Thursday, August 18, 2011

Turn what cheek?

kw: biblical interpretation, altruism

If I hear one more person misapply "turn the other cheek" I may do a bit of cheek-slapping. Let's take a look at the two passages where this concept occurs:
Matt 5:38-42 – You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Luke 6:28-30 – Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
In both these Gospels, these words appear early in the "Sermon on the Mount", and a verse many people remember is "the meek shall inherit the earth". Consider first "meekness". It does not mean "weak" or "mild". It means "calmly obedient". Obedient to whom? To God, of course, but also to authorities, and Paul expanded on this in his Epistles.

Secondly, look at the key words Jesus uses: "If anyone slaps…" or "If someone slaps…". In most of his discourses about social relationships, Jesus tells how to treat your "neighbor", by which he means how his Jewish hearers were to treat fellow Jews. In the rare instances that he uses "anyone" or "someone", he is including non-Jews, and the principal number of these were the Roman soldiers, the occupying forces.

We tend to forget that Israel at that time was a tributary territory of the Roman empire. Relations between the Jews and the Romans were dicey at best. Authority and power are frequently misused, and resentment builds up to dangerous levels. Several instances of "suppression" by Roman forces are recorded in the Gospels. Now consider, who is most likely to demand your shirt or cloak, or who is likely to compel you to carry his stuff for a mile or so when he gets tired? Your "neighbor" would ask a favor. An oppressing soldier never would, but would make an arrogant demand. If you are slow to comply, a slap results. They considered it attitude adjustment.

A telling passage is found earlier in Luke, when John the Baptist is asked for some advice:
Luke 3:14 – Then some soldiers asked him, 'And what should we do?' He replied, 'Don't extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.'
John got to tell a few soldiers to moderate their own attitude. Jesus told his audience to moderate their own attitude.

Finally, that word "slap". A blow with a closed fist would be described as "smite" not "slap". A slap is intended to shame someone. Whether a Roman or someone else slaps you, Jesus is exhorting his followers to swallow their pride and take the shame. It beats getting smitten! But elsewhere, we see that we are allowed self-defense. Late in Luke, Jesus advises them to carry a sword when traveling. If someone is about to hit you with the fist, about to smite you to do you physical damage, defend yourself.

In the West, at least, we don't have much experience with invading, occupying forces. A weak analogy is being stopped by the police for a traffic offense such as running a light. In such a situation, whether the police officer is righteous or not, do not resist. If you are mistreated, just take notes. Contact your lawyer later. In America at least, assuming you live through the encounter, you can sue for redress later, when you are more physically secure. There is an old song that goes, "I fought the law, and the law won." I take it as the primary application of these verses, that Jesus is telling us, don't "fight the law".

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