“But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” Matthew 5:39
Many people want to bypass these provocative words from Jesus because they seem to imply that we are to allow people to just beat the tar out of us and not resist physical violence and injury. Having a sense of what I think Jesus really meant by these words causes me to wonder at how easily we get deceived into believing that it means something that is impossible to obey. God does not give us commands that are impossible to obey. He certainly gives us ones that are difficult and that challenge us but never ones that are impossible.
In order to understand what God wants of us, it is important to catch key details. Anytime the Bible gives a particularly vivid detail we need to pay attention. There is a vivid key detail in this verse that speaks volumes. Jesus said, if someone “strikes you on the right cheek” then you are to turn your face to him in such a way as to present your left cheek. The implication being that he may hit you again. What is the significance of the “right” cheek. Why not the left cheek? Picture someone getting hit on the right cheek. What is the most likely way for that to happen? Since most people are right handed and would hit someone with the right hand, then the only way for them to hit someone on the right cheek is to do it as a backhanded slap. What Jesus is speaking about here is not letting someone pummel you into a pile of broken bones. Rather He is talking about taking an insult. I backhanded slap is just that. It is an insult that challenges you to retaliate. It is an attempt to shame you and get you to either back down in utter humiliation or lash out and escalate the conflict.
To turn the other cheek is neither humiliating nor retaliation. It is rather a response of strength that says, “I will not seek revenge because I am stronger than that”. It also says, I will not respond in shame because I have dignity in Christ. My dignity is not found in if I can hit you back and hurt you. My dignity is found in Christ and I will respond in just the way He would respond.
In practice there are very few times in ones life when another person would give you an actual backhanded slap. There are times when they might give you a verbal one, or show great disrespect for you in some other way. It is those things that get people all worked up and excited. Think of how often you see people arguing and fighting because someone “disrespected” them. What they are looking for is dignity. They want an acknowledgement that they are a person of substance and importance. If someone does not give them that respect then they feel somehow violated. The means to get that respect and dignity is to exert power over the other person and show that you are stronger, better, more significant than they are. So instead of turning the other cheek, you strike back, preferably with even more force. If that is what you need to do to get respect and dignity then you will never have it.
Our dignity comes because we are made in the image of God. Our significance comes because we are called by Jesus to be world changers. Our power and strength comes because we are filled with the Holy Spirit who gives us the ability to receive the insults of others and respond with as Christ responded to those who hurled insults at Him.
Black athletes who broke the color barrier in professional sports understood this. People like Jackie Robinson knew that they would face insult after insult. Those insults were intended to humiliate and incite an even more violent response. The hope was that such a response would then justify the impression of the black man as out of control and uncivilized. But when the response was a quiet dignity that came from within it changed the world. Racial barriers began to fall and reconciliation started to take place.
It is no different for Christians. When we respond to insults with the same kind of vindictiveness then we affirm for the world that Christianity is a sham and a joke. But when we respond in quiet dignity, drawing on the power of Christ, we provoke a response of respect and wonder and we compel people to want to learn more about Jesus. Turning the other cheek is not impossible, but it is difficult. But when we do respond with the gentle dignity of Jesus, then we bring glory to Him.