Turn the Other Cheek: the radical case for nonviolent resistance

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the greatest gifts of scripture to humanity; just ask Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Leo Tolstoy. In a time when an eye for an eye still seems to hold sway, IDEAS producer Sean Foley explores the logic of Christian non-violence, beginning with Jesus' counsel to 'turn the other cheek.'

'Gandhi said Jesus is the greatest person of nonviolence in the history of the world,' says theologian

The Sermon on the Mount (seen here in a 1890 painting by Carl Bloch) from the gospel of Matthew illustrates the Christian belief in nonviolence, or the principle ‘to turn the other cheek.' (Wikimedia)

*Originally published on October 14, 2022.

It's one of the most famous — and misunderstood — tenets of the Christian faith: turn the other cheek.

It occurs twice in the New Testament. 

Once, in the Gospel of Luke; and with more precise language, in Matthew, in the famous section known as The Sermon on the Mount. 

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also."  (Matthew 5:38-39)

You would be forgiven for thinking that sounds like a command to lie down and let people walk all over you. That's a frequent misuse of this passage, a misuse that has been committed by dictators and church leaders alike. 

That interpretation doesn't fit with the life of Christ. Jesus resisted evil, called the powerful to account, and healed the most vulnerable. He was also willing to pay the ultimate price for living this way; he was crucified. 

Jesus Christ cleansing a leper in a painting by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864. (Wikimedia)

"When we preach resistance, we focus not on bearing the cross, but on surviving to thrive and rise again," said Beth Graybill, a lifelong Mennonite who has worked in her church and on college campuses with survivors of sexual assault.

"The theology of resurrection promises fresh and abundant living beyond the assault, and I think that's a sense of hope and a sense of justice that needs to be held out for all survivors."

Not a doormat

The late Walter Wink was one of the most influential voices in Christian theology of nonviolence; he unpacked the language of 'turn the other cheek' in Matthew's Gospel and taught that Jesus was pointing to a third way: not fight, not flight, but an active, nonviolent challenge to the oppressor.

Derek Suderman, an associate professor at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, says Wink's interpretation of 'turn the other cheek' was influenced by his time in South Africa during the apartheid era.

"Walter Wink is [in] a different historical context, and he is trying to find the good news in this tradition. The idea that this teaching is to simply be a doormat or [...] give in to oppression and not provide any challenge, he's suggesting that in our context, that's just unworkable. That can't be what it means."

Beyond 'turn the other cheek' 

Turning the other cheek is but one thread in the broad tapestry of Christian non-violence; however, much of which is found in the Gospel of Matthew.

"Matthew's Gospel puts together all Jesus's teachings of nonviolence in these three chapters [5, 6 and 7] as Jesus's basic campaign platform speech," said Father John Dear, a long-time peace activist and author of 40 books on peace and nonviolence, including The Nonviolent Life.

In 1995, Fr. John Dear met with Congressman John Lewis, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the civil rights movement. Members were involved in the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, known as 'Bloody Sunday.' (Submitted by John Dear)

Dear points to two people in history who he says "have taught us the most about Jesus": Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

"Gandhi said Jesus is the greatest person of nonviolence in the history of the world, and the only people on the planet who don't know that Jesus is nonviolent are Christians. Which is funny and tragic."

Truly living the life of nonviolence

John Dear has been teaching nonviolence for decades and says he's still learning.

He encourages all people to study Jesus from the perspective of nonviolence. "We're really talking about love and compassion and peace. But everybody uses those words and they're not working," Dear told IDEAS.

"That's why I use this clumsy word 'nonviolence' as Gandhi and Dr. King did. And I invite you…your listeners to try to imagine: what would their lives look like if they were as nonviolent as Jesus and Gandhi and Dr. King? Where do they need to work on it?"

Mahatma Gandhi at a spinning wheel during a 'Charlea' demonstration in Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, June 9, 1925. 'Jesus is like Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He's a full-on person of total nonviolence in a world of total violence,' says Fr. John Dear. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Dear breaks down living a life of nonviolence into three simultaneous practices. He adds that one must do all three, not just one.

1. First, you have to be totally nonviolent to yourself. 

2. You also have to be meticulously nonviolent toward every human being in your life, every human being you'll ever meet, every human being on the planet, and all the creatures, as well as the planet itself. 

3. You also have to have one foot in the global grassroots movement of nonviolence, as a proponent for justice, disarmament and the environment. Once you step into one of the issues, you realize they're all connected.

"Now people go to me, 'well, that's impossible. And by the way, I'm really good at one of these.' And that's the problem. There's billions of people who are really peaceful and nice. That is not gospel nonviolence."

Letting go of outcomes 

Still, our constant exposure to the ills of the world can be discouraging (see also doomscrolling). Fr. Dear says that nonviolent action can take you to a place where you are engaged but not haunted by the need for results. 

Sometimes it becomes clear he's not just referring to a metaphorical place.

"You really want to learn some things? Go to jail. It's a very powerful experience of God and peace. I hammered on a nuclear weapon, as you do, to try to show the world that nonviolence is the way forward and nuclear disarmament is our only hope," Dear said.

"But more happened in the tiny jail cells I've been in, than all the work I've done combined. It's a very mysterious thing, you know, because then you're totally beyond results and having control in your life."

Fr. John Dear was arrested at the White House in 2017 during a demonstration. (Submitted by John Dear)

Dear says that as an activist, he's found that the idea of making a difference and being successful shouldn't result in anger — for example, the notion that yelling at demonstrations will be effective. As he points out, yelling is not a nonviolent approach.   

"When you let go, and you walk forward in faith and you take new risks for justice, disarmament, and creation in the spirit of total nonviolence, much more can happen because then the God of peace can work through you," said Dear.

"We're going to wake up one day, if the movement grows and does its work, and [the news] will say 'the world has abolished the last nuclear weapon', and people will go, 'Isn't that nice? Who won the baseball game last night?' 

"It's the struggle of ordinary people to keep at it. And so we have to live our lives, but we have to be detached from the outcome, the results."

Guests in this episode:

Fr. John Dear is a Catholic Priest, peace activist, and author of more than 40 books. He was nominated by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is founder and executive director at the Beatitudes Center for the Nonviolent Jesus near Cambria, California. Fr. Dear does regular Zoom sessions with peacemakers from many backgrounds

Beth Graybill directs programs at the Pathways Institute for Lifelong Learning in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She has also worked for the Mennonite Central Committee and has taught Women's Studies at colleges throughout Pennsylvania.

Derek Suderman is associate professor of religious studies and theology at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ontario. 

Further Reading:

Pacifism and Women's Resistance by Beth Graybill.

Transcript of Walter Wink's Nonviolence for the Violent 

*This episode was produced by Sean Foley.

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