"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." (Matthew 5.39)Many have interpreted this passage as Jesus' creative and counter-cultural way to respond to oppressor. Some say that what Jesus was teaching here is radical.
Hence many have attributed this apparent creative, counter-cultural, and radical response as the third way: the non-violent resistance.
We shall examine how this interpretation has been validated by some of its most ardent advocates through the award winning book by Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee.
"In Jesus' culture, "to be struck on the right cheek was to be given a hostile, backhanded insult" with the back of the right hand. In that culture, it was forbidden to touch or strike anyone with the left hand; the left hand was for dirty things (Stassen, Just Peacemaking, 64-65, 68-69). To turn the other cheek was to surprise the insulter, saying nonviolently, "you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal." Jesus is saying: if you are slapped on the cheek of inferiority, turn the cheek of equal dignity (Garland, Reading Matthew, 73ff.; Luz, Matthew 1-7, 327-29; Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives, 63-70; Stassen, "Fourteen Triads of the Sermon on the Mount"; Wink, Engaging the Powers, 175-177)."The four premises of this interpretation:
(Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context [USA: IVP Press, 2003], p.138-139)
(a) It is forbidden to touch or strike anyone with left hand because the left hand is for dirty things.Stassen & Gushee quoted from these sources to make their four premises:
(b) Therefore in order to strike someone's right cheek, one has to slap with the back of the right hand instead of the palm of the left hand.
(c) Strike a person's right cheek is a symbol of humiliation or insult.
(d) Subsequent offering of the left cheek after the right side is slapped is understood in that culture that the victim is demanding to be an equal with the insulter.
1) Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking, 63-65, 68-70.
2) David E. Garland, Reading Matthew, 73ff.
3) Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, 327-329.
4) Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, 175-177.
Such interpretation has gained popularity. N. T. Wright quoted the same understanding in a 2001 BBC1 documentary:
"Often in the Sermon on the Mount we come upon saying which puzzle us initially because it sounds as if Jesus is saying just be a doormat and let people walk all over you, turning the other cheek is one example, but that is not what is it all about. If I give someone a blow on the right cheek it will be with the back of my right hand and many scholars have suggests that that is a demeaning, dismissive sort of thing to do which is what you'd do to a slave or child or, alas in that culture, a woman. So that to say okay now hit the other cheek is a way of saying hit me again if you want but this time do it so that we are equals. It is a way of reaffirming one's own dignity often with a kind of rye humor at the expense of the bully who is putting you down."We shall see how each of these sources validate Stassen's and Gushee's four premises (a, b, c, and d). I'll quote only the specific section that has immediate relevance.
(Directed by Jean-Claude Bragard, Son of God, Part 2: The Mission, 2001, BBC1, 38.15 to 39.04min)
1) Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking:
"Turn the other cheek. In the customs of that day, when someone gave a slap on the right cheek, it meant an insult by a superior who was taking you as inferior (Job 16.10; Ps 3.7; Lam 3.30; 1 Esd 4.30). To turn the other cheek was to stand up and affirm your own dignity as an equal human person, but without violence. It seized the initiative. In the custom then, the insulter would either have to recognize your dignity as an equal person by striking you on the left cheek or would have to back off. This was not a strategy of passivity but an initiative that asserted your dignity and confronted the other person nonviolently with his or her antihuman behavior (this is nicely explained by Walter Wink, Violence and Nonviolence, pp.15ff)."Stassen pointed out to 4 passages from the biblical times:
(Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace [USA: WJK Press, 1992], p.64-65. Bold original.)
Job 16.10: People open their mouths to jeer at me; they strike my cheek in scorn and unite together against me.Job, Psalm, and Lamentations do not say anything about (a), (b), and (d). These three passages point out that striking is scornful, destructive, and disgracing. These may back Stassen's and Gushee's point (c).
Psalm 3.7: Arise, Lord! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.
Lamentations 3.30: Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace.
1 Esdras 4.30: ...and [the king's concubine] take the crown from the king's head and put it on her own, and slap the king with her left hand.
1 Esdras does not explicitly say anything about (a), (b), (c), and (d). Given that this passage talks about the power of women over men, probably Stassen understands this passage to mean that the king was so enticed by his concubine that he couldn't react appropriately even when his was humiliated in the worst way, being slapped by left hand that is meant only for dirty things. The problem is that we have no evidence of (a) which this interpretation presupposes.
The biblical passages that Stassen referred to do not establish his interpretation. He pointed to Walter Wink's work, which we will discuss below. This means that the main reliance of Stassen's interpretation of Matthew 5.39 is Walter Wink's interpretation.
2) David Garland, Reading Matthew:
"To be struck on the right cheek implies that a person has been slapped with the back of the hand. Jesus is therefore not simply urging his disciples to turn the other cheek when someone aims to blow at them but when someone assaults them with insulting violence. Such as calculated indignity is considered to be at least four times as injurious in the Mishnaic discussion on indemnities for violence:The Mishna Baba Qamma 8.6 that Garland quoted points out the severity of slapping someone backhandedly. This probably supports (b) and (c). Garland does not argue much other than directly refer to the works of Walter Wink.
