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The Turning of the Cheek… Was Jesus a Pacifist?

February 8, 2012

Matthew 5:38-42

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, is Jesus teaching Pacifism?

No. Pacifism is defined as “opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes; or an attitude or policy of nonresistance.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)  This is not what Jesus is talking about.  He is not invalidating or even speaking to the ideas of international affairs, or wars, or the draft, or civil or criminal justice.  Jesus repeatedly in this sermon is trying to confront the common beliefs of His disciples and radically change their view of the world and how a kingdom citizen should act in the world.  Jesus here again, just like with murder, just like with adultery, is dealing with the heart.  His command is meant to “prohibit acts of retaliation and revenge inspired by anger and resentment.”[1]

Charles Quarles in his book,  Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, a couple very helpful qualifications for Jesus’ instruction not resist evil and to turn the other cheek:

a. Jesus’ message does not prohibit defensive action or evasive action necessary to protect oneself or others from serious harm.  “Jesus Himself, “turning the cheek” is to be understood as a figure for enduring abuse without seeking revenge.”  We see a prime example of this in John 18:22-23, Jesus is slapped by the guards and rather than suffering silently he protested the injustice of the beating, Jesus verbally defended himself and challenged the guards to provide evidence supporting their actions.  Scripture gives us several instances where Jesus withdrew from a situation to avoid injury: Mark 9:30-31; Luke 4:30; John 7:1,10; 10:39.

b. Jesus’ message does not prescribe that his disciples suffer fatal abuse without resistance.  The “slap” His disciples were to endure graciously, while painful and insulting, was not likely to cause permanent harm or be life threatening.  It is significant that He did not say “if anyone strikes your right cheek with a sword…” or ” if someone pummels your nose with his fist…”  So, for example, the believing wife who is in an abusive marriage should not simply “turn the other cheek” but should seek remedy through escape, legal recourse, and even physical resistance to protect herself and her family.  Likewise if someone breaks into your house, and attempts to steal from you, and harm you and your family, you are not bound to simply sit and let the violence be done.  “a person may do what is necessary to protect himself in the case of life-threatening or potentially dangerous attack.” Certainly we are to protect the innocent from evil, and defend the helpless, even if violence is called for in the endeavor.  Jesus is not addressing that.  He is addressing our tendency to be filled with anger and the desire for revenge when someone wrongs us.  Jesus is telling us, “wait, slow down, vengeance is mine, I will repay, do not respond in anger if someone insults you. Rather rise above it and display God’s love in the face of hostility, as I did.”

c. Jesus message does not preclude us from prosecuting those who have harmed someone if the legal action is against the one who assaulted them. “Victims of violent crimes should press charges against the one who assaulted them.  This is necessary for the public good in order to prevent others from being victimized.  Still the victim should purge his or her heart of malice, quenching the longing for revenge.”


[1] Quarles, 150.

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