On turning the other cheek (and how it doesn't mean what you think it means)

Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy

Note: In response to a thoughtful but critical comment on this article, I wrote a followup piece called Blessed are the Poor to clarify some of my thoughts on nonviolent resistance and how it aligns with the Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 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. (Matthew 5:38-39)

In just one tiny section of the Sermon on the Mount, we have three sayings back-to-back, each one pithy and profound and yet so often misquoted and misunderstood. In a previous article, I explored the idea of going the second mile. Since this has remained one of my most popular pieces ever, this followup article has been a long time coming. Just like with the first one, I’ll keep it short and to the point.

The background

First off, we need to pay attention to the text. This verse is so often misquoted as, “If someone slaps you on the cheek, turn the other cheek.” But that is not what it says! It says the right cheek. Why does the author of these tight, quippy little sayings feel the need to include which cheek it is?

In Jesus's culture, people were right handed. There was no other option, because the left hand was unclean. Imagine, then, that you are facing a right-handed person, and he slaps you on your right cheek. How does he do that? He backhands you.

A slap was a great insult, but a backhanded slap was far more demeaning. In the Bava Kamma Mishnah (the traditional Jewish interpretation of the law), a slap incurred a fine of 200 silver coins - but a backhanded slap required a payment of 400, the same amount as for spitting on someone. It was more than violence. It was degrading. It was what you gave to an inferior… or a slave.

The application

Imagine you’re a low class slave in the ancient Roman world. You are powerless. You are marginalized. Your life is not your own. To try to run away would be a death sentence.

Then, one day, like so many other days, your master backhands you. He expects you to cower and whimper and slink off back to your duties. Maybe he expects you to get on your knees and beg forgiveness. But instead, you look him in the eyes and turn your head to put your left cheek forward. You’ve already insulted him by failing to break down, so he has the right (in his mind) to slap you again.

But he can’t slap you with his left hand, because that is unclean for both of you. And he can’t backhand, because your right cheek is away from him. To strike again, his only option is to slap you with the palm of his hand. And this was not the way to slap a slave. This was reserved for equals. If he chooses to slap you again, he is forced to upgrade your status. He has to bump you up to a higher class citizen in order to get his revenge.

This “victory” may seem small, but it isn’t. You have asserted your humanity and reminded the master you are not an object to be owned and controlled. To reiterate what I wrote about the extra mile, the offer of the other cheek was actually a way to unmask the power play, to non-violently subvert the system by playing right into the ridiculousness of it all. And this is not cowardly. It takes great courage. This subversive act flips the power dynamic. By turning the other cheek instead of cowering or striking back, the wounded party brings uncomfortable embarrassment and shame on the aggressor. The oppressive system has been caught with its pants down, and it doesn't know what to do.

The implications

As I write this article, the Black Lives Matter movement has reached a boiling point in the US. Wherever you