It’s not uncommon for Christians to believe that, in light of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, that when you’re confronted with either a crime, an insult or even an attack, you’re imitating Jesus by basically absorbing whatever offense is being directed towards you. The idea is that by either not defending yourself or simply keeping a distance from anything that could be confrontational, you’re pointing the world to a saving faith in Christ.
But that interpretation doesn’t line up with the whole of God’s Word. Throughout Scripture, you have military tactics not just being endorsed, but even empowered by God Himself (Josh 8:1-2; 1 Sam 23:4; Ps 44:3). There are multiple passages that talk about the priority of being skilled in combat (Jud 3:1-2; 20:16), having the ability to defend yourself (Lk 22:36-37), being politically astute (1 Chron 12:32) and unashamedly bold in addressing evil and defeating it (1 Cor 5:13; Eph 5:11; 6:12).
You don’t want to construct your convictions on what amounts to a partial collection of Scriptures. Rather, you want to incorporate all of what the Bible says to ensure you’re standing on solid ground (Matt 7:24).
There are three things that are typically used to justify the idea that turning the other cheek means to be either compliant or unresponsive.
We’re going to go over all three and, again, by looking at the whole of God’s Word and not just certain parts of it, you’ll see that there is a place for, what we’re going to call, “Sanctified Violence.” With this approach, we’re avoiding what happens when an incomplete assessment of Scripture is used as the foundation upon which we base our perspective on turning the other cheek.
Here we go…!
Slap in the Face
First of all, you have the passage in Matthew where Jesus admonishes His hearers to not respond in kind to someone who offends you.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 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. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matt 5:38-42)
Bear in mind that a slap in the face was not considered an assault. Rather, it was an intensely degrading offense. It wasn’t as painful as much as it was humiliating.
From a cultural perspective, the left hand was considered to be exclusive to basic hygiene and not used as part of everyday activities.1 Hence, to slap a person on the right cheek required a backhanded slap which was the way in which a superior would strike a subordinate.
To offer your left cheek was not an act of submission. In order to slap a person on the left cheek, you would again be using your right hand, but now it was an open-handed slap – a convention reserved for social equals.2
By responding in this way, you’re staring down the offender and obligating them to acknowledge your dignity which they cannot do without humbling themselves. In addition, it creates a situation where if the reason you’re being humiliated in public has any real basis, that will only be determined if the person who’s insulting you is willing to recognize that you are not subordinate to him.3
That’s a tall order for someone whose primary reason for insulting you is to try and offset the voices they hear within themselves that says they don’t amount to much. On the other hand, if they don’t take you up on your offer, they’re admitting that they’re vain or insecure and anyone on the outside looking in is not going to be impressed.
It’s kind of like someone berating you and you responding back to them by asking if they have anything else they want to say.
You’re not retreating, you’re not just holding your ground, you’re not accommodating them in any way. Rather, you’re putting them in a spot where they have to do more than just yell at one of the players on the field. They actually have to address them as an individual and articulate what it is they want to say. And if all they have is a self-absorbed collection of nonsensical superlatives, while they want to be seen as domineering and intentional, no one sees them now as anything other than loud and obnoxious.
You’re not being obedient by allowing evil to go unchecked, let alone encouraging it. When you turn the other cheek, Jesus isn’t asking you to hand the keys to your home over to a vandal determined to destroy everything in your house. Instead, He’s giving you an effective strategy that places your adversary in a situation where they cannot avoid the equivalent to a checkmate because of the way it not only stops him, but it also reveals him for what he truly is.
Let’s talk now about Jesus’ conduct leading up to being crucified. Many want to suggest that Christ’s resolve to be compliant represents a template for the way in which you are to defend yourself against any kind of assault, be it an attack on your character or your person.
But there’s a dynamic in place that often gets overlooked which shows how Jesus’ words and behavior isn’t so much a pattern that we are to follow as much as it’s a choice He needed to make in order for the sins of the world to be atoned for.
You see it in Luke, chapter 22:
53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.” (Lk 22:53)
It’s the last part of the verse where He says, “…this is your hour – when darkness reigns.” Christ is referencing the fact that evil is being allowed into the building. The doors that should’ve been lockec have been intentionally left open.
We’re told to resist evil in the book of James (Jas 4:7). The plot to kill Paul was thwarted in part by a detachment of 470 Roman soldiers (Acts 23). You’ve got the Conquest of the Promised Land (Josh 12) , the multiple military victories David won as Israel’s general (1 Sam 18:13-14), the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem involved both tools as well as spears, shields, bows and armor (Neh 4:16)– Scripture abounds with Divinely empowered heroics and displays of force that conclusively demonstrate the fact that evil is to be defeated and sometimes in ways that go beyond a gentle rebuke.
Here’s Jesus saying that darkness is being allowed to reign. He underscores this in the book of Matthew when He references how, if He wanted to, He could utterly decimate those that would accuse and arrest Him without even having to soil His Hands by deploying the angels God was ready to place at His disposal (Matt 26:52-54).