If a man cuffed his fellow he must pay him a sela [four zuz; a zuz was approximately a day's wage]. R. Judah says in the name of R. Jose the Galilean: One hundred zuz. If he slapped him he must pay 200 zuz. If [he struck him] with the back of his hand he must pay him 400 zuz. (Mishna Baba Qamma 8.6)[...] By turning the other cheek, for example, the victim "robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate." The oppressor must decide whether or not to slap the person again, but this time not as one would slap a slave with the back of the hand but as one would an equal. Wink contends that turning the cheek "seizes the initiative from the oppressor, overcomes fear, and reclaims the power of choice, all the while maintaining the humanity of the oppressor" (W. Wink, "We Have Met the enemy," Sojourners 15, no.11 : 15; see also "Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus' Nonviolent Way," RevExp 89 : 197-214)."
(David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: a literary and theological commentary [USA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2001], p.72-74)
3) Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7:
The portion of 327-329 in Luz's commentary that Stassen and Gushee quoted does not talk about how the Matthew 5.39 can be interpreted within its cultural setting to mean what the two of them wrote it to mean. So I shall discuss the portion where Luz engages specifically with Matthew 5.39 than the portion Stassen and Gushee have highlighted.
"A slap in the face (v.39b) was considered as an expression of hate and insult; the insult and not the pain stands in the foreground (Isa. 50.6; Lam. 3.30). The addition of right, which perhaps comes from the evangelist to make it more precise, could mean an especially vehement insult. The slap on the right cheek is not the ordinary thing; for that one either has to be left-handed or slap with the back of the hand (B. Qam. 8.6, 1 Esd. 4.30). But it is more probably that it was made more precise arbitrarily for rhetorical reasons. No special situation is in view. It is neither the issue that a master beats his slave or the oppressor the oppressed nor the waiver of legal retribution for insults nor slaps on the cheek which the disciples receive during the mission ("as heretics"), but rather any kind of violent altercation possible in everyday life. Slaps are so widespread that it is unnecessary to awaken special reminiscences of the servant of God os Isa. 50.6, who was beaten."Luz's commentary only supports (b) and (c). There is no evidence that show (a) and (d). Hence Luz's work contribute little to the interpretation that Stassen and Gushee insist.
(Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Continental Commentary [USA: Augsburg fortress, 1989], p.325)
4) Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers:
"Turn the Other Cheek. "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." Why the right cheek? A blow by the right fist in the right-handed world would land on the left cheek of the opponent. An open-handed slap would also strike the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. Even to gesture with the left hand at Qumran carried the penalty of ten days' penance. The only way one could naturally strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand. We are dealing here with insult, not a fistfight. The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer thus, and if one did the fine was exorbitant. The mishnaic tractate Baba Kamma specifies the various fines for striking an equal: for slugging with a fist, 4 zuz (a zuz was a day's wage); for slapping, 200 zuz; but "if [he struck him] with the back of his hand he must pay him 400 zuz." But damages for indignity were not paid to slaves who were struck (8.1-7).No evident for (a) and (d). Wink simply assumes without evidence that left hand was used for unclean task and so not appropriate to humiliate people by slapping them. But if the purpose is to humiliate, shouldn't one use the dirty hand to strike the other person? That would be extra-humiliating.
A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would invite retribution. The only normal response would be cowering submission.
Part of the confusion surrounding these sayings arises from the failure to ask who Jesus' audience was. In all three of the examples in Matt. 5.39b-41, Jesus' listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims (if anyone strikes you... wants to sue you... forces you to go one mile..."). There were among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of class, race, gender, age, and status, and as a result of imperial occupation.
Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, "Try again. Your fist blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter the fact. You cannot demean me."
Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the strike. Purely logistically, how would he hit the other cheek now turned to him? He cannot backhand it with his right hand (one only need try this to see the problem). If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer. But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality. Even if the superior orders ther person flogged for such "cheeky" behaviour (this is certainly no way to avoid conflict!), the point has been irrevocably made. He has been given notice that this underling is in fact a human being. In that world of honor and shaming, he 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 noncooperation with everything humiliating.""
(Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination [USA: Augsburg Fortress, 1992], 175-177. Emphasis original.)
Wink also assumes without evidence that Jesus' listeners were victims. Jesus was giving hypothetical situations ("If anyone strikes/sues/forces you...") rather than identifying his listeners as real victims of events that have already occurred. And the 'anyone' in this passage means that Jesus' teaching is not confined to "dehumanizing treatment carried out within a hierarchical system."
As conclusion, there is no coherent evidence to support the cultural setting that generates the symbol of 'non-violent resistance' that so many contemporary scholars want it to mean, building on Wink's proposal. Such hermeneutical exercise is driven more by other concern rather than what the text says. As Malcolm Brown observed, "Wink's point is to distance Jesus from the charge of passivity and to stress that pacifism, properly understood, is not inert. He wants to make this move because, on other scriptural grounds, he sees Jesus' resistance to oppression and injustice as the 'bigger story', and so the limp passivity implied in most interpretations of Matthew 5 must be wrong." (Malcolm Brown, Tension in Christian Ethics: An Introduction [UK: SPCK, 2010], p.219).