One of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount is the encouragement that when one is struck on the cheek, the thing to do is to turn the other cheek also. There have been many interpretations of this over the years. The conservative white evangelical movement in the United States has derided this verse as an example of the weak, feminine Jesus they were trying to get away from for most of the 20th century. Feminist theologians have been concerned about the license for domestic abuse when this verse is misused. Modern eyes question why Jesus seems to want us to be a doormat and encourage abusers to keep abusing.
I’ve often seen it merely as an example of Jesus’ consistent stance against violence. One which I respect but find it impossible to fully endorse for all situations. Yet as is often the case when one looks at the Gospels (and Scripture in general) historical, cultural and linguistic context makes all the difference in how we interpret and read this Scripture.
I recently came upon an interpretation of this text which I don’t recall coming across before, and which I thought worth sharing. I came across it in a Star Trek novel of all places (Star Trek: The Original Series: The Captain’s Oath by Christopher L. Bennet), so I did a Google search to find the source. It seems from this Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turning_the_other_cheek#:~:text=An%20alternative%20would%20be%20a,the%20persecuted%20was%20demanding%20equality.), that the interpretation was suggested and/or popularized by American scholar, theologian, and activist Walter Wink in his book Engaging The Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. A caveat is in order here: I haven’t read Wink’s book myself and I’m not sure he gets the historical/cultural details completely correct here, but the interpretation he suggests is still worth reflecting on.
Wink argues that at the time and in the culture of Jesus’ day, the left hand was used only for unclean purposes, so the slap Jesus was talking about could only be done with the right hand. A backhanded slap with the right hand against a person of lower socioeconomic status was a means of asserting authority and dominance. An open-handed slap or punch could be used as a challenge, but this was regarded as acknowledging equality. Thus, if one who received a backhanded slap turned the other cheek, they were robbing the slapper of power, asserting equality. The slapper couldn’t use a left-handed back hand slap, and if they used the right hand on the other cheek they would be challenging the person they were slapping as an equal.
Regardless of whether Wink is entirely correct about this–somewhat questionable given that Jesus hardly lived in a monolithic culture-there were competing strands of Israelite tradition, added to the whole complexity of the Roman occupation (as has been pointed out, King Herod was a mix of Jewish, Greek, and Roman identities and Judea under him reflected that)—this does fit well with Jesus’ MO, as other scholars like Kenneth C. Bailey have highlighted brilliantly in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels: creatively using aspects of the culture he lived in to undermine those who would oppress and condemn the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society.
This interpretation of “Turning the other cheek” is a powerful one. It does not give license to abusers, and in fact only works literally in such a culture–but it does challenge us to figure out how we can creatively use aspects of our own cultures to disarm the oppressors and abusers around us and empower those who are the most vulnerable and marginalized. A worthy challenge indeed!