The hounds of hell are not overpowering the Son of Man. He’s permitting them to have their way.
The point, here, is that Jesus would not have been wrong to resist. Sin is never to be tolerated, let alone coronated as the Standard by which everything is measured (1 Cor 5:13; Eph 5:3; 1 Pet 5:8).
Christ’s silence before His accusers and cooperation with the Pharisees is not a schematic for how we are to contend with those who have wicked intentions. In order for the Scriptures to be fulfilled – in order for the power of sin and death to be defeated – Jesus had to go to the cross and die (Rom 8:1-2).
So, unless you’ve been tasked with being a martyr – and there have been many instances where people taking a stand for Christ did so by sacrificing their lives – don’t let Christ’s intentional surrender to the powers of darkness serve as your script for the way in which you fight against the way Satan would confuse, defeat and destroy you or anything else that bears the Signature of your Heavenly Father.
Among the many martyrs that went to their death as part of championing the cause of Christ was a brilliant theologian by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich preached during the time of Adolph Hitler and was eventually arrested and executed. At one point, Bonhoeffer said:
Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear … Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now.4
But Bonhoeffer also said:
If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.5
Bonhoeffer was restricted from preaching in public, but he was arrested, not so much for the sermons he preached but because of his involvement with the Resistance movement that opposed Hitler. It was the Fuhrer himself who order Bonhoeffer’s execution6.
While Bonhoeffer’s stance on violence may appear to be contradictory, it’s not when you process it with the whole of God’s Word clearly in view.
Protecting Those You’re Responsible For
We are not loving those we are responsible for by enabling the evildoers who would do them harm. 1 Timothy 5:8 says that you’re worse than an unbeliever if you’re not providing for your family. How are you providing for them if you’re not first protecting them from those things that threaten their welfare?
Matthew Henry offers some insightful commentary:
We must not be revengeful (v. 39); I say unto you, that ye resist not evil;—the evil person that is injurious to you. The resisting of any ill attempt upon us, is here as generally and expressly forbidden, as the resisting of the higher powers is (Rom 13 2); and yet this does not repeal the law of self-preservation, and the care we are to take of our families; we may avoid evil, and may resist it, so far as is necessary to our own security; but we must not render evil for evil, must not bear a grudge, nor avenge ourselves, nor study to be even with those that have treated us unkindly, but we must go beyond them by forgiving them, (Prov 20 22; 24 29; 25 21, 22; Rom 12 7). 7
And how are you loving your enemy by accommodating their wickedness that offends God and ultimately translates to their spiritual death (Rom 5:12; 6:23)?
There’s a difference between loving your enemy and enabling them, just like there’s a difference between “accepting” everyone as opposed to “inviting” everyone to participate in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus never accommodated sin, rather He transformed the sinner (Jn 8:11). But that transformation cannot occur apart from first acknowledging and confessing one’s sin. You have no need for grace if you don’t first see yourself as a sinner.
All this has to be facilitated by God Himself (Jn 6:65; 1 Cor 2:12). For someone to feel convicted to the point where they’re looking to the empty tomb requires a Divinely inspired perspective.
But we accomplish nothing by suggesting that the sin that puts them in hell apart from God’s Grace, either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter.
The example of Christ is not one of “toleration” as much as it’s an “Invitation” to let the Power of God transform your life.
That’s Your Opinion
No one likes to be told they’re wrong, especially if they’re philosophically invested in what they subscribe to. But it’s not their lifestyle nor their mindset that’s the problem, it’s the fact that they’re born as a spiritual corpse. They are going to be antagonistic towards the Truth by default, regardless of how it’s packaged (Rom 8:7). In order for them to be receptive to the Power of God, they have to be enabled by God to understand and accept it (Jn 6:65; I Cor 2:12). That doesn’t translate to an excuse for us to be silent and distant, let alone complicit or harsh when it comes to confronting those who need to be made aware that they’re not in line with what God commanded let alone what is ultimately in their best interest (Gal 6:1; 1 Pet 3:15).
No doubt you’ll hear the phrase, “That’s your opinion,” or something comparable. While it’s not always the case, that phrase along with “You can’t force your beliefs on me,” and “Not everyone feels that way” aren’t so much statements as much as they are tactics to distract attention from the shortcomings that characterize what they subscribe to and instead create a situation where their perspective can’t be questioned let alone criticized by someone without that same person being labeled cruel or intolerant.
You’re now no longer talking about beliefs or convictions as much as you are the ability to choose how you want to think. The fact that not every opinion translates to the same outcome is completely ignored in the name of a corrupted interpretation of compassion and understanding.
This is how fundamentally flawed perspectives get added to the list of culturally accepted methodologies. It’s no longer about the practical merits of your viewpoint as much as it’s your ability to maneuver the debate so you’re viewed as a victim that deserves to be compensated as opposed to a rationale that rates an endorsement.
