Turn the other cheek, go the second mile, give someone your shirt if he asks for your cloak…too often these verses have been interpreted to imply that Christians should be passive, non-responsive and submissive to bullies, oppressors and abusers. Do we fight back instead? No. So how DO we respond? What WOULD Jesus actually do? Come and explore Jesus’ ‘third way’, and what ‘turn the other cheek’ really means.
This article was adapted and edited by Judy Steers from an article entitled “Jesus & Alinsky”by Walter Wink, which appeared in “The Impossible Will Take a Little While:A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear” edited by Paul Loeb
“You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. “
(attributed to Jesus in Matthew 5:38-41, Revised Standard Version)
Many people just automatically dismiss Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence as impractical idealism. And with good reason. “Turn the other cheek” seems to suggest being a passive, Christian doormat , or suggest that we’re supposed to be cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice and violence. Or worse – that we’re supposed to let abusers continue to abuse. “Do not resist one who is evil” seems to tell us to be submissive. “Going the second mile” has become a feel good phrase meaning nothing more than “extend yourself” or “give more help than someone asks for”.
Did you know that these verses are Jesus’ radical call to challenge oppression, unmask evil and bring about change? Jesus is telling us that you don’t have to go along with a bully’s or oppressor’s agenda or let them do what they want.
Look at Jesus’ life. He didn’t do that himself. He did not let oppressors or people in power control the agenda, even if he was powerless to change it. Neither should we. Whatever the source of the misunderstanding, it is neither Jesus nor his teaching, which, when given a fair hearing in its original social context, is arguably one of the most revolutionary political statements ever uttered.
When the court translators working in the hire of King James chose to translate the Greek word antistenai as “Resist not evil,” they were doing something more than rendering Greek into English. They were translating nonviolent resistance into being docile. The Greek word means more than simply to “stand against” or “resist.” It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection. Jesus did not tell his oppressed hearers not to resist evil. His entire ministry is at odds with such a preposterous idea. He is, rather, warning against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of our opposition.
A proper translation of Jesus’ teaching would then be, “Do not retaliate against violence with violence.”
There are three general responses we can make to violence or evil:
(1) be violent back (the response encouraged by most Hollywood movies)
(2) be passive
(3) the third way of strong nonviolence articulated by Jesus.
Human evolution has conditioned us for only the first two of these responses: fight or flight.
To fight back had been the cry of Galileans who had disastrously rebelled against Rome only two decades before Jesus spoke. Jesus and many of his hearers would have seen some of the two thousand of their countrymen crucified by the Romans along the roadsides. Some also would live to experience the horrors of the war against Rome in 66-70 C.E., one of the ghastliest in history. If the option of fighting had no appeal to them, their only alternative was flight: passivity, submission, or, at best, a passive-aggressive recalcitrance in obeying commands. For them no third way existed.
Now we are in a better position to see why King James’ servants translated antistenai as “resist not.” The king would not want people concluding they had any recourse against his or any other sovereign’s unjust policies. Jesus commands us, according to these king’s men, to resist not. Jesus appears to say that submission to monarchial absolutism is the will of God. Most modern translations have meekly followed the King James path.
Neither of the alternatives of flight or fight is what Jesus is proposing. Jesus can’t stand both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options.
The Scholars Version translates antistenai brilliantly: “Don’t react violently against someone who is evil.”
Jesus clarifies his meaning by some brief examples. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Why the right cheek? How does one strike another on the right cheek anyway?
Try it. (Well, just pretend to try it – don’t actually hit someone). People only used their right hands in that world, even if they were left-handed. So, if you were going to hit someone, it would land on their left cheek. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. As the Dead Sea Scrolls specify, even gesturing with the left hand carried the penalty of ten days penance.
So, the only way you could hit someone on the right cheek was to hit them with the back of your right hand. You’re just not allowed to use your left hand at all.
A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. In that day, masters backhanded slaves; husbands did it to wives; parents to children; men to women; Romans to Jews. Yes this is shocking to read today, but remember – all these stories were told in a particular time and place, and that matters to how we are supposed to read them.
So, Jesus isn’t talking about a fight between people who are equal. He’s talking about what happens when someone tries to humiliate you. This is an attempt to bully or humiliate someone or try to “put someone in their place”. If you hit someone on their right cheek, you were declaring them to be beneath you. You couldn’t hit people who were like you in this way – if you did the fine was huge, and it was ten times more for hitting with the back of your hand. If you hit an ‘underling’ there was no penalty at all.
Who was listening to Jesus when he was saying this? He was talking to people who are victims – people in unequal relations, where retaliation would be just suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission. They have been forced to stifle their inner outrage at the dehumanizing treatment they have received in a hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and by the guardians of imperial occupation.
Why then does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of power to humiliate them.
The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, social position) does not alter that. You cannot demean me.”
Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how can he now hit the other cheek? He cannot backhand it with his right hand. (try to hit someone on their left cheek with the back of your right hand – you can’t really do it without dislocating your shoulder!) If he hits with a fist, he acknowledges the other person as an equal. Because the whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and inequality.
The Powers That Be, or bullies, literally stand on their dignity. Nothing takes away their potency faster than being made fun of. By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seize the initiative, even where structural change is not possible. This message, far from being a counsel of perfection unattainable in this life, is a practical, strategic measure for empowering the oppressed. The person who is being struck is basically saying “I’m giving you two choices here; you can either shame yourself, or you HAVE to acknowledge me as an equal – your choice!
