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.
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.
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.
As I write this article, the Black Lives Matter movement has reached a boiling point in the US. Wherever you look, there is a lot of beauty … and a lot of ugliness. I’m not writing this article to pretend I have a plan of action, because I don’t. Too many people are online right now telling protesters how to protest, even though they have no intentions of going to a protest themselves. I am a firm believer in creative nonviolent resistance, but the key word there is creative. And it’s hard to be creative for others in a context that isn’t your own.
However, this beautiful example of Jesus's creative nonviolence has an interesting parallel to what is happening today. Everywhere I look, I see my Black brothers and sisters asserting their humanity and reminding others they are more than statistics. Sometimes it’s done well; other times not so much - but either way, it is a response to feeling backhanded by society.
To my Black brothers and sisters who were taught that turning the other cheek means accepting injustice without a word of protest: I am sorry.
To the battered wives and abused children who were taught that turning the other cheek means staying and praying until the abuser’s heart is changed: I am sorry.
To all of us who grew up in church hearing “turn the other cheek” was just meant to make us nice, gentle, timid people: I’m sorry.
We cannot make these words less than what they truly are. Jesus gives us nothing less than a starting point for creative nonviolent resistance that will bring transformation. It won’t fix the problems of Empire - that cannot be our goal - but it will change things, and it is a witness to a Kingdom that is categorically different from the Empire, a Kingdom where the poor, oppressed, persecuted, marginalized - and yes, the backhanded - are given seats at the head table.