Defiantly Turning the Other Cheek

On Twitter last week in the aftermath of the whole Porter situation someone mentioned the issue of turning the other cheek. Now first off I don’t think in any legitimate interpretation of turning the cheek it means submitting to abuse particularly spousal abuse. I know there is sadly a strong thread in the Jewish, Christian, & Islamic tradition that doesn’t see this as horrific as it is. That is men who justify running a home like a corrupt totalitarian government on the basis of a few scriptures. However that’s clearly not what Christ taught and certainly isn’t what turning the cheek means. Fortunately I got into an interesting discussion on the issue with Zina Peterson. She brought up an interpretation I’d honestly never seen before.[1]

The normal interpretation of Jesus’ remarks is that he’s trying to get people past retributive justice. The idea is that we are to want the best even for our enemies. From a contemporary gospel perspective we recognize that they are our brothers and sisters who have forgotten who they were. While they are doing evil, often violent things, this is in part because they haven’t been touched by the truth.

Tied to this is a notion of not valuing the self. Not in the way an abused person often comes to feel worthless. Rather in the sense that saving others is more important than our own feelings of justice due to wrongs against us. It’s almost a Buddhist sense of focusing on others with love from a position of strength where we lose the self in that love. Christ’s own sacrifice where he freely submitted to the authorities and allowed himself to suffer egregious violence and death is the archetype of this view. As such Matthew 5 and Luke 6 are a kind of foreshadowing of what is to come as Christ puts this in practice to save even those who wrong him.

An obvious problem with this approach is the old problem of when one should stop wrongs and when one should submit to them. The New Testament isn’t very clear on that point. (IMO)

Zina’s interpretation is slightly different. It sees non-violence as an act of defiance. For those familiar with Ghandi’s non-violent methods to gain Indian independence, this is somewhat similar. Non-violence almost becomes a quasi-violent way of reacting to violence. It’s hard not to think of bad Rocky movies where Rocky is saying, “not so tough. Hit me again.” That’s the general idea. Someone slaps you and you turn the cheek to say, try it again.

There’s more to it though. Walter Wink puts it like this:

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Why the right cheek? A blow by the right fist in that right handed world would land on the left cheeck of the opponent. An open-handed slap would also strike the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. Even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days’ penance. The only way one could naturally strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand. We are dealing here with insult, not a fistfight. The intention is clear not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. […]

A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would invite retribution. The only normal response would be cowering submission.

The idea is that by turning the cheek you’re not being submissive, but are taking up power by saying they can’t have the effect they want. Jesus’ comments are a type of empowering oneself through non-violence.

Now this isn’t as far from the typical interpretation as it may seem. In both cases the abuser is robbed of power and the abused is exercising power. The main difference is in terms of defiance.

Rather than make my own argument here I’m curious as to what you think of this reading and its problems. I’d throw in that where these teachings become hardest is in egregious violence such as what we find in Alma 14. There the women and children converts of Alma and Amulek are burnt alive.[2] It is interesting trying to think through that narrative in terms of the passages about turning the other cheek.

  1. Twitter being Twitter it’s hard to read the thread in a straightforward way. The discussion started with Zina saying, “it does not mean submission. It means defiance.”
  2. As an aside, I think there are some reasons to see the religion of Nehor here as a kind of syncretic religion tied to traditional Mayan beliefs. This may be a cult oriented around a Xiuhtecuhtli like figure who had human sacrifice through fire. (Although to be fair there are those like Karl Taube who see this as only a feature of late postclassical belief)

27 comments for “Defiantly Turning the Other Cheek

  1. Having worked with domestic violence victims in a women’s shelter, the women asked me about this idea because it had been used as a weapon against many of them as proof they should stay and submit to another beating. So, I told them that it means you do not return violence for violence. But that does not rule out any nonviolent means of dealing with it, such as divorce. So, really, Christ is saying don’t make the situation worse by returning violence for violence. Notice that Christ didn’t say to stay and get polverized over and over. Many of then had tried hitting back, or even hitting first as a way to get their say in before the beating. Seeing as the beating was coming anyway, they might as well get the pleasure of the first punch. But that did nothing but give them momentary satisfaction. The solution is to pack your stuff when he is not home and head for the nearest women’s shelter and file for divorce.

    After years of seeing women return over and over to the abusive situation because the abuser promises to do better, I have become a strong believer in forgiving from a distance, say three states and two years.

  2. I heard the same explanation that was given by Walter Wink in a BYU Religion class in 1989. The teacher specifically pointed out that Christ was talking about “insult, not injury.” He then went on to totally debunk the idea that a woman must put up with abuse based on this scripture. Of course, the professor was Stephen Robinson (“Believing Christ”).

