Turning the Other Cheek
In the Gospel Reading, Christ commands us to turn the other cheek. How are we to make sense of this command?
If a schoolyard bully beats up your child, are you supposed to instruct her to turn the other cheek and let him do it again? Or should you alert the principal of the school and get him stopped? Christ’s command to turn the other cheek seems to insist on that first alternative. And so it looks as if Christ is commanding us to help people do bad things with impunity.
But to think this is to be focused only on yourself and what you take to be your virtue. It is to forget entirely the wellbeing of the person engaged in evil.
Think about the matter this way. In the Gospel Reading for last Sunday, Christ says that anyone who hates his brother is shut out of heaven. If mere hatred is enough to get a person excluded from heaven, how about hatred in action, like physical attack? A schoolyard bully has hate in his heart and hate in action too. If you enable him to keep attacking, you are helping him to hell.
But in the Gospel Reading for this week Christ is asking us to love those who hurt us. How is love shown to a person by helping him towards hell?
So in exhorting us to turn the other cheek Christ is not commanding us to be an enabler of people doing bad things. He is exhorting us to love even our enemies as ourselves. If we love our enemies in this way, we will want to help them be what we ourselves want to be: people trying to love and obey Christ.
Think of Christ’s command to turn the other cheek this way, then.
Ordinarily, a person given to evil will become worse and worse if he thinks he can hurt others with impunity. That is why to threaten him with reprisal is to tug him back from his own moral destruction. But sometimes a person is so sunk in evil that no threat of punishment would deter him. And then your best bet is to let him hit you again. If he does, he may finally understand the evil in himself and hate it.
So turning the other cheek might make a schoolyard bully worse; but, this attitude expressed in non-violent resistance did help get the British out of India.
Christ’s command, then, is to do whatever it takes to love our enemies.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University