provides an important detail: “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Does this mean that if someone breaks into your home and tries to kill your spouse and your kids, you should sit idly by even if you could easily stop them, or, perhaps even turn your family over to the intruder to be brutalized? Does it mean that you don’t call the police or offer any resistance? Of course not. The issue is one of legal retaliation, in this case, for being publicly shamed, which we know because of the words, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek,” implying a backhanded slap against the face. That is to say, a right-handed orientation is assumed in similar legal cases, and, since a right-handed slap would strike the left cheek and a right-handed person would not strike with the left hand, being struck on the right cheek means being struck with the back of the hand.

As Nolland and others have noted, the Mishnah dealt with this very situation in m. B. K. 9:6. To summarize, ‘a slap with the back of the hand calls for twice the payment in recompense for other blows; in terms of dishonor it is on the same level as tearing an ear, plucking out hair, spitting on someone, pulling a cloak off, and loosing a woman’s hair in public.’

Now, it must be remembered that the Mishnah was often dealing with actual laws and procedures, along with legal theory, just as a court today would get into great detail in terms of determining culpability and assessing fines and punishments. That is perfectly understandable as an ongoing application of Torah law. Yeshua (Jesus), however, was saying to his disciples, ‘This is not for you. I’m calling you to something higher. When you are publicly shamed and have the right to exact payment, turn the other cheek. Make yourself vulnerable and don’t try to fight your opponent on his terms. Step higher!’

— Michael L. Brown: Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Volume 4

As is so often the case, taking time to understand the subtleties in the Scriptures, rather than forcing some hyper-literalistic 21st Century application, reveals the truth.

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