  3. The “defiant” interpretation doesn’t match up all that well with the parallel verses that follow, and feels like a made-up add-on. Giving up the cloak to go along with the (court-ordered) surrender of the coat could be done defiantly, but how does anyone walk a second mile defiantly? Maybe like Cool Hand Luke spreading tar. And then, “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.” What sort of defiance do we want to turn that into, as an expression of Christianity?

  4. John, I actually just read something recently that does give more credence to the idea. My understanding was that by law, roman soldiers could ask any Roman subject (Jews included) to carry their packs for up to a mile. If the soldier made the person walk any further, the soldier was in violation of the law. So by walking the extra mile, one would be defying roman law and showing compassion.

  5. Turning the other cheek is a de facto Christian response…until it comes to evil. And this we do not seem to understand.

    The one thing you DO NOT forgive is evil. In fact, if you love God you must hate evil (Psalms 97.10). And if you do forgive it, you must be the victim of it. If you are forgiving evil on another’s behalf who has been victimized by it, or if you are demanding victims of it forgive their persecutors without having been touched with it yourself, you are a fool, and maybe (and usually) even a complicit fool. I shudder to think how many in Mormon ecclesiastia do not understand this.

    Meanwhile, for all the good Ghandi did, he told the Jews suffering under the Nazis to not return the offense. His view was to turn the other cheek. He was wrong. And everyone was wrong who thinks like him in this context.

    So turn the cheek when someone is rude, greedy, and sinful, but when they start perpetrating evil (child sexual abuse, rape, murder, etc.) then you hang the SOB. If their victims want to forgive so be it, but everyone else must seek justice. And if we do not, our theology of forgiveness is vanity.

  6. Clark Goble, this is a very bold and appropriate post. I appreciate the POV of women in particular on this. I don’t have guidance for others on this subject at this point in my life. I’ve spent 27 years becoming aware of and trying to surrender the anger and violence in myself. I may face the consequences of such for the remainder of my life.

    I thought I was seeking justice; I was wrong. Like Saul of Tarsus, Alma the Younger, and the people of King Limhi, I had to surrender, to be humble, compelled mostly by circumstance. Out of that surrender came a transformation, and a realization that faith, hope, and charity are not just aspirations.

    To learn these 3 attributes are why I came to this earth. These are the attributes that allow us, as Paul said, to see the Lord “as he is, for we shall be like him.” I have learned my life is a vision quest, and vision quests are intensely personal. I walk the path I am guided to walk, and I respect others walking their own path.

    For me, violence was a tool of compulsion. The Lord does NOT use compulsary means to accomplish his plan. I eschew violence, but that is my choice; others may choose for themselves. Peace, y’all.

  7. My thought on “turn the other cheek” is that it’s limited to two chances. If someone insults you once, you give them the benefit of the doubt. Respond compassionately by turning the other cheek. Sometimes a soft answer really does turn away wrath. But people only have two cheeks. You don’t give the benefit of the doubt after the second time. Christ didn’t tell people to turn the other cheek until they’re spinning like a top.

  8. Melinda, Jesus elsewhere says we should forgive 77 times 7.

    Let me be clear that I’m not sure this is something I am good at. Yes some things are easy to forgive. But could I respond the way Jesus did at his trial? Probably not. If someone was violent to me it’d be quite hard to turn the other cheek. That said I recognize that solving the evil is important as well. We play up Jesus somewhat passively (or in the other reading nonviolently defiant) responding to the violence against him and false accusations. Yet at the same time the same gospel narratives have their eschtological aspect. Jesus is coming again to destroy the wicket. Jesus is the same Jehovah spoken of in Isaiah bringing justice against the nations. There is a tension at work that makes things more complex than they appear at first.

    John, solving evil makes things tricky. I think the problem is whether we do it out of a kind of sense of retribution as justice or whether we do it to make the world better. I think frequently we put retribution above solutions. Certainly our media in many ways celebrates it. The traditional action star or empowered woman is seen as such based upon their ability to do retributive violence. This is constantly repeated and celebrated in our films. (There are exceptions – Captain America Civil War was interesting precisely because this was undermined)

    The interesting issue with all of this is again Alma 14 where Alma and Amulek are prevented from using their power to rescue the victims. On the face of it this seems unjust – especially when a little later they do exercise power to kill the leaders of Ammonihah and the Lamanites then come in to conquer the rest. Why the delay? In that case it was to make their destruction just it appears. But it’s hard not to think through Alma 14 in terms of Jesus in these hard sayings. My sense is that this is all to clear a space where people can be free, be told what is wicked, and then have a just decision.

  9. Giving up cloak and cost would leave one essentially naked, something that I think would have been anathema to his audience. I always thought it was just “give more than you are called upon to give.” Now I am not so sure what to think.

