‘Turn the other cheek’

Frank Gelli speaks about a famous but difficult Christian precept

Philip Benizi (1233-1285) was a memorable person, for at least two good reasons. First, when Pope Clement IV died and the Cardinals proposed Philip as a candidate, out of a sense of unworthiness he retired to the mountains and stayed there in hiding until another man was chosen. Second, while seeking to pacify some quarrelling young men, one of them struck him on the face. Philip, a big and brawny man, could easily have returned the blow but he did not. Instead, he meekly turned the other cheek. The violent attacker was so moved by Philip’s humility that he threw himself at his feet and begged his forgiveness and prayers. After his death, the Church made Benizi a Saint. His feast day falls on August 23rd.

‘Turn the other cheek’ is one of the most famous precepts of Christianity. It is also one of the hardest to obey because it seems to contradict the ingrained sense or drive most people have to defend themselves by hitting back when struck. Yet, this hard saying goes back to Jesus’s words in St Matthew’s Gospel (5:39): ‘…if one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’. Therefore, like all of Christ’s pronouncements, it has a special authority for Christians. For that reason, it is imperative that its meaning and import should be properly understood.

First, to whom was it originally addressed? To which audience? St Matthew reports that Jesus was not speaking to the crowds but to his own closed circle of disciples. Many Gospel scholars have argued from this that Jesus was not laying down ‘turn the other cheek’ as a strict command but essentially as a counsel or advice. Not as a rule of conduct for all people at large but only for select, committed followers. That is why the Catholic Church, for example, considers it applicable primarily to monks and nuns, religious people who should follow a particularly perfect and holy way of life. Note that Philip Benizi himself was a member of the Servite Order, a community of monks.

Second, to what kind of situation was it meant to apply? To personal insult or to grievous bodily harm? Again, commentators say that hitting someone on the cheek is more likely to partake of the former than of the latter. Being slapped on the face makes the victim’s blood boil. It is an affront to somebody’s dignity and honour and the natural human response is to grow angry and to strike back in retaliation. Still, it is not the same as being stabbed or shot. It seems that Jesus was asking those who desire to become his perfect followers to learn to control their anger, to be non-violent and to act in a saintly, selfless way. Other great moral and spiritual teachers, like Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, have tried to instil similar ideas into their disciples.

‘…if one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’; Jesus Christ’s pronouncements
 St. Matthew’s Gospel (5:39)

It follows that if Jesus’s words pertain to personal insult, they cannot apply to professions like soldiers or policemen, whose job is, defend the innocent citizens and uphold the common good. It cannot have been Christ’s intention to protect criminals, murderers and unjust aggressors and so to make life easier for violent men. Besides, even a very humble monk, if he saw a helpless person set upon by bandits or muggers, would certainly have no religious obligation to turn over the victim’s cheek so that the assailants may strike him twice!

Third, Christians revere Jesus’ own personal life as a supreme model and paradigm of sanctity and selflessness. They are awed by meditating how at the foot of the Cross he asked God to forgive his own persecutors and torturers. Still, St Augustine once drew attention to a certain passage in St John’s Gospel (18:23). After being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, prior to the Passion, Jesus had been taken bound before Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest, to be questioned. One of the Caiaphas’s guards, not liking the way the prisoner answered, struck Jesus with his hand. ‘Is that how you answer the High Priest?’ he said. The Messiah replied in lapidary manner: ‘If I have done wrong, bear witness to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?’

Why then did the Lord not turn the other cheek? Did he violate his own precepts, St Augustine asked? To properly understand this episode, it must be recalled that Jesus was no ordinary prisoner. He was the Messiah, the eagerly awaited Deliverer of his people, prophesied in the Scriptures and whose credentials had been attested by many public miracles, healings and supernatural events. It says in another Gospel that Jesus, had he commanded it, could have summoned twelve legions of angels to defend him. The brutality of the man who had struck him was therefore no mere personal insult but an attack on God’s own envoy. Jesus’s response additionally shows that turning the other cheek does not mean becoming some sort of inert human doormat, to be trampled upon at some wicked men’s leisure. Rather, it is still compatible with asking for justice, if there is a good cause for it.

I am told of an interesting story relating to Imam Ali. During a battle an enemy he had subdued spat contemptuously in Ali’s face. The Imam did not immediately react but turned his face away and paused, waiting for his anger to subside, then he inflicted condign punishment on the offender. It appears that here too the prime factor was justice, not personal revenge.

In the end, theological reflection helps to explain Jesus’s words rationally but…is it quite enough? Maybe not. Because the Gospel would not be the Gospel unless it provoked and challenged – maybe even infuriated – Christ’s would-be followers. And that is the way it should be.

Lastly, the man whom St Philip Benizi forgave changed his life. He became religious and a saint. God’s grace had touched him, through Philip’s action of turning the other cheek.  Not all violent people can be counted on to react in that way, though. Yet the paradox is that Christ commands that even the unjust must be loved. But how so? Not by letting them get away with their injustice but, as St Augustine taught, with a somewhat ‘benign severity’…



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