turn the other cheek

OK, this isn’t a word. It’s a phrase. But it’s a phrase that can serve as an excellent illustration of the value of historical research and awareness of cultural context.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase turn the other cheek. It’s a popular admonition to forgive wrongs and not to fight back. Someone does you dirty? Turn the other cheek. You often get this advice from people who have not likewise been wronged, and sometimes from people who are the wrongdoers. It is open to abuse because it seems to give carte blanche to abusers. And, on the other hand (ignore the pun), you get instances like a particularly stupid one I once accidentally saw in a terrible TV show where Michael Langdon played an angel. Some bad guy punches him in the side of the head. Langdon turns his head and gets punched on the other side. Then he says, “I turned the other cheek,” and belts the bad guy. (Of course bad guy punches never knock a good guy out, but good guy punches usually knock a bad guy out. But I digress.)

The phrase comes from the Bible, from the Gospel According to Matthew, the part popularly called the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s the line from the King James Version: “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” But let me give you a bit more context, and let me give it to you in a better version. (The King James Version is a 400-year-old translation of the Hebrew and Greek sources. The state of scholarship and research has advanced much in the intervening four centuries, and the language has changed too. We think the KJV is elegant because it – and Shakespeare – is held up to us as examplary of beautiful English: it’s what we learn to judge beautiful English by, so of couse we revere it. But it’s no longer a truly accurate translation, if it ever was.) Here, Matthew 5:38–41 in the New International Version:

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.

That seems plain enough, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the problem. We see words we understand, referring to things we can picture (even if we don’t experience them much), so we assume that we can take it at face value. We treat the cultural context of the Bible as effectively identical to our own cultural context.

“We,” I am happy to say, does not include scholars like Walter Wink. Walter Wink was a minister and professor. He wrote several books, and coined (among others) the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence.” Walter Wink did the hard legwork on this passage. He looked at the history and the cultural norms at the time. The time and place in which Jesus lived was a Jewish nation under Roman occupation, a nation subject to its own laws and norms as well as to an imposed Roman occupying law. Walter Wink also worked through the physical implications of this passage.

Jesus didn’t say a cheek or your cheek. He said the right cheek. Say someone slaps you on the right cheek. They’re facing you. How do they do that? With their left hand, right? No, wrong. The left hand was unclean. It was not to be used for touching other people. No matter what. (This rule still stands in some cultures.) So they’re backhanding you with the right hand. This was a kind of slap of rebuke given to a social inferior. It wasn’t a fighting blow; it was a reprimand. Master to slave. Father to son. Husband to wife. Roman to Jew. Anyone who struck a social equal that way was subject to a fine. The rule of law was important!

Now, if someone struck you that way, and you invited them to strike the left cheek, you were inviting them to an open-handed blow. That’s an entirely different kind of slap. It was not a rebuke to an inferior. It was a challenge to an equal. You’re inviting them to hit you again, but you’re inviting them to hit you as they would hit an equal. If you are their equal, the first blow was improper. If they are your social superior, the second blow would be. You’re forcing them to be open about the imbalance, the injustice. It’s not violence. It’s peaceful. But it’s resistance. It’s a dare. It’s cheeky.

How about if someone sues you for your shirt? Let’s not forget that they didn’t wear three-piece suits then. They wore an inner garment and an outer garment. These have been translated as shirt and coat, but actually they were khitona, or tunic, and himation, or toga. The coat, the toga, was the outer garment, but it was actually more essential, because it’s what you slept in at night. Deuteronomy 24, verse 13, lays down the law that if someone gives you their coat – himation, toga – as a pledge, you must return it by nightfall so they can sleep in it.

So, now, they’ve demanded from you the shirt off your back. Literally, that’s what they’ve taken you to court for. You push it. You get cheeky. You give them the coat too. They’ll be required by law to return it. Oh, and if they have both your shirt and your coat, what are you wearing? …Nothing. Which exposes you to shame – at their instigation – but also exposes them to shame for viewing it. So you’re really pressing the point. You’re not letting them get away with a halfway villainy, a socially allowable injustice. You’re making them commit to an obvious injustice, to face the full force of their actions: “Stop, why are you doing that? You’re making me feel like a bad person.”

Now. How about that extra mile? We know that “go the extra mile” line too. But this isn’t a running club buddy asking you. It’s not your aunt saying “Can’t we stroll a bit longer.” It’s not your friend saying “Dude, help me move this sofa to my new place.” Judaea was under Roman occupation, and Roman law permitted Roman authorities to require any inhabitant of an occupied territory to carry messages and equipment for the distance of one mile – but prohibited forcing them to go any more than one mile. They could be punished for making you go farther. So. You’re walking along the road in your country , which is occupied by these Romans, and a Roman comes along and says you have to carry something for him. This blows your lunch plans a little bit, maybe, but it’s not terrible; a Roman mile was a bit shorter than a modern mile, and might take a person 20 minutes or less to walk. It’s just an indignity, an injustice. But it’s one permitted by law, so it’s OK, right?

