This article doesn’t require you be Christian to understand its relevance.  But our Christian friends and/or fans of Jesus might especially enjoy the lesson on the historical Jesus.

I thought it would be fun to offer a little clarification on what is arguably the most misused and abused reference to Nonviolence – Jesus’ teaching to “turn the other cheek.”  Pick a politician (Christian or not), pick a self-proclaimed revolutionary, pick even a weekend activist and you’ve probably heard them say something like, “I’m all for peace and Nonviolence, but if somebody threatens me or my family, I’m not going to TURN THE OTHER CHEEK!”

What they’re really saying is, “… I’m not going to DO NOTHING! I’m not going to IGNORE IT!”  But that is NOT what Jesus was saying.  This is so vitally important to understanding Nonviolence, what it is, its power, and its superiority over violence, not just morally, but strategically.

Author Walter Wink does a wonderful job of explaining this.  Here is a link to the more detailed text and/or you might learn more about Walter Wink and his work here.

But here’s an abbreviate explanation.  It involves history (not an interpretation of the Bible), and I know how painful history can be to some of us 🙂 but read on – it’s a fascinating take on the true meaning of “turn the other cheek.”

First, let’s refresh our memory of the Bible passage:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a 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. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” —Matthew 5:38-42, NIV

Here’s the history (sorry if it hurts… it’s actually pretty interesting)…

Note that Jesus said the RIGHT cheek.  This is key.  In Jesus time and place in history, the left hand was used for “unclean” purposes (I won’t go into the details… but you can probably guess some of them — imagine a time with no soap and limited water).  You wouldn’t use your left hand to purchase food, shake someone’s hand, OR even strike someone.  It would be a shameful act to use your left hand for these things.

Also, if you were to strike someone, you would use your BACKHAND to assert dominance and authority.  If you instead used your fist or slapped with an open hand, this would mean the person you were striking was your equal (or even your superior!).

OK, did you follow that?  It might help to get a partner and act this out (don’t really slap them!).  Try pretend striking them while 1. not using your left hand and 2. using your backhand to assert your dominance.  You’d be using your RIGHT hand, backhanding your inferior and striking them on their RIGHT cheek.

Aha!  “If someone strikes you on the RIGHT cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Try it.  Now, only the LEFT cheek is exposed.  In order to strike your inferior on their LEFT cheek you have to either use your right forehand or punch them (this would make them your equal) OR use your left backhand (this would shame you in public).

Jesus’ call to “turn to him also the other” or as is often quipped “turn the other cheek” is NOT a call to simply ignore the insult.  It is telling us to DEMAND EQUALITY!  Stand up to your oppressor!  Don’t take insults and attacks lying down!

Nonviolence is a brilliant way to end the violence.  Retaliating in violence to a “superior” may have in Jesus’ day resulted in death or at least an escalation to the violence.  But, Jesus was a brilliant Nonviolent strategist.  A simple turn of the head refused the insult, demanded equality and justice, and ended the violence.  This is active Nonviolence.

I also included in the Bible passage above, “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.”  Wink also gives us the historical significance of these – again, as you may have guessed, these are strategic Nonviolent actions, not acquiescence.

By offering also your cloak you would be reduced to nakedness.  But in Jesus’ time, the nakedness would be an embarrassment to the viewer, not the naked.  You would again claim justice by exposing yourself (literally) but also your oppressor.

And “walking the extra mile” – in Jesus’ time, Roman soldiers could under Roman law demand that inhabitants of occupied territories carry their equipment for them – up to one mile.  However, they were not to require someone to carry the equipment for more than one mile – if they did, the soldier himself would be subject to punishment.  So, “going that extra mile” isn’t about bending over backwards and bowing to an oppressor, it again goes above and beyond to Nonviolently reclaim justice.  It will take strength and it may take suffering, but Nonviolence can, if waged strategically, overcome violence and oppression.  It requires a refusal to be humiliated.

So, you see, this passage is a Nonviolence primer, NOT an excuse to do nothing in the face of wrong.  Whether you consider yourself Christian, or hold to another religion, or choose no religion at all, the power of Nonviolence is powerful, effective, and available to you.

The misuse of this simple phrase has been used to disregard Nonviolence, escalate violence, and cause unspeakable pain and suffering.  It’s well past time we set the record straight.  “Turning the other cheek” is NOT passivity.  It is powerful.  It is the weapon of the strong.

This is Nonviolence.

It was fun for me to discover this little but important history lesson.  And it’s entertaining to show to others.  I hope you’ll see the lesson as fun and will share it, too.

All one,

🙂 matt