Another perspective on turning the other cheek.

bckhndIf someone strikes you on the cheek, most peoples’ immediate reaction is to try and block if if they see it coming, or to return the blow on whoever struck them if they did not; they take revenge. A slap on the cheek might sting but does not usually cause any lasting damage or hurt. Its effect is often much more in the humiliation it inflicts on the person struck, than in any pain they might suffer.

In Matthew 5, Jesus teaches his disciples and the people at the Sermon On The Mount. When he refers to an “eye for an eye”, found in Exodus and Leviticus and essentially about revenge and retribution,  Jesus teaching was to turn the other cheek or “turn to him the other cheek also” (NIV). Was Jesus really suggesting that someone who had already been strucl should take another slap in the face? Maybe, but maybe, like a lot of his teaching, it is not quite so simple as that.

With a careful reading of Matthew 5: 39 we see that we are explicitly told that, the slap was to the right cheek. To be struck on the right cheek by someone who is right handed, as indeed most people are, would mean a slap with the back of the right hand. Even in someone left handed, to strike someone with the left hand would be unusual, for the same reason that custom and cleanliness dictated that only the right hand was used for eating.

Striking someone in the backhand manner I have described is a dismissive gesture, of the kind that might be used on a slave or person of lower standing, or rank, than the person administering it. That same gesture might also be used as an insult, to treat someone of similar standing as if they came from a lower order, like a slave, in front of others.

Turning the other cheek might mean accepting the dismissal, insult or humiliation. Or perhaps there is another possibility. By turning the other cheek, the left cheek, you are inviting a strike with the palm of the hand, instead of the back. The gesture loses its dismissive appearance. In this way although you might not retalliate causing potential harm yourself, or escalating the violence, you are refusing to be dismissed out of hand, or refuting the intended insult.

You are in effect saying that, ‘if you are going to strike me, do it to me as an equal’. It is a refusal, albeit tacit, that you will not be dismissed out of hand or insulted. It forces the aggressor to treat you as an equal.

P.s. In the same paragraph of Matthew is the ‘extra mile’ saying that is so often misused today. In Jesus’ time, a Roman soldier had the right to ask any civilian to carry his kit for a mile, which is the origin of the current saying “To go the extra mile”.


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