Turning the other cheek seems counterintuitive. It may even feel like an invitation to be the doormat. Others may interpret it as though Christ is telling us that if we have to choose between being a jerk and being a doormat, choosing to be a doormat is the better choice of the two.
The phrase “turn the other cheek” has been, in the word of David Pulsipher, “dismissed, distorted, and watered down.” And quite frankly, I whole heartily agree. Why on earth would the Savior ever invite us to be weak doormats in the face of aggression? But still, I have found myself very confused with this particular teaching and have wondered what it really means to “turn the other cheek” and how that can be an act of strength.
The following text is from a speech given by David Pulsipher; Political Science, History, and Geography Professor at Brigham Young University; helping us to better understand the cultural significance behind this phrase:
The Power of Turning the Other Cheek
“Unfortunately, the potency of our Savior’s counsel is too often dismissed, distorted, or watered down, and many “plain and precious parts” of his original message have been lost.6 Consider, for example, a phrase that initially held extraordinary power, but has since become a somewhat weak cliché: “Turn the other cheek.” When people use this phrase, they are usually implying that when someone attacks us we should do nothing in response. But this is the opposite of what the phrase originally meant. Our Savior was actually showing his ancient disciples how to lovingly resist and transform their attackers. This might not seem obvious at first, but it becomes easier to perceive if we better understand the cultural context in which the phrase was first uttered. As biblical scholar Walter Wink has pointed out the precise wording is crucial, “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”7 Why the right cheek? Is this particular detail important? It must be, because Jesus repeated it to the people in the Promised Land.8 But to understand why, we have to understand that in the ancient world right and left hands were considered respectively clean and unclean, and used for different purposes. Ancient people used their right hands to smite, so to strike someone’s right cheek meant hitting with the back of the right hand. To backhand others in this manner was, and still is, an attempt to assert dominance. Ancient people backhanded other people they believed were subordinate or inferior—servants, children, or women—and aggressors expected subordinates to cower and submit. Occasionally subordinates might strike back, trying to assert their dominance, but such responses could lead to vicious retaliation.”
“Our Savior offered a revolutionary alternative; turning the other, or left, cheek. This doesn’t seem revolutionary to us because, again, we miss the cultural significance. It is impossible to use a right hand to backhand a left cheek. To strike a left cheek, an attacker must use an open palm or a closed fist. But in the ancient world, striking with a palm or fist was only for people of equal social standing. So turning the left cheek presented an attacker with a cleverly constructed choice: either back away from your violence or strike again as my equal. This choice also communicated a powerful truth. It said: “I will not submit to your violence, neither will I be provoked into responding in kind, but I will firmly resist your violence with my love.” Under the best of circumstances, aggressors would come to their senses, repent of their violence and seek reconciliation. But even if they didn’t, such firm but loving resistance effectively thwarted their goal of domination. This is the true significance and power of turning the other cheek.”