You Asked for It: Turning the Other Cheek

July 27, 2018
By Rev. Glenn Ray, Pastor of Care Ministry

“Self-defense vs. turning the other cheek?”

The Scripture that brings to mind this question is located in Matthew 5:39, when Jesus says, “I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”  In explaining what is meant by this passage, one would need to look at the entire section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where this verse is found. I believe that Jesus’ teaching in this passage has a very narrow application. It seems to be concerned with the issue of personal revenge or retaliation, not self-defense. I believe that Jesus was telling his followers that there was no need for them to get back at someone who has wronged them. To come to this conclusion, we need to look at the whole section where Jesus is talking about the importance of following Israel’s moral law beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law.

Love was to be the motivating factor of our actions and deeds. Turning the other cheek was never meant to be an excuse for pacifism or to place ourselves or others in mortal danger. It refers to personal retaliation, not criminal offenses or acts of military aggression. He was, however, speaking about the principle of non-retaliation to offenses to our dignity, as well as lawsuits to gain one’s personal assets, infringements on one’s liberty, and violations of property rights. I believe He was calling for a full surrender of all personal rights of the individual Christian.

Many theologians, including Augustine and Luther, explain it this way: As disciples of Jesus, we should be willing to suffer personal injustices, but loving your neighbor sometimes implies a willingness to use force. With this in mind, we should always be prepared to defend others who are being abused and mistreated in some ways. Non-resistance is not a complete standard for a Christian’s life and actions.

Turning the other cheek means not to return insult for insult. Most people expect retaliation because this is how the world reacts. Think of the witness if a Christian responds counter to the world. Think about the effect of responding to hate with love or mercy instead of cruelty. Jesus, for example, was silent before his accusers and did not bring down the wrath of God upon any of them. He had the power; but in a sense, he turned the other cheek.