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Does “turn the other cheek” mean that Christians are to be doormats?

“But I say to you, Do not resist  one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” Mt. 5:39

By his words and example, did Jesus teach us to be completely passive in our personal encounters with evil?

Most teachers of passivity purport to draw from two sources for such an interpretation of our Lord’s teaching:  The “Suffering Servant” narratives in Isaiah 53, and the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7).  

The Suffering Servant

The teaching of passivity is based, in great part, on The Suffering Servant (the Servant of YHWH) in Isaiah 53:

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,   yet he opened not his mouth;  like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,   and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” Isaiah 53:7

The Church has long considered the rich, prophetic symbolism of the Suffering Servant narratives to be a prefiguring, or prophesy, of the Passion of Christ.  It is wrong, however, to apply this text thoughtlessly to the entirety of Christ’s public ministry, or even uncritically to Christ’s passion.  For example, our Lord was not exactly silent when on trial in front of the High Priest, and especially when he was struck by one of the high priest’s officers:

“Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret.  Why do you question Me?  Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; they know what I said.” When He had said this, one of the officers standing nearby struck Jesus, saying, “Is that the way You answer the high priest?” Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?”  John 18:20-23

The Sermon on the Mount

Others arrive at a passive interpretation of “Do not resist evil” from some words spoken by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount.  Let’s consider these words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist  one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;  and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well;  and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.  Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.”  Mt. 5:38-42

Consider the first part of verse 39:  “But I say to you, Do not resist  one who is evil.”  

Here is the verse in the original Koine Greek:

mt5-39a

 We can get to the heart of the matter by considering the word St. Matthew uses for “resist”, which is the Greek word, “antistenai”.

"antistenai"
“antistenai”

New Testament scholar Walter Wink, in his book, “Jesus and Nonviolence, A Third Way” [p.11], says:

“The Greek word is made up of two parts: anti, a word still used in English for “against,” and histēmi, a verb that in its noun form (stasis) means violent rebellion, armed revolt, sharp dissention. In the Greek Old Testament, antistēnai is used primarily for military encounters—44 out of 71 times. It refers specifically to the moment two armies collide, steel on steel, until one side breaks and flees.”

St. Paul also uses the same word, “antistenai”, in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians.  There he uses a dramatic military metaphor to urge the Ephesians to resist evil, but with the armor and weapons of God:

“Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist [antistenai] on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground [stenai].” Ephesians 6:13 [1]

An accurate translation of Matthew 5:39a, would then be, “Do not respond in kind to those who do evil to you.”  That vastly differs from the phrase, “Do not resist evil”, in that it allows and even invites us to vigorously and creatively respond to evil in our personal encounters with it, albeit nonviolently.

On a side note, we also see see that the direct object of verse 39a is not the generic, unspecific “evil” in “Do not resist evil,” but rather, “do not resist the evil person.”

Peter and Paul Weigh In

Saints Peter and Paul confirm this interpretation.  For example, read St. Paul’s summary of the Sermon on the Mount in the 12th chapter of his letter to the Romans:

“…Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.Romans 12:19-20

and from the First Letter of Peter:

Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.”  1 Peter 3:9

In other words, in response to evil, we are not to do evil, we are not to retaliate, we are not to seek revenge, we are not to revile, and we are to have mercy on the enemy.  Our Lord places no restriction on us whatsoever, however, from pursuing justice and defending our lives.

“Turn the other cheek…”

In his public ministry, Jesus often pushed people from their comfort zones into places from which the only means of escape was some serious soul-searching.  It is not surprising, then, that he taught that form of non-violent response to the lowly and oppressed who followed him.  Do not forget his advice to his disciples,  “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves [Mt. 10:16].”

