Posted by: cLamb | April 8, 2009

Turn the Other Cheek

In doing my research for my paper I was reading a book by Walter Wink called The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium. In this reading I came across an interpretation of Jesus’ non-violent message that isn’t necessarily pertinent to the New Atheism but I found it very interesting so wanted to share and comment on it.

In my paper I spend quite a bit of time on how religion, Christianity specifically, can be used to denounce violence in order to prove it is not the root of violence. One way I did this was by focusing on theology of nonviolence. Walter Wink gives a lengthy discussion about the difference between nonviolence and nonresistance and how nonviolence does not entail nonresistance. Wink then uses the concept of “turn the other check” to show that resistance is an appropriate reaction that does not require violence. I personally had never taken Jesus’ teaching of “turn the other cheek” to even imply any form of resistance in the slightest. But it is one interpretation. Wink explains that what this really means is the opposite of the passivity most people take it to be. Instead it is a denunciation of power, and an act of defiance. In the community of Jesus’ day the left hand was considered unclean so only the right hand was used in daily activities. Therefore hitting someone would have been done with the right hand. Punches were only thrown in fights between equals and were not extremely common. If one were to throw a punch though, using the right hand, it would fall on the left cheek of the opponent. The only way to get it to fall on the right cheek is to use a backhand slap. Wink explains how this was the hit that Jesus was referring to in his teaching. Masters would backhand their slaves, husbands their wives, and parents their children to teach a lesson and to exert power. It sent a message that said I am superior and you must obey me. It was not supposed to inflict physical injury it was just to humiliate and degrade the lesser party. Therefore by turning the other cheek the person hit was provoking a punch instead of a slap. This rendered the “superior” person impotent because if they were to throw a punch, the very action would render the “inferior” as equal and no longer inferior. It was non-submission to the power over someone to turn the other cheek and call for a fight of equals. The simple act of turning the cheek was enough to strip power, but if a punch was thrown it would have an even greater effect to the same end.

I definitely thought this was a very interesting way to interpret this passage, but wondered how widely accepted such an interpretation was. It seems to me that it is not just an interpretation thrown out from left field. Wink is a Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. This is definitely not the only possible way to understand this teaching, but its implications are very interesting to consider. 



  1. Great post. I have been wondering the same thing. It’s interesting that I’ve only heard this interpretation 2 or 3 times. Usually, this passage is rarely elaborated on and if it is, it focuses on accepting and bearing the evil of others. This understanding of bearing and being an example of peace I think is the popular, common interpretation.

    But how strong if “Turn the Other Cheek” was a way to be a son of a bitch in the face of power… to throw it right back into them, to confuse them, challenge them, be a thorn in there side. It seems that this interpretation has been marginalized for far too long, and could provide a great impetus of nonviolent RESISTANCE against the powers in our world. It could help us reclaim the radical stance of Jesus. I’ll have to reflect on this and how in my own life I can “Turn the other Cheek” Thanks for the post

  2. I too have heard this explanation and its interpretation of a “radical” Jesus who supported nonviolent resistance. I have not read Wink’s own book, however, from my other experience with this argument I think it fails to take into account the early part of this verse which says “Do not resist an evil person”. Unless Jesus was lying or being facetious in the first half of his sentence only to be serious in the second half, I don’t see how the command to not resist can be reconciled with an interpretation that Jesus was really teaching that we should resist. Not to mention this focus on gaining power in this world seems to be completely contrary to Jesus’ claims that his kingdom was “not of this world”.

  3. This was actually the topic of my paper last semester! I used Walter Wink a good deal in my research. Whether or not this interpretation is historically sound, I believe it presents a perspective of Jesus that our world could truly embrace in order to conquer some of our deepest struggles. While we may not ever be able to rid ourselves of violence, practicing nonviolent resistance is a step in the right direction. For me, the image of Jesus on the cross, accepting his torture and death with fierce resistance to fight back, heightens the power of his resurrection. By conquering death through rising, he is rebuking the strength of violence and trumping the over-confidence of those who believe they are in control.

    In my final paper I am hoping to incorporate some reflections on the value of humility. After reading books by New Atheists, I discovered how bold and cocky they tend to be (surprise surprise). Where the New Atheists refuse to admit that science may never know everything, many theologians embrace knowledge with a humble stance. I’m sure I’ll be posting more on this later, but I thought I would add it as it goes along with the theme of nonviolence. Nonviolence requires the refusal to use ordinary means of exerting “power” and hope to meet your opponent at humble, humane terms.

  4. I believe that this interpretation of the “turn the other cheek” passage is a valid one. Along these lines, I agree with the distinction that you and Wink make between nonviolence and nonresistance. Too often others and myself forget the focused power in nonviolence as resistance.

    In my New Testament class this semester, we discussed Peter cutting off the high priest’s slave’s ear. If my memory serves me right, our discussion turned to the topic of violence and resistance. However, I cannot remember how the conversation turned and the specific conclusions that we drew from the passage in regards to violence. Does anyone, especially Kelly or Jen, have any thoughts here?

    Overall, I believe that “turning the other cheek” as a nonviolent resistance is a vital lesson that religion should teach. I am shocked that these lessons that can be seen in the “turn the other cheek” passage have not been more central in my years of religious education.

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