Turn Your Cheek?
- Tuesday, December 30, 2008
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”:
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