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This is a hard saying in the sense that it prescribes a course of action which does not come naturally to us. Unprovoked assault prompts resentment and retaliation. If one wants to be painfully literal, the assault is particularly vicious, for if the striker is right-handed, it is with the back of his hand that he hits the other on the right cheek.
This is one of a number of examples by which Jesus shows that the lifestyle of the kingdom of God is more demanding than what the law of Moses laid down. "You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth' " (Mt 5:38). This was indeed laid down in Israel's earliest law code (Ex 21:24), and when it was first said it marked a great step forward, for it imposed a strict limitation on the taking of vengeance. It replaced an earlier system of justice according to which if a member of tribe X injured a member of tribe Y, tribe Y was under an obligation to take vengeance on tribe X. This quickly led to a blood feud between the two tribes and resulted in suffering which far exceeded the original injury. But incorporated into Israel's law code was the principle of exact retaliation: one eye, and no more, for an eye; one life, and no more, for a life. When wounded honor was satisfied with such precisely proportionate amends, life was much less fraught with hazards. The acceptance of this principle made it easier to regard monetary compensation as being, in many cases, a reasonable replacement for the infliction of an equal and opposite injury on the offending party.
But now Jesus takes a further step. "Don't retaliate at all," he says to his disciples. "Don't harbor a spirit of resentment; if someone does you an injury or puts you to inconvenience, show yourself master of the situation by doing something to his advantage. If he gets some pleasure out of hitting you, let him hit you again." (It should not be necessary to say that this saying is no more to be pressed literally than the saying about plucking out one's right eye and throwing it away--it is not difficult to envisage the other cheek being turned in a very provocative manner.) If a soldier or other government official conscripts your services to carry a load for him so far, you are under compulsion; you are forced to do it. But, when you have reached the end of the stipulated distance, you are a free person again; then you can say to him, "If you'd like it carried farther, I will gladly carry it for you." The initiative has now become yours, and you can take it not by voicing a sense of grievance at having been put to such inconvenience but by performing an act of grace. This way of reacting to violence and compulsion is the way of Christ.
To have one's services conscripted to carry a soldier's pack for him is not an everyday experience in the Western world. How, in our situation, could this particular injunction of Jesus be applied? Perhaps when a citizen is directed by a policeman to assist him in the execution of his duty. But if (say) it is a matter of helping him to arrest a larger number of suspicious characters than he can cope with single-handed, would they not also come within the scope of duty to one's neighbor? This simply reminds us that Jesus' injunctions are not usually of the kind that can be carried out automatically; they often require careful thought. Whatever sacrifices he expects his followers to make, he does not ask them to sacrifice their minds. What they are urged to do is to have their minds conformed to his, and when careful thought is exercised in accordance with the mind of Christ, the resulting action will be in accordance with the way of Christ.
Another parallel might be the Christian's reaction to his income tax demand. The tax demanded must be paid; no choice can be exercised there. But suppose the Christian taxpayer, as an act of grace, pays double the amount demanded, or at least adds a substantial amount to it; what then? The computer would probably record it as tax overpaid, and the surplus would come back to him as a rebate. Perhaps it would be wisest if he were to send it to the government anonymously--not only so as not to let his left hand know what his right hand was doing, but to forestall unworthy suspicions and enquiries. Once again, the carrying out of the simple injunctions of Jesus in a complex society like ours is not so easy. But where the spirit which he recommended is present, the performance should not go too far astray.
The admonition to turn the other cheek is given by Jesus to his disciples. It belongs to the sphere of personal behavior. There are many Christians, however, who hold that this teaching should be put into practice by communities and nations as well as by individuals. Where Christian communities are concerned, we may well agree. The spectacle of the church enlisting the aid of the "secular arm" to promote its interests is rarely an edifying one. "It belongs to the church of God," someone once said, "to receive blows rather than to inflict them--but," he added "she is an anvil that has worn out many hammers." But what about a political community?
The situation did not arise in New Testament times. The first disciples of Jesus did not occupy positions of authority. Joseph of Arimathea might be an exception: he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jewish nation, and according to Luke (Lk 23:50-51), he did not go along with his colleagues' adverse verdict on Jesus. As the gospel spread into the Gentile world, some local churches included in their membership men who occupied positions of municipal responsibility, like Erastus, the city treasurer of Corinth (Rom 16:23); but neither Paul nor any other New Testament writer finds it necessary to give special instructions to Christian rulers corresponding to those given to Christian subjects. But what was to happen when Christians became rulers, as in due course some did? Should the Christian magistrate practice nonretaliation toward the criminal who comes up before him for judgment? Should the Christian king practice nonretaliation toward a neighboring king who de- clared war against him?
Paul, who repeats and underlines Jesus' teaching of nonretaliation, regards retaliation as part of the duty of the civil ruler. "Would you have no fear of him who is in authority?" he asks. "Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer" (Rom 13:3-4 RSV). For Paul, the ruler in question was the Roman emperor or someone who held executive or judicial authority under him. But his words were relevant to their chronological setting. The time had not yet come (although it did come in less than ten years after those words were written) when the empire was openly hostile to the church. Still less had the time come when the empire capitulated to the church and emperors began to profess and call themselves Christians. When they inherited the "sword" which their pagan predecessors had not borne "in vain," how were they to use it? The answer to that question cannot be read easily off the pages of the New Testament. It is still being asked, and it is right that it should; but no single answer can claim to be the truly Christian one.
See also comment on EXODUS 21:23-25.
Theodore Beza to King Charles IX of France at the Abbey of Poissy, near Paris, in 1561.
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