One of the two main pacifist proof texts is Matthew 5:39, “But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil, but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Pacifist Christians believe that by this verse, Jesus forbids us to defend ourselves with force from physical attack. Oddly though, they don’t mind calling a cop to endanger his soul by using force to defend them from a rapist, robber or home invader.
If Jesus truly meant to forbid me using force against an attacker, fine. I’ll just have to trust that He knows what He’s doing and give up my weapons. However, since this verse appears to contradict everything God has said in the Bible on self-defense up until now, it’s necessary to examine Jesus’ statement in the context of the whole Sermon on the Mount.
The first rule of Bible interpretation is, “Never take a verse out of context.” The context or subject matter that includes Matt. 5:39 is Matthew chapter 5, starting at verse 21 though the end of the chapter. Both before and after verse 39, Jesus discusses making new relationships and healing broken ones. In verses 21-26, He speaks of how resentment leads to anger, anger to rage, and rage to murder. His prescription for this is to apologize to the offended person, even if it’s not our fault, and we must forgive those who ask for forgiveness.
Matt. 6:12, 14-15. Jesus teaches here how to repair broken relationships. He continues by teaching us to blind ourselves to extramarital temptations and to realize that marriage is for the long haul. 5: 27-32. Since our vow of “Till death do us part” is made before others and to our spouse and God, Jesus says that people of integrity will keep their word. v 33-37. Then Jesus tells us that “An eye for an eye’ was never meant to be a method or permission for personal vengeance. It was only administered by the court after a trial. See, Ex. 21 & 22, 23:1-9: Lev. 13:13-23; Deut. 19. Because Jesus’ subject has dealt with personal relationships up to this point, “do not resist him who is evil” cannot refer to general evil, like Nazi Germany or a mugger in an alley. He’s referring to dealing with someone we know.
To slap someone on the right cheek you must use you left hand. In the Mid-East of Jesus time, for 5,000 years before, and right up ‘til today, the left hand is the hand you wipe your butt with! So to strike someone with the left hand is the worst kind of insult! What you’re telling them is, “You ain’t worth cow flop!” The Greek word for “slap” Jesus used here is “rhapizei”. That is a sharp slap used in correcting someone. It’s not an attempt to cause severe physical injury, but rather insult a person. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek because healing and creating relationships are more important than our pride. If He meant for me to ignore real attacks, then when am I allowed to defend myself? Is it after the first bullet hits me, or only after the second bullet slams into my chest? How many knife stabs is the attacker allowed? How many robberies, rapes or kidnappings?
Jesus is showing how to deal with people of our acquaintance: annoying co-workers, unreasonable bosses, or the nasty gossips and critics at church, etc. He’s not referring to the felon robbing us at gunpoint. These are folks who know that we could strike back, verbally or physically, but because we refuse to do so, are witnessed to by our forbearance. Jesus doesn’t promise that loving others will change that nasty person, but it will have an effect on any witnesses, and it will change us! Luke 6:33-38. Jesus wants us to take control of the situation by controlling our instinct to retaliate; instead returning good for evil.
Self-control is a Fruit of the Holy Spirit. Gal. 5:22-23. It’s one of the proofs that we truly follow Jesus. So He follows turning the cheek with the command to settle disagreements with those whom we know before they get out of hand and end up in court. Our willingness to compromise and conciliate gives us control.
Control of the situation is the key to witnessing. In verse 41, Jesus says, “And if a man shall force you go one mile, go with him two.” Roman law allowed a soldier to force a provincial to carry his pack for one mile. If a Jew or a Christian wanted to witness to the Roman, there was no effect on the soldier for the first, required mile, no matter how friendly or the willing the victim tried to be. The Roman would see it as an insincere act because the victim feared his sword and the law. BUT, if the victim then volunteered to carry the soldier’s pack a second mile, (which the law did not require him to do) the soldier would be impressed, and a new relationship could begin.
This same principle applies in dealing with criminals. Since 75-80% of felons are high when they commit their crimes, it doesn’t matter how compliant I am, he won’t remember me or my testimony the next day. However, if I, as an armed citizen capture or hospitalize him, I can visit him in jail or the hospital and witness to him. THAT will blow his mind! I guarantee that no one ever dealt with him that way before. Jesus teaches here that we only have an effect on our tormentors when they know we have control, i.e., they realize we are choosing to be with them.
Consequently, “turn the other cheek” is not a lesson on pacifism, but on self-control, relationships, and witnessing. It does not keep us from using force to defend ourselves or others from criminal violence. If you want to study this in more detail, get my book, A Time to Kill: The Myth of Christian Pacifism. Next time, we’ll look at the other pacifist proof text, “live by the sword, die by the sword.”
photo credit: juandesant Holy guacamole, Batman, now I get assumption management via photopin (license)