Turning the other cheek






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I remember back in the day when I was attempting to learn the Japanese martial art of Aikido. I recall our Sensai, or teacher, telling us a story of this macho guy, a black belt in karate, who liked to walk into pubs and pick fights with strangers just so he could use his karate skills to beat them up. Then one day, a victim pulled a gun on him and shot him dead

Our Sensai, a black belt in Aikido, had recently become famous and made front page news in the Birmingham Evening Post for beating up a mob of 30 yobs attacking his jewellery shop in the old Bull Ring shopping centre. Seeing them rampaging through the mall, he had come out of the shop, locked the door shut and pulled the metal grills down to protect the shop windows. Then realised he was on the wrong side of the mob, with only the window pole to defend him. The mob had no chance! 



But his message was one of restraint. What he told us was do everything you can to avoid a fight. If someone provokes you, pushes you, bad mouths you – walk away. You emerge as the bigger man, they look foolish. But if you have no choice but to stand your ground, if you are backed into a corner or they are attacking someone else who can’t defend themselves – fight. The big ‘if’ though was if you do have to fight – fight to win. No half measures. Do everything you can to avoid violence, but if you can’t avoid it go in for the knock out blow.



To me, this is not only extremely sensible and pragmatic advice. It is the best explanation of the Christian doctrine of ‘turn the other cheek’.



This phrase, ‘turn the other cheek’, is one of the most misunderstood phrases in the New Testament and often cited as evidence that Christianity is a weak religion. On the contrary, understood properly it is a sign of strength not weakness – as I hope my opening story (which is true) shows.



The phrase itself originates from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is discussing the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’.



“Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him two. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.”

Matthew 5:38–5:42 KJV



The old adage of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is well known, but usually fundamentally misunderstood. It was not really encouraging people to go and poke somebody’s eye out just because they had done the same. It was intended to limit a person’s response to an attack to something which is ‘proportionate’ to use the modern phrase. In other words it was trying to prevent situations where one tribe attack and kill a couple of children of another tribe and the other tribe respond by killing hundreds of the other tribe’s children.



But ‘an eye for an eye’ is restrictive. At best it just limits the violence to an endless cycle of tit for tat actions. Jesus is offering an insight into the sort of righteousness that goes beyond limiting your response to something which is proportionate. 



In the next line, Jesus says ‘do not resist evil’ or sometimes translated as ‘one who is evil.’ Here, the English translation of the Greek has rather confused the picture. The Greek word translated as ‘resist’ actually implies violence of the military sort. Furthermore, the Greek word translated as evil can mean either ‘one who is evil’ or ‘by evil means’. In this context, the second meaning only really makes sense. So, Jesus is in fact telling us not to respond to intimidation with violence or to pay back evil with evil, even if it is justified and proportionate. Evil only leads to more evil.



It is also interesting that Jesus starts his statement with "you have heard it said", indicating that he is clarifying a misconception. The common misconception seems to be that people were using the law as a justification for personal vengeance. We see exactly this going on in countries like Pakistan where the Sharia law is used against Christians to exact personal vengeance. So Jesus is saying, don’t be too quick to evoke the full force of the law. Ignore it. If it continues, deal with it in a peaceful way if you can. In particular, He is saying don’t take vengeance. He is certainly not saying, “stand there like an idiot and let the guy beat you to a pulp or attack your family!”



But there is more to ‘turning the other cheek’ than meets the eye. Jesus actually says ‘whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek’. As most people are right handed, a right handed slap would be to your left cheek not the right one. To slap someone on the right cheek using the right hand means that the blow must have been from the back of the hand not the palm. This is rather like using a glove to slap someone on the right cheek. It is a challenge, a demonstration of contempt and was a very strong insult in the ancient world. It is a put down that is challenging you to either back down in utter humiliation or lash out and escalate the conflict.



Turning the other cheek literally turns the tables on the assailant. Offering the other cheek is showing that the other guy is not intimidating you. It is a response of courage and strength that says I’m not backing down, but I’m not going to start the fight either. I’m bigger than that. It puts the ball back in the assailant’s court. He has to decide whether to repeat the blow and ask himself whether this time you will defend yourself. He is now on the back foot. 


Giving a person your cloak when they sue you for your coat is demonstrating that they are not hurting you by depriving you of your coat. You are turning their action of taking something from you, and the satisfaction they may get from that, to one of you giving them it and more.



In classical times, a Roman soldier could force a civilian to carry his kit for one mile. This was also an act of superiority and again Jesus is showing a righteous way of dealing with the situation. Telling the Legionary to bog off is unlikely to be a productive act. Similarly, meekly carrying his kit just reinforces the sense of superiority and maybe contempt the soldier is showing. Assuming you are fit enough, going two miles with him shows that you are not bothered about carrying his kit and that he has no hold over you. The tables are again turned.


Jesus is, of course, advocating passive resistance – but one that shows greater strength of character through restraint. Unrestrained retaliation is a sign of weakness not strength. Strength and restraint are marks of chivalry, not weakness. If more resistance is needed to stop serious harm then so be it – but the honourable action is one that does not over react but calmly and efficiently gets the job done, doing as little harm as possible. This is the basis of the concept of a ‘Just War’.



All three of these examples are teaching us to not escalate situations and seek to turn the tables on our enemies to defuse a situation or gain the upper hand over them. This is a form of resistance that mirrors one of the main principles of martial arts such as Aikido, the principle of ‘Irimi Tenkan’. This refers to balance (proportionality) and to positioning yourself so that you can use your enemies force against them.