Is “turning the other cheek” not the first guidance provided by a loving parent to their bullied child? When I was young, my parents instructed to just ignore bullies. “Bullies and other low-brows thrive on visceral reactions from their victims,” they said.
Knee-jerk shouts and shoves tell a bully that they are powerful, that they exert control and influence just by saying that Steve “sucks at kickball.” Only spending a few breaths to spit a taunt, a bully can receive the satisfaction of starting a shouting match.
In its most literal sense, turning the other cheek means if one is subjected to a demeaning slap, one should simply turn and allow the offender to strike again. Matthew quotes Jesus describing this philosophy at the Sermon on the Mount, a cornerstone of Christian thought. Jesus contrasts this peaceful approach with the reactionary “eye for an eye,” which directs an assaulted party to respond until an equal toll has been exacted.
“An eye for an eye” dates back at least to 1754 B.C. in Hammurabi’s Code, a collection of Babylonian laws. The 196th law states “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”
Though made famous by Hammurabi, it is not difficult to conclude that reactionary punishment of this type is the human default. Humans desire equality, fairness and justice. We channel Hammurabi when we execute murderers or fine fraudsters. There is no fundamental reason to create more suffering as punishment for past crimes, but law-givers for almost four millennia have made it so.
This is why “turning the other cheek” is revolutionary. As recently as 1900, a personal insult could quickly escalate into institutionalized violence, but Jesus instructs his followers to let the blow land unanswered. He argues that violence cannot answer violence, nor hatred hatred. The wrong-doer becomes an object of pity instead of a personal enemy when they fail to break an unflappable victim.
What does turning the other cheek look like? Suffer me two examples.
Suppose you are running for a position on a club’s executive board. During the open-floor debate just before the election, a rival candidate spits some exaggerated accusations or trumped-up anecdotes about how awful you are. Clearly, they are wrong, because I know you are a great person. An “eye for an eye” response would be to unload in a similar manner, transforming the small mistakes in your opponent’s past into a firestorm. All that this accomplishes is normalizing those dirty tactics. The situation escalates, the gloves go down … you know the rest. “Turning the other cheek” is refusing to stoop to get ahead. Let other people descend that low, I know you are better than that.
Another example: suppose some political splinter group is trying to stir up trouble by scratching or taping offensive messages around campus. We, being decent folks, find these messages abhorrent, we know they are maliciously and purposefully wrong. How do we punish these vandals? Even the assumption that they deserve punishment not for vandalism but instead for the hateful message is “eye for an eye.”
It betrays a desire to see them pay, watch them get kicked out of the university, let them be the subject of our ire. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing a pariah get collectively punished by an offended majority.
It may be difficult at times, but I suggest we “turn the other cheek” in this situation. The purveyors of the hateful messages that whirl around our campus and our country are not academic thinkers interested in debate, nor are they true political activists trying to change the world. They are simply provocateurs, waiting to feast on liberal tears. In the past two years, we have fed and energized them. We have given the bullies around us exactly what they want by blowing up into a raging tempest.
Let’s take the wind out of their sails. They will face justice for their real misdeeds, but we should not give them the satisfaction of watching us shout and froth. This is my challenge to you, and it is also, I think, what Jesus was telling his followers. Deprive the bullies of the mud in which they grow their crop. Be unblinking in defiance. Turn the other cheek and let the cowardly slap roll off.
Steve Kerby is a fourth-year studying astronomy and physics. It seems to him that we’re living our lives like some candles in the wind.