“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 anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them 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)
Jesus tells us in his infamous Sermon on the Mount to “turn the other cheek.” Does this mean we are supposed to allow ourselves to be victims to violence?
No. That’s not the message at all. This message was given to a specific group of people who had a specific culture and set of practices. Here is what this message meant for the intended audience.
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
In the first century, you only hit with your right hand because the left hand was used for unclean bodily functions.
First century culture was very hierarchical. You only punched somebody who was your equal. You slapped somebody who was below you on the social ladder.
Jesus said if somebody hits you, turn the other cheek. Many people think he was advising that we do nothing in response to violence, but it’s actually more than that.
If somebody slaps you across your face and then you turn your left cheek to them, they cannot slap your left cheek with their right hand. They would have to turn their hand very awkwardly to make it potentially possible. You are forcing them to either stop or to punch you. If they punch you, they are acknowledging you as their equal on the social ladder.
We often think there are two responses to violence—hit back or do nothing. But there is always a third way—position yourself in a way that helps to equalize the perception of power.
Jesus was not killed because he turned his cheek away from violence. Jesus was killed because he found nonviolent ways to oppose the military power of his time.
“And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
If you were in debt to somebody and owed them your shirt, a selfless action may be to also give your coat to them. On the surface, giving away an additional item to the person you are in debt to is a kind thing to do.
However, in first century culture, being seen naked is equally as shameful to the naked person as it is to the viewer.
You–as the person in debt and with less power in this situation–can equalize the power by equalizing the level of shame being experienced by you and the person you are in debt to.
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”
Roman law of the time allowed authorities to demand their slaves from the occupied land carry their items while traveling. These slaves were seen as pack animals. However, Roman law stated that the authorities were only able to require the slaves to go for one mile.
When Jesus tells them to go two miles, he is advising people to trick the powers that be into breaking their own law.
These metaphors are often misunderstood today. The historical and cultural context gives us a different message. Jesus is not telling his followers to lay down and accept the violence that comes our way. Instead, he is telling us that there are ways to fight against powerful establishments without keeping violence in circulation. Reacting to evil with evil only keeps evil in circulation.
We often believe there are two ways to respond to violence: give up or give in. But there is a third option: find a way to stop evil in its tracks. There is always a third way.