In a recent discussion about an offensive work of art which some Christians took action about, one person said that turning the other cheek would be a better way to go. Admittedly Christians can debate what is the most appropriate response to something like blasphemous art in public places, but such an appeal to the words of Jesus can often be misplaced.
In Matthew 5:39 we find Jesus saying this: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” The appeal for believers to simply turn the other cheek in any number of situations is commonly heard. But it is important to ascertain just what exactly this verse is – and is not – saying.
The immediate context of course is Matt. 5:38-42, which in turn is part of the Sermon on the Mount. In it Jesus also speaks of going the second mile. He contrasts all this with what they had heard about an “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth”.
It seems like Jesus is making a radical break with the Old Testament principle of lex talionis, and it even seems that he is saying one can never resist evil in any form. But a closer look at this text, and other New Testament texts, makes it clear that this is not quite the case.
Can a Christian resist evil in some circumstances? Can the use of force ever be justified for the individual believer? Must one always accept insult, injury and refuse to protect or defend oneself? These questions naturally arise when looking at this passage.
Indeed, some take it even further. Some understand this text to mean that evil cannot be opposed in any way. It is not just about the use of physical force, but any kind of resistance to evil. Of course by that extreme understanding, Wilberforce, for example, was wrong – and unbiblical – to resist the evil of slavery.
Or in a bigger context, the allies were wrong to resist Hitler and the Nazis. Of course most pacifists believe exactly this. They think all resistance to all evil is out of bounds – at least in terms of using any force or violence. We are to simply endure it, not fight it.
But as we follow the important principle of comparing Scripture with Scripture, and seek to understand the full biblical revelation, it seems that we can conclude that the use of force, the place for self-defence, and even justifiable killing, are all permitted in Scripture.
I have written about these matters elsewhere. For example, when is it possible for one to kill, and do it justly? See here:
If we take the Bible as a whole, it is clear that governments are ordained by God to use force to resist evil (Rom. 13:1-7). Utter non-resistance to all evil is therefore not what is being called for here. Indeed, we are commanded elsewhere in Scripture to that very thing: to resist evil, as in James 4:7 and 1 Peter 5:9.
And as most commentators recognise, when Jesus is talking about turning the other cheek, he means not so much a physical attack but a personal insult. That is the real issue that needs to be focused on as we seek to interpret this passage correctly. Indeed, it seems a legal context is especially in view here. As Robert Guelich comments, this text is mainly about not seeking “legal vindication against an evil person”.
He continues, “This understanding becomes most obvious when one examines the Old Testament background of the premise. Of the three Old Testament parallels, Deut 19:21 fits 5:38-39a as though tailormade. . . . To oppose connotes legal opposition in court; an evil person refers to one’s adversary who is in the wrong.”
Indeed, it is worth looking at lex talionis a bit more. The phrase “eye for an eye…” is found in Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; and Deut. 21:19. D.A. Carson explains its significance. First, it was restrictive: it “was an excellent tool for eliminating blood feuds and inter-tribal warfare.” Second, this law was given to the Jews as a nation: “The law was not designed to be discharged by individuals swept up in personal vendettas, but by the judiciary.”
So it was a legitimate principle, but was being wrongly used by the time of Jesus. As John Stott remarks, “the scribes and Pharisees evidently extended this principle of just retribution from the law courts (where it belongs) to the realm of personal relationships (where it does not belong).”
And as mentioned, the slapping and turning of cheeks seems to be mostly about being willing to put up with a personal insult. It says nothing about defending a third party from unjust aggression. Thus if you and your wife are strolling through the park, and beset by a few thugs, Jesus is not commanding you to do nothing to protect your wife.
As Craig Blomberg explains, “Striking a person on the right cheek suggests a backhanded slap from a typically right-handed aggressor and was a characteristic Jewish form of insult. Jesus tells us not to trade such insults even if it means receiving more. In no sense does v. 39 require Christians to subject themselves or others to physical danger or abuse, nor does it bear directly on the pacifism-just war debate.”
And the verse about giving your cloak as well, also speaks to a legal context. Blomberg again: “Verse 40 is clearly limited to a legal context. One must be willing to give as collateral an outer garment – more than what the law could require, which was merely an inner garment (cf. Exod 22:26-27).”
So at best these several verses refer to legal non-resistance by an individual who has received personal insult, or perhaps injury. It has nothing to do, for example, with using the law to help prevent a brothel or drug cartel opening up in your neighbourhood.
It has nothing to do with the right of the state to use force to deal with wrongdoers, both on a national and international level. And it has nothing to do with being some wimpy doormat who allows everyone to run roughshod over you.
As Craig Keener puts it, “While Jesus’ teaching cannot be conformed to the agendas of those who advocate violent revolution, no matter how just their cause, neither does it mean total passivity in the face of evil. It does not mean that an abused wife must remain in the home in the face of abuse; it does not mean that God expects people being massacred to remain instead of fleeing (compare Mt 2:13-20; 10:23). James, an advocate of peace (Jas 2:11; 3:13-18; 4:1-2), was unrestrained in his denunciation of those who oppressed the poor (Jas 5:1-6).”
A little bit of historical, cultural, theological and biblical background can help us to avoid improper and even dangerous interpretations of a passage such as this. While we don’t want to minimise the revolutionary impact of the words of Jesus here, neither do we want to turn them into something which he never intended.