I don’t think I need to point out that this is about a slightly simplified translation of Jesus’ challenge, „If someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the left also.” Not long ago, my son came to me with a problem—he was being bullied at school. Not physically, but that is not important for this article. What is important is what I should have advised him to do. Should he let himself be attacked or, in the spirit of Jesus’ appeal, should he even invite the bully to attack him again? This is not only about raising children. What about when someone physically or emotionally harms us? Should we just allow it? Jesus told us to turn the other cheek! In other words, we should not only let the attacker hurt us, but we should offer him another opportunity to strike again!!!
To turn the other cheek carries within itself an active component; it is more than just running away. I confess I have not seen many people act in accordance with the title of this article. They instead struck back with a stronger hit, others ran away, and others turned the other cheek, either literally or figuratively, but only because they were weaker and had no alternative. If we take Jesus’ words literally, then we have a fundamental problem. We would be allowing evil to spread without any opposition. It is true that sometimes an aggressor can be overcome in the way described by Victor Hugo in his famous book, Les Miserables, when the escaped convict Valjean is literally broken by the generosity of the priest from whom he had stolen silver candlesticks. It is beautiful when evil is overcome by good, as we see in this story. But sometimes (and likely more often) evil is stopped when someone bravely takes a stand against the one who has struck; when the one who is hit shows that further aggression will not be tolerated. For many evil people, the figurative turning the other cheek is just a sign of weakness and an invitation to get tougher. Some people have told me that they would stand up against evil and injustice directed at themselves or others, but that they are afraid of conflict, and so they remain silent instead. I think that there is nothing Christ-like about such an attitude, and that they should rather pray for courage to stand up to the evil, to resist it.
How to solve this dilemma? If I am to turn the other cheek, I need to have a face to turn. To “save face” means to preserve one’s dignity. If I act like a dishrag or a doormat, I lose face; probably in my own eyes, but most certainly in the eyes of others. To have face means to not be afraid (or, to be more precise, to not allow oneself to be controlled by fear...all of us are afraid at times). In the Christian context, it also means to follow Christ, even when it is not convenient. To have face means to be a person of character in everything that goes along with character. It is not so easy to strike a person who has dignity, even when knowing the strike would not be returned. His/her strength is not in the possibility of him/her taking revenge, but in the strength of his/her character. At the same time, if the person with dignity refuses to strike back, it is an unusual occurrence in our world.
A person without dignity is easily taken advantage of, and, in addition, there is nothing left for such a one to do but to allow it to continue… For some, however, Jesus’ appeal does not mean letting others continue to hurt them, but to save (their) “face”, i.e., their dignity, perhaps precisely in such a way as standing up to the evil done to themselves or others. Only then do they turn the other cheek, because only then are they enabled to. Reflecting back to my son, it means that he must first build his own character, his dignity, amongst his peers, and then he will be able to turn the other cheek. That time has not yet arrived.
Another way of looking at this text is as an appeal to refrain from revenge—to not return evil for evil, which only just perpetuates the diabolic cycle of never-ending revenge that leads to a lack of sound judgment and to hatred even “beyond the grave”. Even when you have the right to revenge, give up that right, emotionally as well as literally. It is not about weakness, but about the greatness of a man…a man who has dignity.