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Turn The Other Cheek – What Gives? Is It Really The Better Way?
Have you ever been confused by this saying of Jesus? It literally means that if someone slapped us on our left cheek, we should instinctively (meaning correspondence) offer them the other cheek to strike, if they wish, not in an attitude of malice, but in love. This seems crazy right? Why wouldn’t you stand up for yourself?
The way of the world certainly does not look the other way. When I moved out of my parent’s home and into a shared apartment as a 21-year-old, I moved into a house with two other young people my age, both “friends”. I mean, because one of these guys I had a lot of respect for, the other one I had my doubts about, but we always spent a lot of time together. I soon discovered that my distrust of this guy was well founded – he was a biblical “sloth”, always turning away from his responsibility to provide his share, or do his chores, and worse, he caused fights. Turning the other cheek would never work in this situation.
However, turning the other cheek, issuing grace to the other person, which is “undeserved favor”, was a legendary writer, the life dictate of Leo Tolstoy. Here is a man who has struggled all his life to find the meaning of it. He is truly the one who “went to hell and back” to find it. Being engaged in fundamental pacifism on the back of the words of Christ made him ironically a Christian anarchist – because the Church was supportive of the State, and the State went to war, Tolstoy conflicted with the Church until his own excommunication from it. It seemed like Tolstoy lived “turning the other cheek” to the best of his ability. On the back of Schopenhauer influence he lived out the rest of his life, by choice, in extreme poverty. He always felt strongly that the message of the Sermon on the Mount could be lived literally – an insight that may have led to a rather torturous life in the end.
Honest people always have critics and Tolstoy was no exception. In the mid-1940s Eric Arthur Blair, aka, George Orwell wrote of Tolstoy’s philosophy,”If you turn the other cheek, you will get a harder blow on it than you got on the first. This doesn’t always happen, but it’s to be expected, and you shouldn’t complain if it happens.” Orwell suggested in his essay, Lear, Tolstoy and the Foolthat Tolstoy’s philosophy was flawed in this “the distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite for power,” assuming that pacifists, like Tolstoy, could very easily be power traders. Although I suppose that could be true, I have a hard time following the reason for “why”. A further quote from Orwell probably shows his penchant for proving the power of justice, as seen in what Orwell considered “saints”, is not so righteous:
“Creeds such as pacifism and anarchism, which seem to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind. For if you have accepted a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary filth of politics—a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to derive any material advantage – surely that proves that you are right? And the more right you are, the more natural it is that everyone else should be bullied into thinking the same way.”
The point of this, when it comes turning the other cheek, is where do you draw the line? Tolstoy may have been guilty, ironically, of not applying pacifism when in conflict with the church. Anarchism is, by itself, a fight against the “powers”. Perhaps what Jesus is encouraging his disciples to do is engage in pacifism for themselves (don’t defend yourself), but be the a lawyer for the weaker member-in the situation of Tolstoy, for the oppressed and defenseless victims of war, of which there are many. In this context it can be shown that Tolstoy actually fulfilled God’s will, as did many of his time, by standing. against the powers that be–viz anarchism-of darkness.
Theologian Helmut Thielicke sees that on a global level it is impossible to find the logic to turn the other cheek. He says if you share an apartment, and the other person doesn’t do their dishes and leaves you to do the messy work, you’re obligated to treat them the same way, and leave your dishes for them, right? This is so that they can appreciate for themselves what that treatment feels that… however, on a higher ‘heavenly’ level it is possible to turn the other cheek as we recognize the spiritual truth that all deserve grace-Christ died for the ungodly. This is a shameless respect that goes with each one a person you meet and relate to; it is to see them through the eyes of God.
In addition, Thielicke says that no one is beyond the Sonship of God, and that it is the “gift of grace that gives me new eyes, so that with these new eyes I can see something divine in others.” And, “we [are to] help by placing ourselves under the mercy of God and [allow that to] radiate to others so that this unhappy world may be disinfected.”
It’s about seeing the need in others who might offend and scare you. It’s about seeing their fear and putting back love with compassion, grounded in God’s grace.
It helps open the criminal to the freedom of, “why did he/she only treat me so kindly when I did a despicable thing to him/her?” It is in a sense a miraculous response to a miraculous act. It recognizes that what involves anyone turning to God, repenting no less, is a “transvaluation of values.” That has indeed happened to anyone who truly turns the other cheek, in love, without fear.
It is the miracle of grace alone that enables the authenticity of the process to occur. Turning the other cheek is simple a better way. There is a better way because whether the person who hits us or offends us back or not is irrelevant. In fact, it is in appreciation of Orwell’s quote that we must wait for people to fight back, but in ourselves remain resolute in our (or God’s) attitude of love and grace.
You see, we must see the child of God in them; the child who was bought by love, and given the gift of life, whether they choose it or not. To see this miracle of turning the other cheek in action is the very vision of Jesus himself, with a look that could say: “You cannot make me love you less, no matter what you do.”
Do you think it is possible?
© Steve J. Wickham, 2008. All rights reserved Worldwide.
 M. Eaton, The way that leads to life, The radical challenge to the church of the Sermon on the Mount, (Christian Focus Publications, Geanies House, Great Britain, 1999), p. 95.
 Tolstoy’s life was forever changed after reading the following: But this very necessity of involuntary suffering (of the poor) for eternal salvation is also expressed by the saying of the Savior (“Matthew 19:24”): “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” That is why those who were very eager for their eternal salvation chose voluntary poverty when fate denied it to them and they were born in wealth. Thus Buddha Sakyamuni was born a prince, but voluntarily took to the staff of the beggar; and Francis of Assisi, the founder of the ordered orders, who, as a young man at a ball, where the daughters of all the nobles sat together, was asked: “Now Francis, will you not soon make your choice of these beauties?” and who replied: “I made a much nicer choice!” “Which one?” “La poverta (poverty)”: after which he left everything soon after and wandered the country as a beggar.
Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. II, §170.
 G. Orwell, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” Controversy No. 7, Great Britain, London (March 1947). Available: http://orwell.ru/library/essays/lear/english/e_ltf
 Orwell, Op cit.
 Orwell, Op cit.
 H. Thielicke, Life can begin again: Sermons on the mount, translated by JW Doberstein (Fortress Press, Philadelphia), p. 74-5.
 H. Thielicke, Ibid., p. 74-5.
 H. Thielicke, Op cit., p. 77.
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