Misunderstanding Turning the Other Cheek

The main problem is that Christianity is a suicide pact – assured destruction of any society build upon Christians norms and beliefs. Christianity only survived by becoming ‘un-Christian’ and more like Islam. The Christian Holy Wars (Crusades) under the banner of Christ instead of loving the enemies and turning the other cheek is an example of a more realistic approach to reality – but alas a very un-Christian one. -Quoted at Jihad Watch

One objection I’ve heard over the years to becoming a Christian is that, as a Christian, you must “turn the other cheek.” That, as a Christian, you should never defend yourself against any attack. There are a lot of Christians who seem to take this particular saying in just this way. What the writer above is saying is that Christianity only survives in direct proportion to it’s hypocrisy on this issue —that only when Christianity fails to keep this commandment, does Christianity survive.

But this seems, to me, to be a complete misunderstanding of the Scriptures. Let’s return to the Scriptures themselves to see what we can learn about this particular point.

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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. -Matthew 5:38-39

Reading the statement in the immediate context, it’s clear that what the writer above says is true, at least from a human viewpoint. For not only are Christians supposed to turn the other cheek, they’re not even supposed to defend themselves in a court of law, no matter what the circumstances. If someone sues you for your house, move out and give it to them. If someone asks you to quit your job so they can take it, or so they can get ahead, then quit. If someone kidnaps your daughter, neither you nor she should resist.

That this is so radical should pick up our ears and make us wonder what the larger context is. You see, the Apostles certainly didn’t act this way. Paul claimed his Roman citizenship, rather than being struck with 40 lashes. Peter and Stephen both opened their mouths and defended themselves when accused before courts. So how should we read this?

Perhaps it only applies to using physical force to defend yourself? That won’t work, because when you invoke secular law, you are also invoking the force of the secular state in your defense. Limiting yourself to calling on the state only makes you into a mercenary master, refusing to do yourself what you expect others to do. Further, Jesus himself says, quite clearly, not to defend yourself in a court of law.

So what is the larger context, and what is the meaning? Are Christian hypocrites for defending themselves?

This statement is one of many that fall within the Sermon on the Mount, or the Sermon on the Plain. While many Christians take these to be commandments, or even rules for living, they clearly are not meant to be commandments. If you look at the formula Jesus is using here, you find he says, “you have heard it said… but I say to you…”

In the context of his time, these two things were quite clear. One is the oral law, the law actually practiced by the everyday Jew in the period of the Second Temple, and as taught by the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is taking these statements and comparing them to a full and radical explanation of the Mosaic Law, to show how impossible it is to follow the law for a human.

Jesus is not, in other words, giving a new set of laws, or even explaining how the Mosaic Law should have been lived. He is showing the impossibility of living the law, even the Mosaic Law, in its true meaning and form. He is saying, “Following the oral law will not save you. You could follow this other law, but it’s even more impossible to follow. So follow me instead.”

Read rightly, then we can see that Christians are not hypocrites for picking up the sword to defend their homes, their lives, and the innocent from slaughter.

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