What turning the other cheek actually means


Yesterday I learned something new from the commenter Totara on the blog. They provided a link to information that gave the historical context of the phrase ‘turning the other cheek’. I was brought up Catholic and was never given the historical context of the saying so didn’t appreciate what it really meant. I disliked the saying as a teenager as I felt that it was encouraging people to become doormats. It did not fit well with my personal beliefs. I understood that forgiveness is for us, not for the person who hurt us, but I didn’t think we should keep forgiving a person who continued to hurt us by turning the other cheek continually.

The good news is that ‘turning the other cheek’ is actually an act of challenge and a refusal to allow another to treat us as an inferior.

Many otherwise devout Christians simply dismiss Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence out of hand as impractical idealism. And with good reason. “Turn the other cheek” has come to imply a passive, doormat like quality that has made the Christian way seem cowardly and complicit in the face of injustice. … and appears to encourage collaboration with the oppressor. Jesus’ teaching, viewed this way, is impractical, masochistic, and even suicidal—an invitation to bullies and spouse-batterers to wipe up the floor with their supine Christian victims.


…”If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5:39b). You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist. But such a blow would fall on the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks; at Qumran, a Jewish religious community of Jesus’ day, to gesture with the left hand meant exclusion from the meeting and penance for ten days. To grasp this you must physically try it: how would you hit the other’s right cheek with your right hand? If you have tried it, you will know: the only feasible blow is a backhand. The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.


Notice Jesus’ audience: “If anyone strikes you.” These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, “Re-fuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” (Now you really need to physically enact this to see the problem.) By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. And anyway, it’s like telling a joke twice; if it didn’t work the first time, it simply won’t work. The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.

This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. He can have the slave beaten, but he can no longer cow him. By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.” Such defiance is no way to avoid trouble. Meek acquiescence is what the master wants. Such “cheeky” behavior may call down a flogging, or worse. But the point has been made. The Powers That Be have lost their power to make people submit. And when large numbers begin behaving thus (and Jesus was addressing a crowd), you have a social revolution on your hands.

In that world of honor and shaming, the “superior” has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate. He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other. As Gandhi taught, “The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.” How different this is from the usual view that this passage teaches us to turn the other cheek so our batterer can simply clobber us again! How often that interpretation has been fed to battered wives and children. And it was never what Jesus intended in the least. To such victims he advises, “Stand up for yourselves, defy your masters, assert your humanity; but don’t answer the oppressor in kind. Find a new, third way that is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal.



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  • Christie

    I always thought it was something to do with the cane, given by nuns.

  • Orange

    The point is good about the “right cheek” meaning an insult. It does not rule out self-defense. I think the rest is really pushing it a bit far but whatever, it can’t mean “let people hit you” in a modern sense. It can mean just “don’t take offense” in the same gist as Matthew 5 in the sermon on the Mount “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But there may well be some allowance of physical suffering too as later in verse 11, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” and 1Peter 3 “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

    Overall I think the context is not about looking for physical confrontation as equals but the willingness to search for a higher path than responding in kind. It is certainly not teaching pacifism or about letting lawlessness continue. With everyone getting upset about micro aggressions nowadays it’s a very important reminder.

  • Bob D

    Hmm, I think not. Context is everything, you have to read this along with what else he was saying. He was definitely saying turn the other cheek to be struck there also, and don’t resist. He is spelling out God’s way, not Man’s. He himself didn’t resist when they crucified him, and in fact he stopped Peter from using his sword in the Garden.

    Matthew 5:38-46
    “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 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.

    You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’

    But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

    If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”

    • Mark

      My understanding was that a slap was like a challenge to a fight.

      I don’t think its saying ‘let some one beat you up’

      And it certainly is not saying ‘let somebody else get beat up’

      Its a personal challenge to give up your pride.

      But it is not an instruction to be a coward and let others get beat up, or to allow yourself to be needlessly beaten.

      • Bob D

        Don’t get hung up on the slap, the correct quote is “strikes you”. This could be any type of blow, it’s not important. Or forget the cheek thing entirely – there are other verses talking about taking tunics, forcing you to walk a mile, or demanding things from you. They all spell out the same message.
        The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world, that’s what he’s saying.

        • Mark

          My main point there was what its not saying. I think Christians have stretched that verse too far, into the realms of pacifism. But Jesus is not commanding us to let others be struck, its not a call to weakness but to personal humility

          • Bob D

            Absolutely, the passage isn’t addressing third parties at all.

  • Mrs_R

    Jesus always taught by example. In his Sermon on the Mount where this verse is found he taught mercy, sacrificial love and forgiveness towards sinners. He teaches to go the extra mile for those who abuse us, and to pray for our enemies and not to repay evil with evil. To act as the world would act does not give witness to the power of the holy spirit that is professed to dwell within followers of Christ. He calls us to be different. To respond to hatred with love emulates the actions of Jesus himself. Jesus stood silent before his accusers and did not call down revenge from heaven to those who crucified him, in fact he does the opposite he asks for forgiveness for those ‘who do not know what they do’. As in everything we should test whatever teaching we receive against scripture and in this instance I don’t believe it stacks up.

  • Totara

    Spanish Bride, I’m so glad that you found this perspective to be insightful. I too had always struggled with the conventional but nonsensical explanations that I received at school. So when I came across Walter Wink’s explanation, it came as a breath of fresh air and forced me to completely re-think my previous understandings (which is never a bad thing).

    The link that I provided yesterday was just a snippet from a larger book. For anybody interested in reading in more detail, the ideas are described in <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Powers-That-Be-Theology-Millennium/dp/0385487525/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1460358007&sr=1-1&keywords=walter+wink&quot;The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium, by Walter Wink, 1998.

  • PharmaBloke

    I suspect you’d also enjoy Michael Hardins ” the Jesus centred life “

  • kereru

    May I describe what countless Christians – who are beaten, tortured, starved, denied family visits or medical care, and crammed in airless, insanitary cells – are experiencing from this much misunderstood teaching? That by not returning beatings with hatred and anger, the other prisoners are marvelling at their fortitude and patience and their lack of desire for revenge. Instead, the Christians are praying for their captors and torturers. As Jesus blesses these faithful men and women their faces light up and their cell mates are asking how it is that they can feel no ill will against their tormentors and forgive them. And they answer is that it is not them, but Christ in them who enables them to forgive, just as He forgave His tormentors.

    Yes, the persecution of Christians is horrific, but out of their witness many tens of thousands are leaving Islam and becoming Christians themselves. The underground church in China and elsewhere in S E Asia, grows every time the authorities crack down on them. The old saying that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’ has never been more true than it is now.

  • Shane Ponting

    Matthew 5:38-42 is about resisting the temptation for revenge, so I cannot agree with your interesting interpretation of this verse SB.