More often than not, when you hear someone say, “That’s your opinion,” what they’re really saying is: “I don’t like what I’m hearing, but I can’t disagree with you without sounding either selfish or absurd.” So rather than disputing the opposing argument, the person who knows they can’t champion their perspective directly will pose as an advocate of an open forum where every approach is being given a fair hearing.
Because no one can deny a person’s basic right to have an opinion, the platform belonging to the individual promoting an equitable dialogue is given priority over every other competing school of thought. While it resonates on the surface as fair and appropriate, the platform that is now being validated contains both a justified appeal for impartiality and…
…a take on a particular issue that is neither logical nor beneficial when compared to other viewpoints.
The fundamentally flawed perspective is being embraced without any questions being asked – specifically those questions that have the capacity to demonstrate the discrepancies that characterize that perspective’s practical and intellectual substance.
Jesus never allowed sin to be ignored. Those He engaged were not “accepted” as much as they were invited to embrace a new Perspective on themselves and the world around them that began by first acknowledging their need to be forgiven. Those that position themselves either as victims or indifferent villains aren’t looking to repent as much as they’re looking to have their behavior validated. Until you see yourself as a sinner, you’re oblivious to your need for forgiveness and the Grace of God is an assault on your personal sovereignty as opposed to the payment of a debt you wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay.
This is yet another reason why “turning the other cheek” needs to be accurately understood as a Divine admonishment to engage the tactics of the enemy however they manifest themselves. And you don’t want to settle for being an ineffective obstacle, but a legitimate barrier that halts, reveals and dismantles the spiritual forces of evil in a way that underscores the benefits and the appeal of all that God brings to the table.
So, when you turn the other cheek, do it right.
1. “Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties”, Dr. Gleason Archer, The Zondervan Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1982, p342
2. “Religion and Culture: Poential Undercurrents Influencing Hand Hygiene Promotion in Health Care”, Benedetta Allegranzi, MD,aZiad A. Memish, MD,b Liam Donaldson, MD,a Didier Pittet, MD, MS,a,c,∗ and World Health Organization Global Patient Safety Challenge Task Force on Religious and Cultural Aspects of Hand Hygiene (lead, D. Pittet), World Alliance for Patient Safety, October 3, 2008, “National Library of Medicine”, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7115273/, accessed November 5, 2023
3. “Roman soldiers tended to be right-handed. When they struck an equal with a fist, it came from the right and made contact with the left side of the face. When they struck an inferior person, they swung with the back of their right hand making contact with the right cheek. In a Mediterranean culture that made clear distinctions between classes, Roman soldiers backhanded their subjects to make a point. Jews were second-class.” The Roman slap was an insult to the Jews’ personal dignity.
In “On Turning the Other Cheek (and How It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means),” Corey Far explained that a slap on the right cheek meant the soldier backhanded the Jews, which was a far more demeaning slap. “It was degrading,” he said. “It was what you gave to an inferior or a slave.” To not break down emotionally and simply turn the other cheek meant that the soldier couldn’t slap you again on the right cheek, and, Farr said, “he can’t slap you with his left hand, because that is unclean for both of you.” The soldier’s only option was to slap with the palm of his hand, and “this was not the way to slap a slave. This was reserved for equals.” Thus, in giving the other cheek, the degraded person asserted his humanity in a brave countermove — a humble response, yet also an act of courage against an oppressive system. (“What Does it Really Mean to ‘Turn the Other Cheek’?”, Down Wilson, December 22, 2022, “Bible Study Tools”, https://www.biblestudytools.com/bible-study/topical-studies/what-does-it-really-mean-to-turn-the-other-cheek.html, accessed November 5, 2023
4. “The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” ed. Isabel Best, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2012, p169
5. Bonhoeffer was implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler by virtue of his involvement with the Abwehr, which was a German intelligency organization. While on the surface, the Abwehr appeared to be an effective extension of the Nazi military effort, it was, in fact staffed by people who opposed Hitler and were determined to overthrow the Nazi regime from the inside out. In the aftermath of the failed assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler, Hans Oster, one of the Deputy Chiefs of the Abwehr, named his superior, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the leader of the Abwehr as the “spiritual founder of the Resistance Movement.” As a result, Canaris was arrested and when his diaries were discovered by Hitler, the full extent of Canaris’ anti-Nazi efforts were discovered including several names, one of which was Hans Von Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer’s brother in law. At that point, anyone associated with the Abwehr and, more specifically, the assassination attempt on Hitler, was suspect. it was then that the Fuherer ordered the execution of several Abwehr members including Bonhoeffer. (“Wilhelm Canaris”, “Traces of War”, https://www.tracesofwar.com/articles/3007/Wilhelm-Canaris.htm, accessed December 17, 2023)
6. “The Cost of Discipleship”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “By Faith” https://byfaith.org/2023/02/06/the-cost-of-discipleship-by-dietrich-bonhoeffer/, accessed November 5, 2023
7. “Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible”, Matthew 5, “Bible Study Tools”, https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/matthew/5.html, accessed November 5, 2023