On Twitter last week in the aftermath of the whole Porter situation someone mentioned the issue of turning the other cheek. Now first off I don’t think in any legitimate interpretation of turning the cheek it means submitting to abuse particularly spousal abuse. I know there is sadly a strong thread in the Jewish, Christian, & Islamic tradition that doesn’t see this as horrific as it is. That is men who justify running a home like a corrupt totalitarian government on the basis of a few scriptures. However that’s clearly not what Christ taught and certainly isn’t what turning the cheek means. Fortunately I got into an interesting discussion on the issue with Zina Peterson. She brought up an interpretation I’d honestly never seen before.
The normal interpretation of Jesus’ remarks is that he’s trying to get people past retributive justice. The idea is that we are to want the best even for our enemies. From a contemporary gospel perspective we recognize that they are our brothers and sisters who have forgotten who they were. While they are doing evil, often violent things, this is in part because they haven’t been touched by the truth.
Tied to this is a notion of not valuing the self. Not in the way an abused person often comes to feel worthless. Rather in the sense that saving others is more important than our own feelings of justice due to wrongs against us. It’s almost a Buddhist sense of focusing on others with love from a position of strength where we lose the self in that love. Christ’s own sacrifice where he freely submitted to the authorities and allowed himself to suffer egregious violence and death is the archetype of this view. As such Matthew 5 and Luke 6 are a kind of foreshadowing of what is to come as Christ puts this in practice to save even those who wrong him.
An obvious problem with this approach is the old problem of when one should stop wrongs and when one should submit to them. The New Testament isn’t very clear on that point. (IMO)
Zina’s interpretation is slightly different. It sees non-violence as an act of defiance. For those familiar with Ghandi’s non-violent methods to gain Indian independence, this is somewhat similar. Non-violence almost becomes a quasi-violent way of reacting to violence. It’s hard not to think of bad Rocky movies where Rocky is saying, “not so tough. Hit me again.” That’s the general idea. Someone slaps you and you turn the cheek to say, try it again.
There’s more to it though. Walter Wink puts it like this:
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Why the right cheek? A blow by the right fist in that right handed world would land on the left cheeck 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 clear not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. […]
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.
The idea is that by turning the cheek you’re not being submissive, but are taking up power by saying they can’t have the effect they want. Jesus’ comments are a type of empowering oneself through non-violence.
Now this isn’t as far from the typical interpretation as it may seem. In both cases the abuser is robbed of power and the abused is exercising power. The main difference is in terms of defiance.
Rather than make my own argument here I’m curious as to what you think of this reading and its problems. I’d throw in that where these teachings become hardest is in egregious violence such as what we find in Alma 14. There the women and children converts of Alma and Amulek are burnt alive. It is interesting trying to think through that narrative in terms of the passages about turning the other cheek.
- Twitter being Twitter it’s hard to read the thread in a straightforward way. The discussion started with Zina saying, “it does not mean submission. It means defiance.”
- As an aside, I think there are some reasons to see the religion of Nehor here as a kind of syncretic religion tied to traditional Mayan beliefs. This may be a cult oriented around a Xiuhtecuhtli like figure who had human sacrifice through fire. (Although to be fair there are those like Karl Taube who see this as only a feature of late postclassical belief)