“Love your enemies.”
“Do good to those who hate you.”
“Do not resist evil.”
“Turn the other cheek.”
So let me get this straight:
If you’re a Christian and someone says, “I want to take advantage of you,” the truly Christian response is to make like a doormat and let ’em walk all over you?
And if someone says, “I want to hurt you,” a true Christian will meekly bend over and take it—even asking for extra punishment and abuse?
Oh yeah? Then what about this:
Jesus says that he came to bring conflict:
You may have heard Jesus called “the prince of peace.” But he also said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (See Matthew 10:34–39)
Jesus ranks out the religious leaders:
Here’s just a small sample of the strong language Jesus used against the religious leaders of the day: “Woe to you, teachers of the Law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs. On the outside they do look beautiful, but inside they are full of dead people’s bones and all kinds of filth. You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (See Matthew 23)
Jesus curses a fig tree:
One fine morning as he headed into the city, Jesus was hungry. He saw a fig tree by the side of the road. But when he discovered that it had no figs on it (it wasn’t the season for figs), he cursed it, causing it to rapidly wither and die. (Mark 11:12–14, 20–23)
Jesus engages in armed assault:
When Jesus first arrived in Jerusalem and saw all the people who were merchandising and profiteering in the temple, he made a whip, chased them all out, turned over their tables, and scattered their money everywhere, shouting, “Get out of here! Don’t turn my Father’s house into a marketplace!” (John 2:13–17)
Jesus wasn’t only about turning the other cheek.
He could also be a real hardass.
What’s a Christian to do?
So . . . should Christians turn the other cheek and not resist evil, or should Christians take up arms (literal or figurative) and fight against evil?
The answer is “Yes.”
You see, Jesus does not offer a one-size-fits-all solution to be used in every situation. While challenging old assumptions about how to respond to evil, he teaches and demonstrates various methods and tools to deal with evil in different circumstances.
The Bible is not a simple book offering simplistic solutions. It is a complex book offering many different ways to face the issues and struggles of life. If we wish to be truly Christian, we must use our thinking mind to assess the particular situation we are facing, and choose which particular teachings and examples in the Bible best fit that situation, and are most likely to bring about a good result.
True Christianity involves acting intelligently in order to accomplish some specific goal of making things better for ourselves and for the people around us, and moving our corner of the world closer to God’s realm. Sometimes that will mean not resisting evil. Other times it will mean getting tough and fighting against evil and injustice.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what Jesus said about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek.
What Jesus said
First, let’s get it all out there. Here is the well-known and often quoted section of the Bible about loving our enemy and turning the other cheek. It is part of Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount”:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them a second mile. Give to those who ask you, and do not refuse those who want to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who falsely accuse you and persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38–48. See also Luke 6:27–36)
Now let’s look at it a little more carefully, in light of the balancing passages where Jesus does not offer the other cheek, but comes out swinging!
Jesus is being provocative to challenge old laws and attitudes
To get the full impact of Jesus’ words here, it helps to realize that when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” he was not merely referring to social customs; he was quoting from Scripture. Not once, but three times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Exodus 21:22–24; Leviticus 24:17–22; Deuteronomy 19:15–21) the ancient “Law of Retaliation” is given as a commandment from God.
“You shall love your neighbor” is also a direct quote, from Leviticus 19:18. Scripture does not directly say “hate your enemy,” but in many places in the Old Testament God commands the ancient Israelites to slaughter and wipe out their enemies.
In other words, in saying these things, Jesus is directly contradicting the Scriptures and the long established customs that were sacred to his audience and their religious leaders.
The Law of Retaliation does involve a certain kind of rough justice. It can even be seen as a moderating principle: without such a law, many people would do much greater damage to those who have hurt them, causing a vicious circle of revenge and counter-revenge. As a principle of rough justice, it has been practiced in many cultures since ancient times, and even continues to be practiced in some societies and communities right up to the present.
However, Jesus wished to lift society up to a higher level. He advocated a new, more spiritual, and more enlightened approach to the ancient problem of evil and crime. It’s not so much that he was contradicting Scripture as that he was saying that it was time for humankind to move toward a higher law. When humanity moves to a higher level, some of the laws that were designed for earlier and less enlightened societies can drop away.
But old laws and customs don’t die easily. Jesus had to make a big impression to even cause a dent in the old, well-established idea of retaliatory justice. That’s one reason that in the Sermon on the Mount he went to the opposite extreme, advocating a form of pacifism and non-retaliation that was in stark contrast to the ancient Law of Retaliation that he sought to uproot and replace with more enlightened principles.
Jesus was providing new tools for our toolbox to use in dealing with evil
As any carpenter, plumber, or electrician knows, you need more than one tool to get most jobs done. If all you have is a hammer, how can you drill a hole or paint a wall?
Life throws many different situations at us. The more “tools” we have in our spiritual toolbox, the better we’ll be able to handle all those situations.
