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, and interpreted throughout my life, and for thousands 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’s open to subjective interpretation, relative to the person, time, and place. 

“What does it mean?” a young child asked his teacher. The teacher provided an answer that aligned with the interpretations of the day’s pacifist’s ideals. The child enjoyed that interpretation. He wanted peace. He wanted peace throughout the world, especially on the playground. He wanted to play 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, as later 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. 

The young child didn’t call his teacher out. He assumed his teacher knew more than he did, and he also didn’t want to be disrespectful. He was just frustrated that he didn’t think he could apply this answer to his situation. 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 thought he wasn’t strong enough or confident enough. He also knew that providing her further detail of the 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, and scorn, and a possible ruination of his reputation. 

To add to his frustration, the child 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 knew that their solutions were all theoretical before he even knew what theoretical meant. Their theory was based on the idea that all kids were truly good kids, and that every bully was so reasonable they were open to reason. 

The young child took his dilemma to his mother, and his mother felt sorry for him. She offered him solutions, but as every boy knew most female advice doesn’t work on the playground. She knew it too, so she asked the father for advice, and the father said: “You walk up to him and punch him in the mouth!” The mother was aghast. She said, “He’s little. That kid’s probably twice his size.” 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. Stay away from the kid … I don’t know.” 

Here, the young child stood at a crossroads in life. He was all alone in a 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 that rejected violence. Violence never solved anything. That’s what they said on TV, in movies, and in all the fairy tales he had read throughout his life. Jesus said something along those lines, and so did Gandhi, but they didn’t say it where it mattered most in his world, and on the playground, in the jungle, as his dad put it.  

This kid tried everything at one point. He tried reasoning with the bully. He tried trading comments. He used every piece of advice he could gather, and at some point, it proved pointless.  

In the midst of these exchanges, the kid proved to be quick on his feet, intellectually, and he got the better of the bully. It was a shining moment for the boy, and he was proud, probably too proud. He wore his pride well, and contrary to the advice the kid sought, this infuriated the bully.  

His bully finally punched him, and it didn’t hurt as bad as the kid thought it would. The kid didn’t think at all, as a matter of fact, he struck back. Prior to this incident, he dreamed that when he finally struck the bully, it would be the haymaker heard throughout his world. It wasn’t. He wasn’t schooled in the art of fighting. He had never been in a fight before. His punch was ugly, sloppy, and ineffective.  

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. They might even respect you more. They might pump an eyebrow at the subject of their ridicule 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 reality. 

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 lost the fight. The bully, the kid knew, had two older brothers who loved to fight. They punched him all the time. The bully probably fought his brothers every day, and in the course of those daily bouts he developed a love of fighting.  

After his humiliating defeat, however, a funny thing happened. Even though the bully thoroughly enjoyed torturing the kid every day, and he obviously enjoyed beating on him in the bathroom that day would prove to be the last time the bully ever picked on him. The bully never said anything about the matter, and he never said anything regarding a new found respect for the kid. He just chose another antelope limping at the back of the pack.  

The kid expected some kind of renewed, progressive torture that centered around a comment such as, “How’s your face kid?” He expected some comments about the cuts on his face, the bruises, and a recount of that day’s activities. It came from all other quarters, but the bully did not join them. The abuse just ended without comment or further incidents.  

Did the kid learn that turn the other cheek was wrong, no, but he did learn one important lesson, you have to teach people how to treat you. 

The moment the kid shared with his bully might have been his Karate Kid/Tom Cruise moment, but it was not a Karate Kid/Tom Cruise movie. As if by baton, others took the bully’s lead, and the kid learned other rules of the jungle: 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 hear 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 who could handle confrontations, but in his particular case, he never gained much by turning the other cheek 

The crucial point 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 those 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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