Turning the Other Cheek

“If someone strikes you, turn the other cheek,” is one of the most powerful, most ubiquitous quotes from Jesus of Nazareth.  It has been quoted, paraphrased, interpreted, and misinterpreted throughout my life, and for hundreds of years prior to that.   To say that the quote has been misinterpreted may be a misnomer, for as with all brilliant philosophical quotes of this nature, it can be open to subjective interpretation that is relative to the person and the place in life where they use it.

“But what does it mean?” a young child once asked a teacher not realizing that the greater question he should’ve asked was: “What does it mean to me, to my current life, and my current travails?”  This child did not have the capacity to understand that the greater import of that message involved a person learning such a lesson for themselves, in their own time, and in their own experiences.  The teacher would provide an answer that was based upon her experiences in life, and it was aligned with the interpretations of the day’s pacifist’s ideals.  The child did enjoy that interpretation.  He wanted peace.  He wanted peace throughout the world, and he especially wanted peace to be pervasive on his playground.  He would’ve loved to have the role of messenger for this interpretation to spread the word, but he knew his bullies.  He knew that they were irrationally prone to violence in ways that a peacenik, like his teacher, either couldn’t or wouldn’t understand.  He knew that, as would later be crystallized in the movie The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to see things burn.”  Asking bullies for peace, in such a manner, was simply unrealistic in the child’s world.

CheekThe young child didn’t call this teacher out for this.  He assumed the teacher knew more than he did, and he didn’t want to be disrespectful.  He was also frustrated that he didn’t think he could apply that teacher’s answer to his life, and he wanted to.  He thought she was smarter than him, and if she were in a similar situation she would find a way to make it apply, but he couldn’t.  He also knew that providing her more detail of his situation, and the urgency he had for greater meaning, would result in a “If that continues, you come talk to me,” reply from the teacher.  He didn’t want to hear that, because he knew that that would only result in more abuse at the hands of the bully, possible scorn, and possible ruination of his reputation.

To add to this child’s frustration, he would see his teacher’s interpretation of the quote work on TV, and in the movies.  He would read it in fairy tales and other books, but he would know that their solutions were all theoretical before he even knew what theoretical meant.  Their theory was based on the fact that all kids were truly good kids, and that every bully was just waiting to be reasoned with.

The young child took this to his mother, and his mother felt sorry for him.  She offered him female solutions, but as every boy knew most female solutions don’t work on the playground.  She asked the father for advice, and the father said: “You have to walk up to him and punch him in the mouth!”  The mother was aghast.  She said, “He’s little.  That kid’s probably way bigger than him.”  The dad then muttered something about the rules of the jungle and said, “If you want to end it, you have to end it.  If you don’t want to do that, don’t ask me.  Stay away from the kid … I don’t know.”

Here, the young child stood at a crossroads in life.  He was all alone in the defining moment, and he knew it.  He favored the turn the other cheek philosophy for one reason: It would be less painful and less confrontational.  Plus, in some ways, it appealed to the manner in which he thought the world should work.  The world should be one where rejecting the invitation to violence made one superior.  That’s the way the world worked on TV, in movies, and in all the fairy tales he had read throughout his life.  It’s the way the world worked for Jesus and Gandhi, but it did not work this way in this boy’s world, this jungle, as his dad put it, that was the kid’s playground.

This boy knew how his bullies acted, and he knew how they would’ve reacted to theoretical talk regarding peace and non-confrontational diplomacy.  His only recourse was violence, or diplomacy through strength.  He didn’t punch the kid in the mouth, as much as he tried to redress it later, but he did fight back.  He did resort to violent reaction.  He did punch the bully, and there was a part of him that thought that that punch would have such an exclamation point behind it that the violence would end there.  He heard the idea that most bullies don’t want to fight, they just want to bully, and the minute you stand up to them they’ll back down.  The might even respect you more.  They might pump an eyebrow at him and say, “Nice punch kid!” and walk away.  That’s the way it worked in the ABC After School Specials, but that wasn’t the way it worked in his confrontation.

The young child was called upon to engage in a protracted tussle that extended far beyond the single, exclamatory punch.  It turned out to be this kid’s personal Karate Kid/Tom Cruise moment, except for the fact that he did lose the fight.  It turned out that that didn’t matter, however, as the bully decided not to pick on him anymore.  Whether this was due to a new found respect, or the desire to find a different antelope limping at the back of the pack is impossible to know, but suffice it to say the abuse ended.  The kid did learn one important rule of the jungle that day, however, you have to teach people how to treat you.

This moment may have been a Karate Kid/Tom Cruise moment, but it was not a Karate Kid/Tom Cruise movie.  The child would learn other rules of the jungle including: confrontation is a constant, confrontation is relative, and confrontation is ever-changing.  The kid had this notion that that one punch would be the punch heard ‘round his world.  He thought every other kid would get word of his exploits and realize you don’t mess around with him.  He had this notion that once he faced down this, his greatest confrontation, he would be forever capable of handling future confrontations.  It wasn’t true of course.  Bolstered with confidence, he would face down some confrontations, but he would walk away from others.  He would learn to regret those latter moments, for none of these confrontations ever ended until he dealt with them properly.  All of the lessons learned from successes, and failures, would eventually culminate into an adult that could handle confrontations, but there were never any lessons learned from turning the other cheek.

The crucial point that to be made here is that this child’s actions, and the lessons learned, are not a direct refutation of Jesus of Nazareth’s quote, but the interpretations and paraphrasing that teachers and intellectuals have spread in the centuries that followed.  Another interpretation of this quote, that would’ve been quite helpful to this young man, is the following:

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” – Matthew 5:38-42

“At the time of Jesus’ teachings, striking someone deemed to be of a lower class with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance.  If the persecuted person “turned the other cheek,” the discipliner was faced with a dilemma.  The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed.  The other alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality.  Thus, they argue, by turning the other cheek the persecuted was in effect demanding equality.”{1}


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