So at the end of the mile you keep going. “No,” says the Roman, “you don’t have to go any farther. You can hand it over now.” “Oh, no problem,” you say, smiling. “I can do two.” Why not? You’re keeping someone else from having to do that mile. And you’re putting this occupier in an uncomfortable situation. “You’re making me look bad!” “But I thought you wanted me to carry this for you!” Cheeky.

So you do not return violence for violence, no. That would compound wrong on wrong. It would also make you lose. They could have you arrested for it. Instead, you turn the other cheek, go the extra mile. But, in its historical origins, that is also not meek acquiescence. It’s pressing the point. It’s making the injustice plainer to see. It’s making it awkward. Politeness lets injustices pass. But pushing politeness can expose them, too, without giving any excuse for further injustice. You just have to turn… cheeky.

The phrase turn the other cheek is well ingrained in the language, of course, as is go the extra mile. It would be far too much to expect people to instantly change the usage to refer to a kind of meekness that presses the point and exposes the injustice. Still, it’s worth knowing, to appreciate historical context and to reconsider the value of the usual intention of the phrase.

21 responses to “turn the other cheek

  1. This is excellent (and I’m not exactly a believer).

  2. So, given this interpretation how would you translate the three sentences into plain, modern English?

    • Honestly, I think they – like so much of the Bible – require commentary, not just translation. If we want cogent modern analogues, though, that’s a very good question and one I haven’t come up with a good enough answer to yet from my own perspective. We don’t really have a lot of the same kinds of everyday social structures where A can impose X on B, at penalty to B for not complying, but at (commonly enforceable) penalty to A for requiring more than X. There are plenty of social occasions where we can push the point with politeness but that’s a matter of softer norms. I think analogues will be more available for people who are socially disadvantaged – Jesus was addressing an audience who were in a strict social hierarchy with others above them and Roman occupiers on top of everyone. So minority groups who are regularly subject to certain indignities will surely have clearer analogues available to them. Gandhi’s nonviolence, where they marched up and took the baton blows without fighting back, was in the same vein: it exposed the brutality of the regime, and did so painfully.

  3. Lawrence Buehler


    Wow…thanks for your research and detail again! It gives me a new appreciation of the phrase and the reading.

    I enjoy your ‘daily’s’… but seldom tell you.


    Lawrence Buehler

  4. Thanks – this is just the sort of material I treasure to spur my students to develop their critical thinking skills, most particularly in the context of a course that is a core component of the International Baccalaureate program – Theory of Knowledge. This TOK course has – at least, potentially – some of the same elements of intellectual subversion and challenge that you outline in your blog piece, although the IB institutional types might not relish (or accept) that perspective. You might see some student comments show up here during the next week; I’ll suggest it to them as an open-ended invitation to engage.

  5. Don’t you mean Michael Landon?

  6. hmm… without that error, I would have otherwise forwarded your column. Now, I can’t. ; )

  7. Pingback: Clarity | Brocka Nolen

  8. Pingback: Nazarene Commentary Matthew 5:1-12 Nazarene Mountain teachings: Blessed and legal commentaries | Belgian Biblestudents - Belgische Bijbelstudenten

  9. Pingback: On the value of historical context | facingthefireswithin

  10. I have also read that the point Jesus was making about the extra mile was one of “being the bigger man.” Because Jews knew the law, they were prone to pace the mile exactly, set the load down and walk off. So, up until that point there could be no magnanimous act – you were simply doing what the law required. However, carrying the load further was like “pouring hot coals over their heads.” A point that Paul made which was really about the magnanimous act of filling your neighbor’s brazier with hot coals from your fire place – giving them more than they need.

  11. WOW! I never heard about the “right” cheek explanation you presented here. What an interesting take on it!

  12. I think there’s a new phenomenon that could be said to be ‘similar’ to what Jesus was describing. It’s called ‘malicious compliance’ and there are a number of YouTube videos with examples of it; for example, people doing exactly as their boss told them to do, showing how idiotic the order was, and thus exposing the dictatorial boss up without defying them.

    I’m thankful for the insights here, since I’m writing about this in a book. I knew of the connotations with the Romans on the cheek slap and the extra mile, but not the coat and shirt one. For me, the lesson from Jesus is to defeat violence and injustice with dignity, and most certainly NOT retaliation. A few other commentators on this topic were only glad to point out that it wasn’t ‘passive subjection’ and leave it there, almost trying to defend violent retaliation. That’s REALLY missing the point.

  13. Anything by Walter Wink is well worth reading. His biggest “work” was spread out over many years, a study on the Powers (cf. Ephesians 6:12) that stretches out over five volumes. Wink was a marvelous Biblical scholar and we are fortunately to be left with the legacy of his writings.

  14. Raymond Perez, Jr

    Can you point me to sources on this topic? Writting a paper and read up on this topic in 2007 but can’t find sources now.
    Grace & Peace,

  15. Great post. Well done.

Leave a Reply to Raymond Perez, Jr Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s