Turning the other cheek

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Turning the other cheek is a phrase in Christian doctrine that refers to responding to an aggressor without violence.

Scriptural reference[edit]

The phrase originates from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, an alternative for "an eye for an eye" is given by Jesus:

38 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

—Matthew 5:38–5:42 KJV

In the Sermon on the Plain[1] in the Gospel of Luke, as part of his command to "love your enemies", Jesus says:

27 ¶ But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,

28 Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.
29 And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.
30 Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.
31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

—Luke 6:27–31 KJV

This passage is viewed by some[according to whom?] as commanding nonresistance, Christian pacifism or nonviolence on the part of the victim.


This phrase, as with much of the Sermon on the Mount, has been subjected to both literal and figurative interpretations. See also Sermon on the Mount#Interpretations.

Straightforward interpretation[edit]

Since the passages call for total nonresistance to the point of facilitating aggression against oneself, and since human governments defend themselves by military force, this has led some into Christian anarchism, including the notable Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, author of the nonfiction book The Kingdom of God Is Within You.

Literal interpretation[edit]

A literal interpretation of the passages, in which the command refers specifically to a manual strike against the side of a person's face, can be supported by reference to historical and other factors.[2] At the time of Jesus, striking someone deemed to be of a lower class with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance.[3] If the persecuted person "turned the other cheek," the discipliner was faced with a dilemma. The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed.[4] Another alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality.[citation needed] Thus, by turning the other cheek the persecuted was in effect demanding equality. On the other hand, a persecutor who was smart enough could circumvent, seeing a third option: to twist his right hand to allow him to backhand his subordinate's left cheek, thereby milking this supposed passive resistance for blind submission. [5] By handing over one's cloak in addition to one's tunic, the debtor has essentially given the shirt off his back, a situation directly forbidden by Hebrew Law as stated in Deuteronomy:

10 ¶ When thou dost lend thy brother any thing, thou shalt not go into his house to fetch his pledge.

11 Thou shalt stand abroad, and the man to whom thou dost lend shall bring out the pledge abroad unto thee.
12 And if the man be poor, thou shalt not sleep with his pledge:

13 In any case thou shalt deliver him the pledge again when the sun goeth down, that he may sleep in his own raiment, and bless thee: and it shall be righteousness unto thee before the LORD thy God.
—Deuteronomy 24:10–13 KJV

By giving the lender the cloak as well the debtor was reduced to nakedness. Public nudity was viewed as bringing shame on the viewer, not just the naked, as seen in Noah's case:

20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father’s nakedness.

—Genesis 9:20–23 KJV

The succeeding verse from the Sermon on the Mount can similarly be seen as a method for making the oppressor break the law. The commonly invoked Roman law of Angaria allowed the Roman authorities to demand that inhabitants of occupied territories carry messages and equipment the distance of one mile post, but prohibited forcing an individual to go further than a single mile, at the risk of suffering disciplinary actions.[6] In this example, the nonviolent interpretation sees Jesus as placing criticism on an unjust and hated Roman law as well as clarifying the teaching to extend beyond Jewish law.[7]

Righteous personal conduct interpretation[edit]

There is a third school of thought in regard to this passage. Jesus was not changing the meaning of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" but restoring it to the original context. Jesus starts his statement with "you have heard it said" which means that he was clarifying a misconception, as opposed to "it is written" which would be a reference to scripture. The common misconception seems to be that people were using Exodus 21:24-25 (the guidelines for a magistrate to punish convicted offenders) as a justification for personal vengeance. In this context, the command to "turn the other cheek" would not be a command to allow someone to beat or rob a person, but a command not to take vengeance.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Luke 16:17 - This is a different location than the sermon on the mount of Matthew.
  2. ^ Walter Wink. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. 
  3. ^ David Daube. The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism. 
  4. ^ John L. Berquist. Controlling Corporeality. 
  5. ^ "Musculature of the Arm". 
  6. ^ Th. Mommsen. Codex Theodosianus 8:5:1. 
  7. ^ Michael Avi-Yonah. The Jews Under Roman and Byzantine Rule: A Political History of Palestine from the Bar Kokhba War to the Arab Conquest. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]