"Turn the other cheek" doesn't mean what you think it does

Courtesy of ABC News

Is Pope Francis a hypocrite who failed to turn the other cheek?

The pope recently apologized for slapping a woman’s hand. She had grabbed the elderly pontiff’s arm, nearly throwing him off balance, and refused to let go despite a pained expression on his face.

Despite his apology, online commenters chided the pope, reminding him that Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek.”

What’s a guy to do?

My first reaction is that the pope did nothing wrong, and it’s the woman who should apologize, not the pope.

But more importantly, most people misunderstand the admonition to turn the other cheek.

Jesus was not saying you should passively put up with abuse. And make no mistake—back when she was alive, if a man had grabbed Mother Teresa like that, the man would have been accused of assault.

Self-defense is different from retaliation

Self-defense is best accomplished non-violently, if possible. But few Christians would oppose the use of whatever minimal violence is unavoidable to prevent greater harm.

And I don’t think this would pose any conflict with Stoic philosophy, either. Preventing a greater harm, even if some (but lesser) violence is unavoidable, is both just and courageous. Keeping the violence to a minimum or avoiding it if possible is moderation.

Retaliation, on the other hand, is revenge. It’s indulgent, unjust, and cowardly. It escalates violence.

Turning the other cheek is defiant

Being slapped across the face was one of the most shameful insults a person in the ancient world could experience. Like being naked in public. Stoic philosopher Seneca claimed that a slave would rather be whipped than slapped across the face. That might be an exaggeration, but you get the point.

What happens someone succeeds in shaming you? You hang your head in shame. But turning the other cheek requires you to keep your head up.

You can’t hang your head while at the same time turning your head to display the opposite cheek.

In other words, turning the other cheek is a refusal to be shamed. It’s an act of defiance.

MLK turns the other cheek

Turning the other cheek is an act of passive resistance. Rather than being a doormat who allowed others to abuse him, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent resistance actively defied white American racism.

Civil rights activists in the 1950s and ’60s didn’t passively accept Jim Crow abuse. That would have been a distorted view of turning the other cheek.

Instead, activists defied and resisted Jim Crow without retaliatory violence—but that doesn’t mean they refused to defend themselves when necessary.

African-Americans who sat at segregated lunch counters faced all sorts of abuse: verbal insults, being spit in the face, having hot coffee poured over their heads, and more. But they didn’t return the insults, and they didn’t spit back.

Nor did they leave voluntarily. They held their heads high and stood their ground.

That’s turning the other cheek.

Published by Dave DuBay

Dave is a Florida man. He blogs at https://davedubay.wordpress.com. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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