Bullies and predators want their targets to become victims by submission to their nefarious assertions. Psychology tells us that, when facing danger, we have two options: fight or flight. Jesus tells us that there is a third way that will often work. His third way is what propelled Mohandas Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to challenge a culture and change a society. Neither they nor Jesus advocated violence or cowardice; rather they suggested a creative, strong, and wise response. In the Sermon on the Mount (The Holy Gospel according to Matthew, chapters 5-7), Jesus introduced active non-violent resistance as the basis of this third way.
Jesus taught the people of His time who were living under Roman oppression saying: “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer him the other. If someone wants to go to law with you over your outer tunic, give him your inner cloak as well. If anyone forces you into service for one mile, go for two.” In this, He wasn’t suggesting that we be passive wimps who get walked on by bullies or masochists that find pleasure in getting beat up. He never suggested anything passive. Instead, He wants us to respond but to do so in creative ways that turn the table of oppression and shame those who want to shame us so that we can inspire more humane behaviors that dignify their existence and their situation.
In our modern time, wrapped in our American freedom and wealth, we cannot fully appreciate the depth of Christ’s words but those who listened to them knew exactly what He was saying. In His culture, in which Jews were subjected to, and oppressed by, the conquering Roman Empire, it meant far more than we think. In His ancient culture, the left hand was considered unclean, used for fowl things like wiping one’s rump. According to law, a person would be punished for misusing his left hand. A right-handed blow in a right-handed world would land on the left cheek. If I wanted to strike you on your right cheek, I’d need to use my left hand, or use a back-hand slap. In this lesson, Jesus is not describing a fair fist fight; He’s describing an insult—the humiliation that Roman conquerors sometimes gave to oppressed Jews or what slave owners did to slaves to express their unequal relationship. If you, the victim, retaliated, you were inviting violent retribution; however, if you turned the other cheek in the face of humiliation, you’d expose me as a thug, a bully, a coward, and you’d show yourself no longer a victim but as one who asserts your own dignity, equality, and humanity. You’d essentially be saying: “I deny you the power to humiliate me.”
Jesus does not want us to passively suffer the violence of bullies, cruel dictators, or unjust laws. He wants us, instead, to non-violently stand up to their injustice. We are not doormats to be walked on. He reminds us that we are not helpless or powerless or despondent. His second example also speaks to His culture. In that time, people wore two garments: an outer cloak and inner tunic. The poor were always in debt and, according to the law, a person of power could haul a poor man into court and demand even the shirt off his back. If the poor person was sued in court for his outer garment and then gave away his inner garment, too, he would appear naked before the court. Appearing naked was not only taboo in ancient Israel, it was also criminal—but not for the naked person. In that culture, it was illegal to cast one’s eyes upon a naked person; therefore, the court lawyer, the judge, and the powerful lender would have to arrest themselves for violating the law while the poor man could go home free. Jesus is telling listeners to respond creatively, disarm the bullies, and liberate themselves.
Then He gives a third, follow-up, example. According to Roman law, a soldier could demand suffrage citizens to carry his equipment—weighing about eighty pounds—for up to one full mile. It was illegal, however, for them to have to carry the pack any further. To go the extra mile would land soldiers in jail according to their own law. Again, Jesus encourages followers to be disarming and clever, to shame those who wish to shame them, call them into right relationship and honorable action. He wants us to call each other to higher standards, better behaviors, and greater love. Though we should always aspire to dialogue, you and I know that not everyone is reasonable or capable of carrying on conversations that seek solutions.
The writer and activist, John Dear, goes into depth on this topic. If you would like to delve into it deeper, his web connections will help you do so. Most of us, Catholics, were taught to think that Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek so as not to engage in fighting; but that never seemed right because, in that scenario, the bully wins, innocent targets become victims, and Christians appear cowardly. That’s not what He wants at all. He wants us, like King, Gandhi, and many others who imitate the third way, to be brave and unyielding, creative and clever, wise and holy, and to teach others to see the foolishness of bullying.