When Jesus says, “Don’t resist evil” and “Turn the other cheek,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best thing to do in every situation. If that’s what he had meant, why did he say that he came not to bring peace, but a sword? And why did he himself resist evil many times, on one occasion even using a literal, physical weapon (a whip) to combat an injustice?
Put in the context of Jesus’ entire life and teaching, the message is not that we must give in to evil and let it roll over us. Rather, Jesus is telling us that in some cases turning the other cheek and not resisting evil is actually a much more effective means of dealing with evil.
Non-resistance especially applies to milder and one-time offenses
Consider the examples Jesus gave when saying not to resist evil:
- Getting slapped on the cheek
- Getting sued for your shirt
- Getting forced to walk a mile with someone
- Being asked for money or a loan
Notice that all of these examples are of offenses that are probably one-time events. (Being “forced to go one mile” refers to an ancient Roman practice whereby a Roman soldier could force one of the locals to carry his heavy backpack for up to a mile.) And while they could be a serious insult or inconvenience, they are not likely to be life-threatening. In other words, Jesus’ examples of when to “turn the other cheek” were for relatively minor offenses, not for major, ongoing assault and abuse.
In such cases, Jesus is saying, resisting or retaliating is not the best way to deal with the situation.
- If someone slaps you on the cheek and you slap them back, the most likely result is a big fight, in which everybody loses.
- If you’re having a dispute about something minor, like a shirt, is it really worth going to the courts and duking it out there? The only winners will be the lawyers!
- If a soldier points his sword (or gun) at you and orders you to carry his backpack for a mile, how smart is it to say “No”?!?
- If a friend asks you for a few bucks, sometimes just giving the money is the best thing to do.
But Jesus’ teaching also goes beyond mere convenience and expediency. If someone slights or slaps us, the expected response is that we will try to get back at them. What if we don’t? When we react to rude and thoughtless people in ways they don’t expect, sometimes it causes them to stop and think!
Consider an ancient Roman soldier who is used to having all the locals hate and fear him, and grumble unwillingly when he exercises his right to force them to carry his pack for a mile. What if one day, instead of cursing and groaning, one of them not only carries the pack cheerfully, but when the mile is up, says, “Here, let me carry it for you another mile”? Of course, the soldier might just say, “What an idiot!” But there’s a pretty good chance he’ll have something new to think about. What sort of person does that? Can I be happy even in the face of mistreatment and injustice?
For a modern day example of returning good for evil and the huge impact it can have, see the story of Sikh student Balpreet Kaur in my previous article, “What if people actually did what Jesus says to do?”
In short, Jesus is telling us that if someone hurts or insults us, instead of responding in the standard retaliatory fashion, try responding in a surprising way! Try doing something nice for the person instead, and see if the whole situation can be turned from negative to positive.
Doing so also means that instead of just reacting to others and therefore being controlled by others, we are taking matters into our own hands. We are taking specific, well-thought-out actions of our own in order to achieve a specific result: taking an evil, hurtful situation and turning it into a good and constructive situation for everyone involved.
Jesus taught and demonstrated resistance against sustained, systemic evil
However . . .
- What if you turn the other cheek, and your attacker slaps you silly, then comes back the next day and beats you to a pulp?
- What if you hand over your shirt and coat, and the person you give them to proceeds to strip you naked, and steals all the clothes in your closet, too?
- What if you are being subjected to ongoing oppression, and being forced into a lifetime of slave labor?
- What if you lend your friend a few bucks, and your friend keeps coming back week after week, asking and begging for more and more money, and even stealing money from you?
Are you still supposed to turn the other cheek?
No. Christianity does not mean you have to make yourself into a doormat, or meekly bend over and take a hiding from anyone who wants a piece of you. When it comes to sustained, ongoing evil, a more active response is called for.
When Jesus was faced with the long-established tradition of merchants making big profits from the prescribed religious practices of the people, he drove them out of the temple with a whip.
When Jesus was faced with an entrenched group of religious leaders who were abusing and misleading the people while building up wealth and power for themselves, he engaged in a fierce verbal battle with them that ultimately cost him his life.
When we are faced with ongoing, systemic evil, that is when Jesus “did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” That is when it is time to “put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:13–17) and engage in an active battle to right wrongs, defeat injustice, and replace it with justice both for ourselves and for others.
When faced with ongoing evil and abuse, it is not time for Christians to bend over and take it. It is time for true Christians to be hardass for as long as it takes to resist and overcome that evil.
Yet as Jesus says, this should never be done in order to retaliate. It should be done for definite, positive reasons, aiming at a good result. It should be done out of love and respect not only for ourselves and those we are defending from evil, but also for the enemies who are perpetrating the evil. It should be done, not to get back at the offenders and hurt them, but so that what is just and right can prevail. It should be done so that both we and those we love can live in peace, protected from those who would harm us.
“Loving our enemies” is much more complex than just being nice to them. Sometimes it means preventing them from doing the harm they intend to do. But that is a subject for another article.