I never really understood what that meant and it used to really baffle me. Like, what? Why would I let them hit me again? Then I watched Fr. Robert Barron explain it in his Catholicism series and understand it better. I looked but couldn’t find the video excerpt for this but I did find some text about it so thought I’d share it here in case others are like I was and have no clue what Jesus meant by “turning the other cheek.” Here’s the scripture passage:
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. (Matt 5:39)
Then here is how Fr. Barron explains it:
“There are two classical responses to violence: fight or flight. Faced with a threat, we typically either fight back or run away—and sometimes this is all we reasonably can do. However, we also know that neither of these strategies is particularly efficacious in the long run. Fighting fire with fire usually just exacerbates the problem (as Gandhi said, “an eye for an eye, making the whole world blind”); and acquiescing to violence confirms the perpetrator’s injustice.
What Jesus proposed was a third way: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and give him the other.” No one in Jesus’ time would have used the unclean left hand for any kind of social interaction. Therefore, to strike someone on the right cheek was to hit him with the back of the hand, and this was a gesture of contempt, reserved for slaves and social inferiors. Faced with this kind of aggression, Jesus says, one should neither fight back nor flee; rather one should stand one’s ground and turn the other cheek. He thereby signals to the aggressor that he refuses to live in that person’s spiritual and psychological space. And he mirrors back the aggressor’s aggression, shaming him into self-awareness and prompting conversion. [emphasis mine]
Naïve? Impractical? Tell that to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and John Paul II, all of whom effected massive social changes through creative employment of Jesus’ teaching. The Christian Churches need to recover their confidence in this method and to teach it, at the very least to their own congregants.”
I also loved the two examples he gave in the Catholicism series video –
The only one I remember well enough now is about Mother Theresa – she was on the streets of Calcutta holding a starving child by the hand and took the child to a bakery. She approached the baker and begged some bread for the child. The baker contemptuously spat full in her face. She stood firm, looked at the baker and said “That was for me, now can you give something for the child?”
Mother Theresa didn’t just quit, she also didn’t really tell the baker what she thought of him in so many words. Her reaction did however send a clear message to the baker and hopefully did “awaken” him to his rude behavior and hopefully awarded the starving child with the bread anyway. In this way, justice, mercy, and love were all accomplished both for the starving child and the not-so-generous baker.
My husband also brought up the good example of Jesus at the scourging as depicted in The Passion. Jesus is being literally beaten to the point of death…and yet. He doesn’t quit. He doesn’t fight back – although of course He could have easily wiped the whole lot out. What does He do? He stands up, He takes it, but He doesn’t let it stop Him from standing His ground and accomplishing the great work before Him – the work of our salvation.
“Turning the other cheek” is much easier said and written than done. Like Jennifer Fulwiler wrote a few years ago, I have a hard time finding that sweet spot between being a “pushover” who lacks a backbone and finding the right way to stand up for what is right and good. I think I’ll always be trying to find the right balance here.
Anyway, I hope this explanation is as helpful for you as it was for me. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday and remember to “turn the other cheek” whenever you can.