  10. So far I’m thinking this dilemma, like most true human dilemmas, does not have a simple solution. As I contemplated this OP, I remembered the “people of Ammon,” former Lamanites who entered into a covenant of non-violence as part of their repentance, and who were counseled to keep this covenant even as a war with supposedly clear moral ground threatened their fellow Nephites.

    Perhaps, as with many situations, what is right and what is just can most appropriately be determined by the context; no “universal law” necessarily exists to cover all contexts.

  11. Lily, just to confirm, Walter Wink was simply being quoted, right? I can’t imagine him ever having been invited to teach at BYU, though that would have been awesome.

  12. “To bear with patience wrongs done to oneself is a mark of perfection, but to bear with patience wrongs done to someone else is a mark of imperfection and even of actual sin.”
    — Thomas Aquinas

  13. John, that’s kind of my problem with the defiance reading. But it is admittedly ambiguous. I tend to read it as love your enemies and try to convert them. That is don’t be so angry at them that you can’t remember they’re your brothers and sisters. On the other hand, what happens matters and solving what happens it a big deal.

    Jerry, ultimately I agree and think living in the spirit rather than by some law is what you have to do to deal with such things.

  14. I hate to bring this up, but to me the quote from Thomas Aquinas demonstrates how little the Constantinian tradition understood about God. Alma and Amulek were given a wonderful/horrible opportunity: to see humans make other humans suffer, and be bound by the rule of divine law not to interfere.

    This is the horrible position the Lord is in; having to witness his children make each other suffer but being bound by divine law not to interfere due to human agency. I realize how tempting it is to think of God being above any law. Certainly there are enough humans who believe they are above law since God is, in their view.

    Why would one think the Lord can expect us to live by divine law to emulate Him if He doesn’t feel bound to live it Himself? I realize I’ve opened up what appears to be a whole other can of worms, but I can’t help it. I felt impelled to say this.

  15. Clark Goble, in your response to my comment, you appear to conflate forgiveness with turning the other cheek. One can forgive from a distance, without making oneself vulnerable to another injury. In some situations, forgiveness means turning the offender over to God for justice and vengeance, while you get far away. Forgiveness does not mean you stay close enough that the offender can slap your face again, either literally or figuratively.

  16. Melinda I completely agree but I was alluding to the frequently discussed issue of “forgetting” as part of forgiving. Of course the forget part isn’t scriptural but is frequently assumed in how forgiveness is discussed. This has been interesting to me for years simply because it’s an other place where there seems an inherent tension. The usual way to balance this which is in line with what you say is Jesus’ statement “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” (Matt 10:16) He goes on talking of violence that would be done to the Christians. So I think what you say is completely correct. God doesn’t ask us to be idiots and submit to abuse unthinkingly. (The overall chapter is basically a warning of a lot of abuse)

  17. Thank you, Clark, and I agree with you that the idea of ‘forgetting’ is a difficult aspect when discussing forgiveness in the context of really bad relationships. I wonder if “forgetting” can be tied to the other person’s repentance, and the efforts to heal the relationship. If someone makes a full and complete change through heart-felt, dedicated repentance that becomes permanent, there may not be any reason to remember who they used to be. I don’t believe that repentance happens as often as we wish it did. I think Laman and Lemuel are a good example of the temporary repentance that can characterize abuse. Laman and Lemual were sorry sometimes, for a little while, but it didn’t lead to long-lasting change.

  18. Melinda W, I see Laman and Lemuel similarly, but I also see myself in your comment. I may have sincerely repented, but the fact remains, affirmed by a general logic/reasoning university class I took recently, past behavior remains the generally reliable predictor of future behavior. With this in mind, perhaps forgiveness, even from a distance, is a form of grace humans give each other.

    Therefore, grace through forgiveness perhaps is not equated entirely with trust, may involve separation, but must at some point find physical demonstration. At this point I think of a similar sibling rivalry in descendants of Joseph, between Jacob and Esau. Eventually their relationship saw a joyful reunion with the past left behind.

  19. Melinda I don’t think the “forget” part is resolvable. Rather I think it reduces to don’t focus on it. Which as we all know is a horrible thing to do which keeps victims from being able to move on with their life. But as I said the way it’s often is discussed just isn’t scriptural although GAs have brought it up at times. To me forget implies act as if it never happened which seems just inherently wrong. Not focusing on it making it a canker for ones soul just seems an inherently important thing for us to do to both have a healthy mental state but also be able to be receptive to the spirit.

