“But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.” Jesus – Matthew 5:39
Turning the other cheek is easily misunderstood.
The story is told of how the great Australian social reformer and evangelist, Rev Bob Hammond, was once confronted with this verse by a heckler. As Rev Hammond preached on the tough streets of Sydney around the time of the Great Depression, the heckler called from the crowd:
“If I was to come up there and hit ya in the face, would ya turn the other cheek?”
Rev Hammond confirmed that he would. So the man walked through the crowd and hit him in the face. Rev Hammond – true to his word – made no effort to retaliate and went to continue with his message.
Not content, the attacker struck him on the face again, and this time the Rev Hammond looked at the man and said, “Jesus never said what I was to do when being struck on the other cheek.”
And with that, the large preacher who played in a premiership-winning Essendon football team as a young man, gave his assailant a hiding. Or so the story goes…
The illustration ‘turn the other cheek’ which Jesus gave as an alternative to seeking revenge is rarely done well.
Many when who think they are ‘turning the other cheek’ are actually just turning away, either in bitterness and smug superiority or in fear and self-loathing.
In fact Jesus is offering us a position of self-respect and powerfulness. By refusing to treat ‘the evil person’ in the manner in which we have been treated, we guard our hearts and character. By refusing to simply withdraw we have shown that we believe in a better Way.
Remember Jesus was speaking to an occupied people who may well have found themselves slapped or asked to carry a Roman soldier’s load or hand over their tunic. To turn the cheek or carry the load not one mile but two or give their coat as well as their tunic was perhaps a way of remaining powerful, unbowed; a kind of reverse non-violent protest, a way of living ‘unoccupied’.
But it is not a blanket statement suggesting that we should allow ourselves to be harmed and then to remain in harm’s way. There may well be room for a response such as Rev Hammond’s above! Or it might mean remaining open and vulnerable – as implied by the picture of turning one’s cheek – but from a safe place where justice can be sought – without adding endless anger and bitterness.
Somewhere in our understanding of this phrase we will sooner or later have to admit that Jesus intends for us to forgive. Not to look down on our attacker, not to look down on ourselves, but to look to God for the grace so as not to hold the hurt to ourselves any longer.
For some this may be a very long time coming, this symbolic turning of the cheek, this turning away of the wound and presenting ourselves as whole again, this moving past and beyond. But when it’s time, when you are strong enough, when you know in your heart it is right, turn.
Jesus may have had in mind the lament of Jeremiah that became his own lament, as he spoke to those who were hurting and asked them to hope again:
“Let them lie face down in the dust,
for there may be hope at last.
Let them turn the other cheek to those who strike them
and accept the insults of their enemies
For no one is abandoned
by the Lord forever.” Lamentations 3:29-31