On Turning the Other Cheek

by Nathan Hogan
As a martial artist and a member of our armed forces, I have had occasion to contemplate the applicability of Jesus’ teaching of turning the other cheek from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt 5:38-39). Many have taken this scripture out of context, asserting that Jesus intends us to take a beating without defending ourselves. I intend to show that this is not the case.

What this passage does not say:

This passage is not about a life threatening attack; it is about being insulted. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek…” The consensus among Biblical scholars is that Jesus is referring to receiving a backhanded blow. In order to be struck by a right handed person and hit on the right cheek, the blow would have to be a backhand. In this culture, this was a particularly insulting gesture. It was how one treated another who was below them in class or status esp. Roman to Jew. Also, many would claim the Mosaic law of “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth…” (Ex 21:24) is a guide for personal revenge. Rather, this law was provided to limit vengeance and help the justice system administer a punishment that fit the crime. This is an equitable model for justice, necessary for the good and order of society. Jesus teaches when we are insulted, to not seek revenge. “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (Deut 32:35). Paul also reminds us of this scripture when he prompts us to leave room for God’s wrath in Romans.

What this passage does say:

When insulted, turn the other cheek. Turning the other cheek allows the justice system as appointed by God to take care of punishment, and allows us to demonstrate love toward our enemies. Later in the same passage Jesus tells us that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44). By showing love toward those who insult or persecute us, we are obeying Jesus’ command to love one another and in doing so Paul says that we will heap burning coals upon the heads of our enemies (Rom 12:20). Jesus is our Lord, our Savior and our model of how we should act. Jesus embodies these teachings during his crucifixion when, during torment, he prays for those putting him to death: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

The Word does allow and encourage self-defense:

The Bible is riddled with accounts of God’s people fighting for both their defense and their freedom. The Old Testament shows an example of personal protection in Exodus 22:2-3 “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed; but if he strikes him after sunrise, he is guilty of bloodshed.” This clearly shows the acceptability of protecting one’s self, family, and domain during the time the crime is taking place. It also supports God’s disapproval of personal revenge by finding guilt of bloodshed if the defender waits until later and seeks revenge. Jesus even encouraged his disciples to get protection shortly before he was betrayed: “…if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). When writing to Timothy, Paul advises, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). We are charged to meet the needs of our families, and that includes defending them.

Applicability to the martial arts:

One of our main instincts as human beings is that of self-preservation. God bestowed on us this impulse in order that we may keep ourselves safe. He would not design us with this instinct if he did not intend for us to use it. But, like all natural impulses (feeding, sex, aggressiveness) self-preservation must be controlled. If we let our carnal desires go unchecked, we open ourselves up to sin. This is where the discipline that God gives us as Christians comes in. “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7). The same is true of the martial arts. As practitioners became increasingly capable of destruction, some form of control becomes necessary. Hence, moral codes like the Japanese code of bushido evolved. The study of the martial arts is a way of life, much like Christianity. As Christian martial artists, we can develop our sprit given self-control as part of our martial arts training.