Our Lord give three specific examples to the poor people listening to him on the mountain: “Turn the other cheek,” “let him have your cloak as well,” and “go with him two miles.”  Each example gave those who were listening a way to resist evil without resorting to violence.  Let’s consider each in turn.[2]

“if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…”

Did you ever wonder why Jesus explicitly mentioned the right cheek?  How does one, in the right-handed world of first century Palestine, where the use of one’s left hand was often taboo, strike another on the right cheek?  With a right-handed back slap, of course.  Jesus was speaking directly to a poor, downtrodden and colonized people, and a back slap was a humiliating action of a master toward a slave, of a Roman to a Jew, of a landowner to a tenant farmer.  It was meant to degrade.  Now, after having been slapped on the right cheek by a superior’s right hand, presenting the left cheek would effectively force the master to backslap again using his left hand, which was taboo, or to strike with his right fist, which would be the act of a peer, not a master.  So, while risky, presenting the left cheek after a back slap would help the oppressed person recover a bit of his God-given dignity without having to resort to violence.

“If any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well…”

In the debtor society of first century Palestine, the lowly and landless did not sue each other, but rather, could be sued by the powerful.  To take off the second and last piece of clothing in the public court of that time would make one naked, but the greater shame and embarrassment would not be born by the person being sued, but rather, the wealthy person suing him.  Remember the great length to which Noah’s sons, Shem and Japheth went to in order to avoid the shame of seeing their father naked. [Gen. 9:23].

“If any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles…”

It would not have been uncommon for those listening to Jesus on the mountain – the men at least – to have been forced to carry the gear of a Roman legionary or an auxiliary for up to a mile.  It was generally frowned upon, if not forbidden, for a legionary to require a colonized person to carry such a pack for more than that distance, and in fact, this was eventually codified into law.  So, by cheerfully “going the extra mile”, one would place the legionary or auxiliary in the uncomfortable position of possibly facing disciplinary action by his superiors.   The soldier would probably prefer to get his pack back, but how on earth would he ask for it back without losing his pride?

 Examples from the Scriptures

The words of Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount do not repudiate His own examples of resisting evil, or the examples set by heroes of the Old Testament.

Jesus resisted the evil of Satan in the desert [ Mt. 4:1-11];  he resisted the evil of the men who would stone the woman caught in adultery [John 8:1-11];  he drove the merchants and their animals from the temple [Mt. 21:12];  and he resisted the evil of the Pharisee’s disciples who would trap him with the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” [ Mt. 22:15-22].  

 St. Paul Resisted Evil
St. Paul escapes Damascus in a basket, 12th/13th century (mosaic)
St. Paul escapes Damascus in a basket, 12th/13th century (mosaic)

St. Paul used his Roman citizenship to escape an evil beating and to appeal the case against him to the governors Felix and Festus, and ultimately to Caesar [Acts 22-24].  He defended himself in front of King Agrippa [Acts 26], and he even plotted a clever escape from the evil plans of his adversaries in Damascus [Acts 9:25] by having himself lowered from the city walls in a basket.

The Heroes of the Old Testament Resisted Evil

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew midwives Shifrah and Puah resisted the evil command of Pharaoh to murder Hebrew baby boys [Exodus 1:15-20].  The people of Israel boldly asked the Egyptians for reparations before leaving Egypt. [Exodus 12:35-36].  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed′nego refused to worship the image that King ebuchadnez′zar had set up and so were thrown into the fiery furnace [Daniel 3].  Daniel resisted the evil order of King Darius to pray to him alone, and was consequently thrown into the lion’s den [Daniel 6:10-28].  Queen Esther risked her life and broke the law to approach the King Ahasuerus  on behalf of her people, whose annihilation had been ordered [Esther 4-5].  And the priests of Nob lost their lives for resisting the evil of Saul by giving the consecrated bread to David and his men to eat [1 Samuel 21-22].

The Teaching of the Church

We read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. “The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not. [CCC 2263]

and

Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality.  Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow…Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.”   [CCC 2264]

and

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.” [CCC 2264]

Conclusion

It is clear that in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that we are not to resort to violence, retaliation, or revenge in our personal encounters of the evil of others.  In short, we are to resist evil in a way that prevents us from becoming evil ourselves.

