Turn Your Cheek?
Paul CoughlinPaul Coughlin's Weblog
- 2008 Dec 16
There is no greater argument within the community that promotes not standing up to injustice and freedom-crushing than Jesus’ much-quoted (and torturously ill-applied) statement that “if someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (Luke 6:29 NRSV).
Countless churches have taken this to mean that Christians, especially Christian children, are to adopt a fully passive approach to the outside world, including bullying. We’re not to push back. We’re to acquiesce. The first angle to address is hypocrisy. Most such parents would not allow themselves to be treated in the workplace the way they tell their children to allow themselves to be treated when bullied. They’re expecting their children to undergo an environment they themselves are unwilling to face. In this way they are like the Pharisees Jesus chastised.
But someone not living up to a principle doesn’t make the principle flawed. Let me take this to another level. According to the perspective adopted by many Christians, there are few if any exceptions to this statement of Jesus. In their home, then, if a child strikes a parent on the face, that parent (according to his interpretation of the text) is required to do more than not resist. That parent also must correct such behavior. If there aren’t exceptions, then there aren’t exceptions. After all, Jesus never said He allowed for the exception of children striking parents.
We all know that healthy parenting is based in part upon a line of respect regarding a parent’s authority. A myopic interpretation of Luke 6:29 destroys this line of respect and with it the ability to parent well. This is what happens when we overemphasize one verse/passage of God’s Word at the expense of others, or when we refuse to consider His full counsel, or when we force our inclinations into the context of Scripture.
If defending yourself after being struck on the face is wrong or even sinful, then Jesus was wrong. Worse, Jesus sinned.
Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.
“I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagoges or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”
When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded.
“If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:19-23).
The first admonishment (Luke 6:29) is not intended to adopt passivity in response to abuse. Jesus pushes back by appealing to a general assumption that people should be treated with a common level of respect and decency. When this social contract is broken, as it is with bullying, we are free to protest and require amends. It should also be pointed out that Jesus used physical force when He cleared the temple of the money-changers, after witnessing clear examples of abuse of authority and power. Not only did He overturn tables, He made a whip with His own hands in a premeditated act of justice and righteousness.
So does Jesus contradict himself? Not at all, when we take His statement in context.
Jesus’ statement about turning our cheek most plainly applies to retaliation, and His command is clear: Don’t do it. Jesus did not retaliate by returning blow for blow, insult for insult. But He did protest with words and with physical intimidation. This more sane and healthy view was promoted by C.S. Lewis in “Why I Am Not a Pacifist”:
I think the text means exactly what it says, but with an understood reservation in favour of those obviously exceptional cases which every hearer would naturally assume to be exceptions without being told…That is insofar as the only relevant factors in the case are an injury to me by my neighbour and a desire on my part to retaliate, then I hold that Christianity commands the absolute mortification of that desire. No quarter whatever is given to the voice within us which says, “He’s done it to me, so I’ll do the same to him.”
Perhaps people who use Scripture to contend that we should never defend ourselves from or protest foul treatment should call themselves passi-thiests. Their doctrine, which isn’t biblically supported, fosters a passive and victimizing approach toward life, for themselves and for others (remember Jesus’ statement about children and millstones?).
On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV, a milk-truck driver, entered the one-room West Nickel Mines School in Bart Township, Pennsylvania, with a handgun, a shotgun, a bolt-action rifle, about six hundred rounds of ammunition, cans of black powder, a stun gun, two knives, a change of clothes, and a box containing a hammer, hacksaw, pliers, wire, screws, bolts, and tape. He barricaded the school doors before binding the Amish hostages’ arms and legs. He ordered them to line up against the chalkboard and released the fifteen male students, along with a pregnant woman and three parents with infants. The remaining ten female students he kept inside. The teacher contacted the police upon escaping by using a neighbor’s phone; the first officers arrived within ten minutes and tried unsuccessfully to communicate with Roberts.
Police broke through the windows when shots were heard. The gunman apparently killed five girls and himself. Three of the girls died at the scene, two more the next morning from related injuries. They were shot execution-style, in the head. Their ages ranged from six to thirteen. It’s likely more would have been killed if not for the bravery of the police, who thankfully possessed and used lethal force. Praise God that this calamity wasn’t even worse.
How can a person abhor the use of deadly force in his own hands but not hesitate to call 9-1-1 in order to bring deadly force to the door when needed? If someone believes it’s morally reprehensible to use deadly force, why is it not sinful either to have it used on his own behalf or to have it used for others at his behest? Such thinking reminds me of legalistic people who will not work on Sunday but who go after Sunday service to restaurants where an entire crew works to feed them. If it’s wrong to work on the Sabbath, why make others work? It’s wrong to perpetuate transgression, just as it’s wrong to transgress.
Self-defense and proper self-regard do not equate retaliation. They do not represent eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Their aim is not revenge but rather to keep boundaries established and clear, and when possible to protect from harm. Many of the Ten Commandments are based upon the foundational premise that sin between humans has at its base the violation of one by another. If one does not hold firmly to right boundaries, one facilitates sin and its subsequent horrors.
Who even talks about moral courage today? Spiritual growth, especially courage, is fed by what we do in community. It’s faith in action, discernable by others and yourself. Remember, the Bible says the righteous are as bold as lions; right now, we think the righteous are as soft as marshmallows. I’m going with the Word; I hope you do too.
And I hope you agree by now that standing up to the injustice of bullying is the Christian thing to do. People of a faith that promotes justice for all must take the lead tackling mistreatment—in this case, school-based abuse.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.