Turning the other cheek

Turning the other cheek is a phrase in Christian doctrine from the Sermon on the Mount that refers to responding to injury without revenge and allowing more injury. This passage is variously interpreted as commanding nonresistance, Christian pacifism, or nonviolence on the part of the victim. It has also been interpreted as a way to embarrass a bully.

Scriptural references

The phrase originates from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5, an alternative for "an eye for an eye" is given by Jesus:
In the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke chapter 6, as part of his command to "love your enemies", Jesus says:


This phrase, as with much of the Sermon on the Mount, has been subject to both literal and figurative interpretations.

Christian anarchist interpretation

According to this interpretation the passages call for total nonresistance to the point of facilitating aggression against oneself, and since human governments defend themselves by military force, some have advocated Christian anarchism, including Leo Tolstoy who elucidated his reasoning in his 1894 book The Kingdom of God Is Within You.

Nonviolent resistance interpretation

The scholar Walter Wink, in his book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, interprets the passage as ways to subvert the power structures of the time.
At the time of Jesus, says Wink, striking backhand a person deemed to be of lower socioeconomic class was a means of asserting authority and dominance. If the persecuted person "turned the other cheek," the discipliner was faced with a dilemma: The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed. An alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality. Thus, by turning the other cheek, the persecuted was demanding equality.
Wink continues with an interpretation of handing over one's cloak in addition to one's tunic. The debtor has given the shirt off his back, a situation forbidden by Hebrew law as stated in Deuteronomy. By giving the lender the cloak as well, the debtor was reduced to nakedness. Wink notes that public nudity was viewed as bringing shame on the viewer, and not just the naked, as seen in Noah's case.
Wink interprets the succeeding verse from the Sermon on the Mount as a method for making the oppressor break the law. The commonly invoked Roman law of Angaria allowed the Roman authorities to demand that inhabitants of occupied territories carry messages and equipment the distance of one mile post, but prohibited forcing an individual to go further than a single mile, at the risk of suffering disciplinary actions. In this example, the nonviolent interpretation sees Jesus as placing criticism on an unjust and hated Roman law, as well as clarifying the teaching to extend beyond Jewish law.

Righteous personal conduct interpretation

Another interpretation is that Jesus was not changing the meaning of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth", but restoring it to the original context. Jesus starts his statement with "you have heard it said," which could mean that he was clarifying a misconception, as opposed to "it is written", which could be a reference to scripture. The common misconception seems to be that people were using Exodus 21:24–25 as a justification for personal vengeance. However, the command to "turn the other cheek" would be not a command to allow someone to beat or rob a person but a command not to take vengeance.

Metaphysical interpretation

In the New Thought community popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, many spiritual teachers such as Emmet Fox viewed Jesus Christ as the greatest teacher of metaphysics that ever lived; that in his teachings he was attempting to explain to the individuals of the day how to improve their lot in life through practical teachings. The Sermon on the Mount records the details of one such seminar. Despite losing much in translation, as well as using ancient metaphors which are easily misinterpreted in the modern age, the tenets of Jesus's teachings, phrases such as 'resist evil' and 'turn the other cheek' are pure Godly instructions.
Rather than taking 'an eye for an eye', Jesus encourages us to resist evil, because giving our attention to evil just invites more evil into our lives. Likewise, if someone should strike us, rather than retaliating and therefore becoming embroiled in a battle, Jesus encourages us to 'turn the other cheek'. This is not so that the assailant may strike the other, but indicates that turning and walking away from the potential altercation is the only way to get a positive and Christ-like outcome. Violence begets more violence.
If we focus on any selfish, sinful thought, word or deed, it only increases its power and presence in our lives. By asking us to turn the other cheek, Jesus is suggesting we focus on forgiveness and loving others, rather than just the things we want.