“Turning the other cheek” as Transformative Act

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not retaliate against evil. Rather, whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to them the other as well. And let the one who brings you to court for your shirt have your coat as well. And whoever commandeers you for one mile, go with them two miles. To the one who asks something of you, give; to the one who begs to borrow from you, do not refuse.

Setting

The four examples of Matthew 5:38-42 rely heavily on knowledge of the culture and customs. The first example deals with interpersonal violence—even what we may today term “domestic violence”—as for a right-handed person striking somebody on the right cheek requires a backhanded blow. This was an extreme humiliation in both Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures.[1] The term ῥαπιζω is a forceful, violent term. To “turn the other cheek” to such a blow is to ask in effect for a proper punch, one that would elevate the one being hit to an equal level with the attacker. It is an act of moral courage—and in many cases the only act available to a person in a position to receive such a blow: slave to master, son to father, wife to husband.[2] “The gesture exposes the act of the offender as what it is: morally repulsive and improper.”[3] Wink summarizes the meaning of the gesture as stating to the attacker, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me.”[4]

The second example moves from the interpersonal realm to the legal. The one who is suing another for their χιτών is to be given the victim’s ἰμάτιον as well, an action in violation of Levitical law, which demands that a person cannot be stripped of their cloak or overcoat, and if it is taken in pledge must be returned each day at sunset (Exo 22:26-27). Thus, to give the overcoat to the oppressor is to symbolically mark them as such. Moreover, if the oppressor has genuinely taken away a defendant’s undershirt, then removing the overcoat will leave the defendant standing nude, or next to it, the ultimate symbol of one who has been unfairly robbed. Luz remarks that “the obvious absurdity of the example in leaving the victim standing naked does not exclude its sound logic.”[5]

The third example moves from legal and economic indebtedness to military oppression. The one who will force you to go one mile is a Roman soldier, enforcing a practice of commandeering subjugated peoples apparently adopted from the Persian Empire (hence the Persian term ἐγγαρεύσει). Further, the one mile (μιλιὀν ἑν) is a technical term, specifically used in Roman legal documents.[6] This example thus demonstrates the latent Galilean hostility toward Rome, while also underscoring the full scope of the call to non-retaliation. Wink argues that penalties existed for military auxiliaries who conscripted labor for more than one mile, and that by volunteering to work beyond that, one assumes control of the situation, creating the farcical situation of a soldier demanding his load returned to him.[7]

The practical likelihood of these three examples is very low, but the teaching is nonetheless provocative. Luz comments they demand more than they explicitly say. “Their intention is not that they simply be obeyed literally; they are to be obeyed in such a way that in new situations what they demand is repeatedly to be discovered anew in freedom but in a similar radicality.”[8] Wink himself comments that the point of this behavior is not that the demand would be “plausible,” in terms of solving concrete political problems, but that it would be “a sigh of the oppressed,” expressions of protest against “dehumanizing spirals of violence.”[9] The final example, calling the listener to give and lend without interest or return, is much more general in its scope, less exaggerated, perhaps emphasizing a call to a concrete solidarity within community.

Praxis

In August 2013 a man entered an elementary school outside Atlanta, GA, with an AK-47. Shots were fired, police were called, and shots were exchanged between the man and the police. A CNN article asks, “What do you do?” It provides an answer that could have come directly from the Sermon on the Mount:

If you’re Antoinette Tuff, who works in the front office at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy just outside Atlanta, you don’t run. You talk. You divulge your personal struggles to the gunman, you tell him you love him, you even proactively offer to walk outside with him to surrender so police won’t shoot.[10]

It is true that Tuff was trained in conflict resolution; indeed, this demonstrates an internalization of the values of the Sermon on the Mount, a prior commitment to find creative alternatives to retaliation. It is likewise true that in many concrete situations such “creative alternatives” will end in death and disaster. Stanley Hauerwas observes that Jesus does not promise that if we turn the other cheek we will avoid being hit again. Nonretaliation is not a strategy to get what we want by other means. Rather, Jesus calls us to the practice of nonretaliation because that is the form that God’s care of us took in his cross.[11]

Precisely what is required for a community to be formed in such practices as Jesus commands in Matt 5:38-42 is the patience that faith in such a God makes possible.

[1] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Commentary, ed. Helmut Koester (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 289.

[2] Ibid., 290.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 185.

[5] Luz, Sermon, 291.

[6] Walter Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, 406.

[7] Wink, Engaging, 186.

[8] Luz, Matthew, 274.

[9] Wink, Engaging, 187.

[10] “Antoinette Tuff Hailed as ‘True Hero’ out of Georgia School Shooting,” CNN.com, accessed December 8, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/21/us/georgia-school-gunshots/index.html.

[11] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 72.

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