Turn the Other Cheek

In reading Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, I’m being confronted by a biblical-theological condemnation of all violence and an upholding of nonviolence as the true way of following Jesus. It is clear that Jesus advocated nonviolence in 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 someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Mat. 5:38-41)

This passage is generally explained away as an unattainable ideal that Jesus doesn’t actually expect us to follow. After all, it would just turn us into a bunch of wusses and invite people to take advantage of us. Wink cuts against this type of thinking by grounding these words within the context of first-century Palestine, when these words were spoken. He (and we) turn our attention to “turning the other cheek:”

You are probably imaging a blow with the right fist. But such a blow would fall of the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could only be used for unclean tasks; at Qumran, a Jewish religious community of Jesus’ day, to gesture with the left hand meant exclusions fromthe meeting and penance for ten days. To grasp this you must physically try it: how would you hit the other’s right cheek with your right hand? If you have tried it, you willk now: the only feasible blow is a backhand.

The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior Masters backhanded slaves, husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.

…[Jesus] is saying to them, “Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” By turning the cheek, the servant make it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. …The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists …and the last thing the master wishes to do is establish the underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in the relationship. (101-102)

Fascinating stuff. This is about as far from the stereotype of passive pacifism that I can imagine. Next up: the cloak and tunic.

10 responses to “Turn the Other Cheek”

  1. Thanks for the link Ry, that Hauerwas book definitely looks promising.

    As for Wink, I’m really interested to hear what he has to say. He puts nonviolence completely at the heart of basically everything, which is a bit hard to swallow at times, but overall is breathtaking.

  2. Hi Matt – thanks for this reflection. As a person with Mennonite roots who is now a Presbyterian, I am constantly trying to connect my pacifist heritage with social action. Wink’s reflection on dealing with oppressive relationships has given me a lightbulb moment. I especially am intrigued by the idea that when you turn the other cheek, you remain present in the situation, when my tendency would have been to express non-violence by just walking away. I’ll be thinking about this for a while.

  3. I echo Tiffany. I have heard this interpretation of the “Cheek” passage and it is by far the best and hopefully “right” one ;-)
    Bummer that it doesn’t say that we can just smack them back, not hard, but still . . .

  4. Tiffany:

    As you should be able to tell by name, I too have Menno roots, although I find myself in a Vineyard faith expression today. I too have wrestled with my pacifist heritage, from outright rejection, to curiosity, to moving beyond it into a more assertive kind of nonviolence. I’m glad that this seems to have helped you on your journey: I highly recommend you read the whole book!


    Thanks for the comment. I agree that this is the best interpretation that I’ve seen so far. As far as smacking them back, I hear you!

  5. Also, we are a culture that knows little about shame/honour. In Jesus’ time this kind of currency often outweighed gold. Interesting that Jesus suffered the ultimate shaming, and that we follow him.

    And there’s a whole lot more to be said here, but I won’t because I don’t fully understand it yet. =)

  6. Hey Cam, you’re absolutely right about us not understanding a shame/honor culture. This is one of the many reasons why we fail to understand the Arab world.

    And don’t hesitate to say things you don’t fully understand yet: I know I’d never have anything to say then!

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