Forgiveness: Turning the Other Cheek

But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Matthew 5:39

This, as other passages support, exhorts the hearer to avoid repaying evil with evil, even when confronted directly with physical violence. It is certainly true that Jesus thematically eschewed earthly victory gained through force or defense in favor of an ultimate victory through obedience to and freedom in God. But it is not equally true that Christ’s messages are entirely esoteric and largely irrelevant to earthly struggles. Many may view this as Jesus advising that we be a punching bag for others, not only taking abuse but also volunteering for more. Based on this interpretation, this course can and has been minimized; deemed as impossible or foolhardy and dismissed as a behavioral ethic or relegated to the internal aspects of Christian living.

There is, however, an important exegesis of this text with a different and nuanced understanding of Christ’s intent that keeps the behavioral relevance and concreteness of this saying intact. Slaps -it says slaps not punches, so this means the palm of an open hand- to the right cheek were done with the left hand. In the time and place of Jesus, open-handed blows from the left hand were acts of humiliation and abasement as opposed to ones of severe violence and harm, as blows to the left check or elsewhere would have been. Christ advises in this scripture that we not respond in kind to our assailant. We are instead to take the power from the person trying to humiliating by not resenting indignities but instead “daring” them to truly harm us. This indicates to them that their efforts to abase us – and the institutionalized systems that support this – have failed and are flawed, and the only way we can be wounded is with a true act of violence – which “bullies” are often unwilling or afraid to perform.

In this way, Christ is indeed advising us not to strike back. Taken in its proper context, however, this advice is given not to victimize, but actually to liberate the follower from humiliation and victimization by those that would attempt it in this manner. What can easily be read as pointless and abject cowering and cowardice is in fact the opposite. In this case non-violence is a valiant act that can lead to liberation; the liberty in Christ of which the apostle Paul revels.