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055 What ‘Turn the Other Cheek’ Means (and Doesn’t) in an Age of Terrorism

Picture: Gonzale (Flickr: creative commons)

Updated in light of the Westminster attack of March 22, 2017 

The horror continues. Islamist-inspired or ISIS-claimed attacks leave us shocked, saddened, grieving for the families who’ve lost or had loved ones injured, and scrambling for solutions to jihadist terrorism. I believe Jesus has something powerful to say to the problem, but his words need to be carefully understood before being applied. This post and podcast was originally published after the Paris attacks of 2015. Sadly, with every new terrorist act, the message still applies.

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Two Ways to Respond to Mistreatment

When we’re attacked or mistreated, there are two common ways to respond:

Option one is to get even. The Old Testament allowed for some degree of this, permitting someone to take “eye-for-eye” and “tooth-for-tooth” to get back exactly what was taken from them. Option two is to give in—to let the perpetrator get away with what they’ve done. Jesus addresses these options in his Sermon on the Mount, saying:

You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! (read his full statement here)

At first, it sounds like Jesus is affirming option two—that we should give up and let the bullies win. He’s not. In fact, he’s giving us an ingenious third option beyond getting even or giving in.

A Third Way

While writing Resilient, my book of reflections on the Sermon on the Mount, I wrestled long and hard with these words of Jesus. The key to their meaning comes in the illustrations Jesus goes on to give:

If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.

In Jesus’ day a slap to the cheek wasn’t so much assault but insult. (In a humiliating gesture, it was done with the back of a hand to the right cheek.) To be sued for your shirt meant you were too poor to pay your bills and were now having your very clothes taken from you. And to carry a Roman soldier’s pack was a demeaning task demanded of a Jew. Jesus uses these three humiliating experiences to describe a response to injustice that empowers a victim to respond without retaliating:

  • If you’re insulted with a slap, don’t slap back or accept the denigration—surprise the offender by offering your left cheek too. They won’t know what to do, and you’ll show that you’re above repaying the insult.
  • If you’re unjustly sued by someone greedy, don’t take revenge or give in—expose their greed by offering them all your clothes!
  • And if you’re asked to carry a soldier’s pack, don’t get violent or feel inferior—take charge by going even further than asked.

What Jesus is (and isn’t) Saying 

Jesus isn’t saying evil should be rewarded, that self-defense is wrong, or that injustice should be tolerated. What he says is that evil shouldn’t be resisted in equally evil ways. When we’re insulted, humiliated, or face injustice:

Don’t get even.

Don’t give in.

Get creative.

As the apostle Paul puts it: Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.

In the Face of Terror

Sentimentality will not help us fight terrorism. As touching as this video of a father soothing his son over the Paris attacks was, we kid ourselves believing ‘flowers and candles’ will ‘protect’ us from such atrocities. And when would-be activist-types glibly declare on social media that ‘nonviolence’ is the solution to terrorism (often whilst far from any violence themselves), it can be sentimentality speaking. (It’s sobering to note that Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad, who has paid heavily working for peace in Iraq, called for troops to be sent in to combat ISIS.)

Few of us are sufficiently informed about the realities of terrorism to boldly state what should be done to counter it. The situation is a complex mess of ideology, culture, warped religion, retaliation over past events, and pure evil. I’m not going to join the chorus of ‘solutions’ being offered. That’s far above my pay grade. But as a follower of Jesus, here’s what I’m contemplating in light of his call to ‘turn the other cheek’ and not fight evil with evil.

***

1. If we are to be faithful to Jesus, we must deal with truth, not error. There is much fear mongering going around through articles like this that exaggerate for political ends. The facts are not always easy to confirm but stick to reputable media reporting, not the propaganda of fringe alarmists on various sides of the issue.

2. If we are to be faithful to Jesus, we must renounce revenge. Any force used must be to save innocent lives and restrain evil, not pay the terrorists, their country, or their religion back. The repugnant comments on the article I’ve mentioned above are far short of Jesus’ words and way.

3. If we are to be faithful to Jesus, prayerful, imaginative response is required. We are not to surrender or acquiesce, but do creative, surprising acts to interrupt the cycle of violence. Retaliation is easy. This is hard work requiring prayer, study and creativity.

4. If we are to be faithful to Jesus, we must be clear who the enemy is. In this case it is ISIS and other jihadist terrorists, not Syrian refugees (refusing asylum to these victims of war because a few terrorists have hidden among them is to mete out cruelty upon cruelty) or Muslims in general (blaming all Muslims for Islamic terrorism is like blaming all Christians for the hate rallies of Westboro Baptist). When we confuse this we can play into the terrorists’ hands. As Australian peace activist Jarrod McKenna has said: “ISIS wants you to hate Muslims. It’s their best tool for recruitment. Don’t let ISIS win. Love your Muslim neighbour.”

5. If we are to be faithful to Jesus, we are to love our enemy. This is where Jesus goes next with his ‘turn the other cheek’ idea, telling us to pray for them, meet their physical needs, and show them kindness. We may think this naive but as the number of Muslims having visions of Jesus suggests, and stories like former KKK leader Johnny Lee Clary’s transformation (forward 22-minutes into the video), prayer and kindness are powerful weapons.

Some question whether Jesus’ call for nonviolence can be applied to nation states. It’s a good question. We need to keep in mind that Jesus originally gave these directives to people under Roman occupation, and the Romans could resort to terrorism (crucifixion anyone?) to enforce their rule. Jesus was giving his followers tools to respond to organised evil. And both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr demonstrated what can happen when one applies them beyond interpersonal relationships.

***

We cannot be naive. Islamic terrorism is very real and western countries are its target. Scripture affirms the role of governments to enforce order for the safety of its citizens, and every support should be given to authorities to track down each culprit and those that support them. But the history of the world shows that violence begets violence, and Christians are called to live differently. ‘Bomb them!’, ‘Kill them!’, ‘Deport all Muslims and shut the door on refugees!’ is not a Christian response. Remember:

Don’t get even.

Don’t give in.

Get creative.

Don’t conquer evil with more evil. Conquer it with good.

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