 

Endnotes

[1]  Wink elaborates more on this in his book,”Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination“,(Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1984) p. 185:

“What the translators have not noted, however, is how frequently anthistemi is used as a military term. Resistance implies “counteractive aggression,” a response to hostilities initiated by someone else. Liddell-Scott defines anthistemi as to “set against esp. in battle, withstand.” Ephesians 6:13 is exemplary of its military usage: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand [antistenai, lit., to draw up battle ranks against the enemy] on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm [stenai, lit., to close ranks and continue to fight].” The term is used in the LXX primarily for armed resistance in military encounters (44 out of 71 times). Josephus uses anthistemi for violent struggle 15 out of 17 times, Philo 4 out of 10. As James W. Douglass notes, Jesus’ answer is set against the backdrop of the burning question of forcible resistance to Rome. In that context, “resistance” could have only one meaning: lethal violence.-16 In short, antistenai means more in Matt. 5:39a than simply to “stand against” or “resist.”” It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an insurrection.”

[2]  See “Jesus and Nonviolence, a Third Way“, by Walter Wink, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003, pp 14-27.

The Atheist’s Love Problem

I believe that atheists have a problem with love.  Specifically, their materialistic world view prevents them from having a rational basis for loving in every instance, and this, I would think, would undermine their worldview.

To see why, let me start by proposing a working definition of love, one that pertains specifically to loving others and one that might be satisfactory to rational people of all faiths or even none. I propose:

 “Love is freely choosing another’s good, even at the expense of one’s own good.”

This definition, based upon one from Thomas Aquinas, is simple, acceptable to people from many backgrounds and perspectives, and very broad and inclusive. It does not exclude feelings and emotions like romance and sexual attraction, but it does not demand them either.

At this point, though, we can expect an objection from the atheist camp.  Any “good”, they would say, must not transcend the physical and material.

Well, okay.  Let’s restrict the “good” to the temporal and the material for now.  The good that our definition references could be the mutual pleasure of two lovers sharing a candlelit dinner together, or the care a man gives to his disabled wife.  It might involve a small act of thoughtfulness or a heroic act of self-sacrifice.  By the way, note that our definition of love makes it clear that the choice to love should be free, not forced.

In this definition, “love” is intrinsically tied to another’s “good”, but what is “good”?  As we’ve said, to an atheist, all reality is material and nothing spiritual exists that transcends the material and physical. So any notion of “good” and all motives for choosing good must be based upon purely materialistic principles.

Most modern atheists attribute human altruistic tendencies and love to evolution. That is, love is an evolutionary impulse that serves to promote the thriving of human life on earth.  The working definition of love that I proposed above does not exclude the possibility that evolution has contributed to the human drive to love, but is there is anything in a purely material perspective that would mandate that the “survival of the fittest” be considered the paramount good, over and above any individual good?  No, and one reason is that for an atheist, death ends the possibility of the enjoyment of any good for an individual.  Could the choice of a good that could never be be realized ever be a rational choice for an individual with a solely materialistic perspective?  I don’t believe so.

Consider the case of caring for a permanently and seriously disabled person, such as the example of a man caring for his seriously and permanently disabled wife. Suppose the woman is bedridden, unable to meet most of her needs on her own and the man has no hope of having an intimate emotional and/or sexual relationship with her ever again.  While evolution might explain the man’s caring instinct in general, a strictly materialistic perspective would not provide any basis whatsoever for the man expending his time, energy and comfort. i.e. his own good, for caring for his wife.

Or take the case of a rescuer who loses his life while saving that of another.  If that rescued person were old and sickly, how could the lifesaver’s sacrifice be considered “rational” from a strictly evolutionary perspective if “good” does not transcend the material?

Loving often has a cost, and the cost is some loss of one’s own temporal good. Throughout all cultures and time we see that people measure love by it’s cost and that generosity is most often seen as the measure of love. Atheistic materialism fails to provide a rational basis for loving when it would result in a net loss of one’s own temporal good.  If it were otherwise, then the world would probably be seeing more orphanages and the like being built by avowed atheists.

Atheists, if they wish to only love rationally in all cases, really have only two choices: either refrain from loving at the cost of their own good, or admit that some good exists that transcends physical reality and is accessible to those who love at a cost to themselves.


 

This post is a revised version of a similar post I wrote for the Catholic Evidence Guild of Guam in 2012.