The Bible’s Viewpoint
What Does It Mean to Turn the Other Cheek?
IN HIS celebrated Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ said: “Do not resist him that is wicked; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other also to him.”—Matthew 5:39.
What did he mean? Was he urging Christians to become passive victims? Are Christians expected to suffer in silence and refuse to seek legal protection?
What Jesus Meant
To understand what Jesus meant, we must consider the context of his statement, as well as his audience. Jesus prefaced his counsel quoted above with what his listeners already knew from the Holy Scriptures. He noted: “You heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’”—Matthew 5:38.
The passages Jesus referred to are found at Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20. It is noteworthy that in harmony with God’s Law, the “eye for eye” retribution mentioned in those scriptures was properly administered only after an offender had stood trial before the priests and judges who weighed the circumstances and the degree of deliberateness of the offense.—Deuteronomy 19:15-21.
In time the Jews distorted the application of this law. A 19th-century commentary on the Bible by Adam Clarke states: “It seems that the Jews had made this law [eye for eye, tooth for tooth] a ground for authorising private resentments, and all the excesses committed by a vindictive spirit. Revenge was often carried to the utmost extremity, and more evil returned than what had been received.” The Scriptures, however, did not authorize personal vendettas.
Jesus’ teaching in his Sermon on the Mount regarding ‘turning the other cheek’ reflects the true spirit of God’s Law to Israel. Jesus did not mean that if his followers are struck on one side of the face, they should stagger to their feet and offer the other side as a target. In Bible times, as is often true today, a slap was not intended to injure physically but was an insult intended to provoke a reaction, a confrontation.
Evidently, then, Jesus meant that if one person tried to goad another into a confrontation with a literal slap—or with stinging sarcasm—the person slapped should avoid retaliating. Instead, he should attempt to avoid what could become a vicious circle of rendering evil for evil.—Romans 12:17.
Jesus’ words were very similar to those of King Solomon: “Do not say: ‘Just as he did to me, so I am going to do to him. I shall repay to each one according to his acting.’” (Proverbs 24:29) A follower of Jesus would turn the other cheek in the sense of not allowing others to force him, as it were, into a “showdown.”—Galatians 5:26, footnote.
What About Self-Defense?
Turning the other cheek does not mean that a Christian would not defend himself against violent assailants. Jesus was not saying that we should never defend ourselves but, rather, that we should never strike offensively, that we should not allow ourselves to be provoked to take revenge. While it is wise to retreat whenever possible in order to avoid a fight, it is proper to take steps to protect ourselves and to seek the help of the police if we are a victim of a crime.
Jesus’ early followers appropriately applied the same principle when defending their legal rights. For instance, the apostle Paul took advantage of the legal system of his time to protect his right to carry out Jesus’ commission for his followers to preach. (Matthew 28:19, 20) During a preaching tour in the city of Philippi, Paul and his fellow missionary, Silas, were arrested by the civil authorities and accused of breaking the law.
The two were then publicly flogged and thrown into prison without even a trial. When he had the opportunity, Paul invoked his rights as a Roman citizen. Upon learning of Paul’s status as such, the authorities became fearful of the consequences and begged Paul and Silas to leave without causing trouble. So Paul set a precedent by ‘defending and legally establishing the good news.’—Acts 16:19-24, 35-40; Philippians 1:7.
Like Paul, Jehovah’s Witnesses have repeatedly been compelled to engage in legal battles in courts of law in order to preserve their Christian activity. This has been true even in lands that normally tout the religious freedoms their citizens enjoy. In matters regarding crime and personal safety too, Jehovah’s Witnesses are not expected to turn the other cheek—taking abuse without defending themselves. They take legal steps to defend themselves.
Thus, as Christians, the Witnesses rightly take steps to establish certain legal rights, although they know that such measures often bring limited results. Hence, like Jesus, they leave these matters ultimately in God’s hands, confident that He will act with full knowledge of the facts and that any retribution from Him will reflect perfect justice. (Matthew 26:51-53; Jude 9) True Christians remember that vengeance belongs to Jehovah.—Romans 12:17-19.
HAVE YOU WONDERED?
● What actions should be avoided by Christians?—Romans 12:17.
● Does the Bible prohibit resorting to legal means to defend oneself?—Philippians 1:7.
● What confidence did Jesus have in his Father?—Matthew 26:51-53.