You might be thinking to yourself “so, I’m supposed to turn my cheek and let someone belt me again?” No. Jesus illustration was relevant to that time and place where physical violence had strict social consequences. The same is not true today. Most of what Jesus said at any time is an illustration to make a point. Jesus IS saying (in effect) “do not be robbed of your dignity. Expose injustice and oppression. Do not be cowed by people who try to instill fear but stand up and resist them with dignity and self-respect.”
on.anglican.ca/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/dscn3664-375×500.jpg” alt=”A mile marker on a Roman road in Capernaum” width=”300″ height=”400″ />
Another of Jesus’ examples, the one about going the second mile, also has a back-story from that time period. It was against the law for Roman soldiers to force people to do excessive labour. A soldier could impress a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it severe penalties under military law.
To this proud but subjugated people Jesus does not counsel revolt. One does not “befriend” the soldier, draw him aside, and drive a knife into his ribs. Jesus was keenly aware of the futility of armed revolt against Roman imperial might. He minced no words about it.
But why walk the second mile? Does this mean we’re supposed to be let people abuse us? Or “aid and abet the enemy?” Not at all.
Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack (sixty-five to eighty-five pounds in full gear). You say, “Oh no, let me carry it another mile.”
Normally he has to coerce your kinsmen to carry his pack; now you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther then you should? Are you planning to file a complaint? To create trouble?
Imagine the hilarious situation of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew, “Aw, come on, please give me back my pack!” The humor of this scene may escape those who picture it through sanctimonious eyes. But Jesus’ hearers, many of whom would have been in exactly that situation sometimes, would have found it pretty hilarious and would have delighted in the prospect of making their oppressor’s uncomfortable.
Some readers may object to the idea of discomfiting the soldier or embarrassing someone. But can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions? There is, admittedly, the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation. There is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice.
Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.
Jesus was not content merely to empower the powerless, however. Jesus did not advocate non-violence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy but as a just means of opposing the enemy in such a way as to hold open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just as well.
Even if nonviolent action does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor, it does affect those committed to it. As Martin Luther King, Jr. attested, it gives them new self-respect and calls on strength and courage they did not know they had. To those with power, Jesus’ advice to the powerless may seem paltry. But to those whose lifelong pattern has been to cringe, bow, and scrape before their masters, to those who have internalized their role as inferiors, this small step is momentous.
Jesus’ Third Way
* Seize the moral initiative.
* Find a creative alternative to violence.
* Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person.
* Meet force with ridicule or humor.
* Break the cycle of humiliation.
* Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position.
* Expose the injustice of the system or the relationship.
* Take control of the power dynamic.
* Shame the oppressor into repentance.
* Stand your ground.
* Force the Powers into decisions for which they are not prepared.
* Recognize your own power.
* Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate.
* Force the oppressor to see you in a new light.
* Deprive the oppressor of a situation where force is effective.
* Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws.
It is too bad Jesus did not provide fifteen or twenty more examples since we do not tend toward this new response naturally. And, a lot of his specific examples were for his time and place, and don’t really make sense to us in our time and culture. These stories from more recent times might help engrave it more deeply in our minds:
In Alagamar, Brazil, a group of peasants organized a long-term struggle to preserve their lands against attempts at illegal expropriation by national and international firms (with the connivance of local politicians and the military). Some of the peasants were arrested and jailed in town. Their companions decided they were all equally responsible. Hundreds marched to town. They filled the house of the judge, demanding to be jailed with those who had been arrested.
The judge was finally obliged to send them all home, including the prisoners.
During the Vietnam War, one woman claimed seventy-nine dependents on her United States income tax, all Vietnamese orphans, so she owed no tax. They were not legal dependents, of course, so were disallowed.
No, she insisted, these children have been orphaned by indiscriminate United States bombing; we are responsible for their lives. She forced the Internal Revenue Service to take her to court. That gave her a larger forum for making her case. She used the system against itself to unmask the moral indefensibility of what the system was doing. Of course she “lost” the case, but she made her point.
During World War II, when Nazi authorities in occupied Denmark promulgated an order that all Jews had to wear yellow armbands with the Star of David, the king made it a point to attend a celebration in the Copenhagen synagogue. He and most of the population of Copenhagen donned yellow armbands as well. His stand was affirmed by the Bishop of Sjaelland and other Lutheran clergy. The Nazis eventually had to rescind the order.
Have you heard of two Canadian teenagers who did exactly the same thing, and started the Wear Pink anti-bullying campaign? Read this from the CBC website:
Two Nova Scotia students are being praised across North America for the way they turned the tide against the bullies who picked on a fellow student for wearing pink.
The victim — a Grade 9 boy at Central Kings Rural High School in the small community of Cambridge — wore a pink polo shirt on his first day of school. Bullies harassed the boy, called him a homosexual for wearing pink and threatened to beat him up.
Two Grade 12 students — David Shepherd and Travis Price — heard the news and decided to take action. “I just figured enough was enough,” said Shepherd…
Read the whole story here: from the CBC website
Look at the Pink shirt day website (pinkshirtday.ca)
It is important to repeat such stories to extend our imaginations for creative nonviolence. Since it is not a natural response, we need to learn it. Tell each other stories about it. We need models, and we need to practice nonviolence in our daily lives if we ever hope to resort to it in crises.
This article is adapted and edited from a chapter from “The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear” edited by Paul Loeb (Basic Books) This book was named the #3 political book of Fall 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. The full original piece is entitled “Jesus and Alinsky” and can be found here.
Why do we adapt articles on our website?
Because our audience is teenagers and those who work with them. Sometimes we re-write pieces- especially academic papers – to make them more accessible to a teen audience. We hope that this abbreviated article encourages you to go to the original article, learn more, engage more deeply with these ideas and talk about it in your church, your camp, your youth group, school or college.
Walter Wink’s newest book is Jesus and Nonviolence: The Third Way (Fortress Press, 2003).