As a child of the sixties, I grew up during the Vietnam War, a twenty-year conflict fought primarily in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was a conflict between nationalist forces in the North, attempting to unify the divided country of Vietnam, and forces in the South attempting to arrest the spread of Communism.
Though very young at the time, I have vivid memories of the anti-war marches, burning of draft cards, and brutal clashes between U.S. Marshals, National Guardsmen, and anti-war protesters, including the shooting deaths at Kent State University in May of 1970. I retain the memory of a photograph depicting a young woman offering a flower to a soldier, a soldier who is holding a bayoneted rifle to her face. I remember the peace signs, the wild clothing styles, the rise of the Hippie culture, the Summer of Love, and slogans such as “Peace, Love, Dope,” “Make Love Not War,” and “Give Peace a Chance.”
The Law of the Tooth
It is the Latin Lex Talionis, the law of retaliation, or the law of the tooth. This law placed limitations on how far one could go when striking back at an offender.1 Retaliatory strikes have a tendency to escalate if not objectively restrained.
When Jacob and Leah’s daughter Dinah was raped by Shechem the son of Hamor,2 two sons of Jacob (Simeon and Levi) responded by killing every man in the city and the fields surrounding it, looting the wealth of the people, and carrying off their wives and children. They were later sternly rebuked for their rash response.3 To prevent such excessive responses, the law of the tooth prescribed a maximum punishment that fit the crime – a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Turning the Cheek
It is the Lex Talionis to which Jesus refers to when he makes what is perhaps the most-quoted passage of scripture when attempting to build the case that Jesus is a pacifist:
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 resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
– Matthew 5:39, NASB
It is easy to see the path to pacifism from a statement like that, but we also know that there comes a point at which we cry, “Absurdity!” Whoever knocks your teeth out, permit him to gouge out your eye also. I am tempted to call absurdity on that one, but it could be argued that it almost fits Jesus’ statement. Whoever rapes your wife, give him your daughter also. Okay, that one is over the line. That one is absurd and we all know it.
So, there is a line. We are willing to acknowledge that some measure of common-sense analysis must be applied to what Jesus is teaching. We cannot simply redirect the 9/11 terrorists from the World Trade Center to the Empire State Building as though it is “the other cheek.” That crosses the line. That is absurd.
Let’s begin the common-sense analysis by looking at what Jesus actually said. If someone ῥαπίζει (hrapidzei) – strikes you – on the right cheek, turn the left cheek to him.
This strike on the cheek is not a brass-knuckled fist punch. This is more analogous to a French lieutenant reviewing his troops, finding something that displeases him, removing his white glove, and slapping the offending soldier across the face with it. In doing so, this lieutenant is shaming the soldier. He does not harm the soldier in any way.
Recall the August 3, 1943 incident in which Lieutenant General George S. Patton slapped a hospitalized soldier, accusing him of cowardice.4 The slap did not really harm the soldier, and it was not intended to do so. Patton’s intent was to insult him, to shame him, and the incident almost ended Patton’s career.
Jesus follows the endurance of a slap with examples of other perceived offenses that we can easily absorb without allowing them to escalate into a heated conflict. If I am sued for my coat, rather than countersue, I should let my coat go. I can offer my shirt as well. It is a coat – a shirt. If someone presses me to carry his load for a mile, rather than fight him in refusal or comply grudgingly, I can gladly carry the load for an additional mile, then smile and return the load, shake his hand and bid him a good day. Give to those who ask while expecting nothing in return.5 Love my enemies and pray for their welfare. I am not personally injured by any of these actions.
This teaching from Jesus is about absorbing some perceived insult, some attack against our ego or our personal honor. So what if the French commander slaps me with his glove? Jesus is teaching me to show the commander the depth of my dignity, integrity, and honor by inviting a similar pathetic slap at my other cheek as well. The idea of self-defense, or the lack of it, is not found in this passage.
Jesus and Non-Violence
Given the emphasis Jesus places on love, forgiveness, forbearance, and turning the other cheek, it is easy to draw the conclusion that, like the Hippies of the 1960s, Jesus is a pacifist, abhorring all violence. As Christ-followers, we do not resist an evil person,6 and we love our enemies.7 We walk two miles instead of one,8 give up our clothing,9 charge no interest,10 and never turn away one who wishes to borrow from us.11 These truths are not mere theories or utopian wishes. Jesus actually taught this and meant it.
The perception of Jesus as a pacifist is widespread, and it is a viewpoint I shared and taught in my younger days. The pacifist Jesus is the Jesus of Hollywood. He is the soft-spoken, milky-white skinned, Yanni-haired wonder who peacefully, expressionlessly moved through life as though his body had been shot full of Novocain. In recent years I have come to realize what a misguided portrayal that is, and have concluded that Jesus is not a pacifist at all.
Having studied it out, I cannot find a single instance of Jesus actually teaching non-violence. We do find Jesus walking away from violent situations, but do not find him teaching the concept as a rule for godly living. Do not forget that it is Jesus who said “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”12
Jesus, himself, did not practice “turning the other cheek” in the traditional sense that it is taught and understood today.
The high priest then questioned Jesus about His disciples, and about His teaching. Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret. Why do you question Me? Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; they know what I said.” When He had said this, one of the officers standing nearby struck Jesus, saying, “Is that the way You answer the high priest?” Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?”
– John 18:19-23, NASB
Rather than turn the other cheek, in this instance Jesus objected to having been struck by one of the officers while being questioned in the court of the High Priest.
Not only did Jesus not practice the traditional turning of the cheek, but much of his teaching also contained frighteningly violent imagery. Consider Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of Heaven:
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire.
– Matthew 22:2-7, NASB (For further example, see: Mattew 18:23-35, 21:38-41, 22:13)
Here we have a king who created a feast. The invited guests did not come, which is terribly rude and insulting, and further, they abused and killed some of the king’s slaves. The response of the king is to send his army to mow down the invited guests and burn their city. That retaliatory response is not the teaching of a pacifist, and it is certainly not turning the other cheek.
We also have a parable from Jesus about a nobleman who went to a distant country to receive a kingdom. The citizens despised him and tried to block his coronation. At the close of the parable, the nobleman was granted his kingdom, and he had this closing remark:
But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence.
– Luke 19:27, NASB
This, also, is not the teaching of a pacifist.
Next week we will continue our look at Jesus and non-violence.
1. Exodus 21:22-25, Leviticus 24:17-22, Deuteronomy 19:15-21
2. Genesis 34:1-31
3. Genesis 49:5-7
4. Staff, F. D., (August 3, 2011) On This Day. Retrieved September 17, 2016 from http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/July-August-08/On-this-Day–General-Patton-Shocks-Public-by-Slapping-Crying-Soldier.html
5. Luke 6:34-35
6. Matthew 5:39
7. Matthew 5:44
8. Matthew 5:41
9. Matthew 5:40
10. Luke 6:35
11. Matthew 5:42