    I will say though that misunderstanding about “forgive and forget” often causes innumerable problems for people. Both leaders who expect those abused to ignore the presence of their abuser but also those who put themselves in dangerous places. However a certain bit of “I’ll leave judgment to God and recognize leaders sometimes err” is also helpful. Especially when you see people who had little punishment and clearly are behaving in the same way. I can recall someone who was in a Bishopric as a counselor all the while using hard drugs and so forth. You tell the appropriate people, warn people who might be in hard in certain circumstances, then leave it to the Lord. There simply no way fallible people can catch all the egregious sinners in the Church. So Jesus’ warning ought be heeded even as we work with our fellow saints. Wolves in sheep’s clothing simply was a fact of life at the time of Jesus, at the time of Paul, and today.

  20. Clark, I see your point. I guess I think of these issues from the “junkie”/perpetrator side more than the injured side, and the side of those having a vested interest in protecting the injured. Your point is in part why there are sex offender registries. I just can’t help thinking of the practice of the scarlet letter, or those under rabbinic Judaism marked ritually unclean as pariah, or even Roman infamia. At what point is a person forgiven not just personally and ecumenically, but socially, in such a way that both offender and injured can move on?

  21. Clark, I entirely agree with this statement of yours: “To me forget implies act as if it never happened which seems just inherently wrong.” It does seem wrong to act as if nothing ever happened, dishonest even, like putting on a pretense.

    I know I haven’t been capable of completely forgetting things that have happened, no matter how much I’ve forgiven. The memory is still there, but the pain is less. Perhaps forgetting means more that it’s possible to forget the pain, while remembering the event.

    Jerry brought up Joseph who was sold into Egypt. Joseph went through terrible suffering, and neither forgiveness nor repentance could ever make those events unhappen. His brothers felt guilty for decades. The reconciliation that we talk about so much in Sunday School doesn’t catch the nuances of the actual reunion. Given Joseph’s closeness to God, I’m going to assume he forgave his brothers long before he ever saw them again. Just before his brother’s show up, Joseph exults that God “hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.” Genesis 41:51. But Joseph didn’t forget what his brothers had done. When they come to buy grain, Joseph puts them through tests of character, treating them roughly and unfairly to see how they would respond, and eventually testing to see how they would treat Benjamin before he admitted who he was. Then the eventual reconciliation didn’t put things back the way they were. Joseph stayed in Egypt as Pharaoh’s right hand man. His brothers became shepherds in Goshen. Joseph was never the little brother again.

    The constant strain of the event is most evident after Jacob dies. Joseph’s brothers get scared Joseph will now get revenge, and they apparently lie to Joseph, and say Jacob commanded him to forgive his brothers. Genesis 50:16-17. Joseph replies “Fear not: for am I in the place of God?” He tells his brothers that he won’t judge them, and he testifies about how he has peace about what they did. But no one ever forgets it. It changed too much of their lives. But Joseph’s testimony about how he sees God’s hand in their evil act, by testifying that God used the event to save peoples’ lives in the famine, shows that he’s forgotten the pain and hatred of it.

    I believe there are some sins and trespasses you can entirely forget upon full repentance and forgiveness. But other sins change your whole life, and/or the life of the person you sinned against. You never can forget those, even if you want to.

  22. Clark writes, “John, solving evil makes things tricky. I think the problem is whether we do it out of a kind of sense of retribution as justice or whether we do it to make the world better. I think frequently we put retribution above solutions.”

    There are macro and micro solutions and applications. Truthfully, I don’t care what motivations people had when they stormed Normandy Beach. I just care that they stormed Normandy Beach. Did some want to the right the world? Or did they just want vengeance on behalf of a dead brother or father? I honestly don’t care. Whatever will get them on the beach is what is needed.

    So much focus is put on right intentions, but right intentions, void of wisdom, ends up causing as much suffering as vindictive ones. Imagine being someone like Elizabeth Smart, sitting in Sacrament Meeting, while some Bishop or Stake President piously goes on about forgiving everyone no matter what (a scenario I have witnessed many times). They have the best of intentions, but they are offering a person like ES nothing but a form of psychological abuse.

    Back to the OP. Every principle taught in the scriptures is subject to macro generalizations but micro adjustments. There are no “no matter whats” in the micro, and therefore such preaching is of little help. I wish our culture would recognize this. Turn the other cheek in the macro, and if you are personally involved. If someone else is involved, and the offense is great, then seek justice. I’m actually a little less concerned as to the motivation behind the corrective, because odds are the corrective is not really done in time to help the innocent.

  23. John clearly consequences matter. But they can’t be all that matters. Further we have to acknowledge our place of finitude. That is we don’t always know who is in our audience nor what they’re capable of dealing with. This is typically why there are inner teachings. But in this day and age such things aren’t permitted. Thus we frequently end up with lowest common denominator discourse.

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