By Selwyn Duke
Today I'm going to respond to a reader who had a question relating to my last article, "Which Side Really Inspires Violence, the Right or Left?" Here is the email the reader, LR, sent:
Your latest column was well done; I like your inexorable logic. The question I'm asking is inspired by a "tidbit" in the article - the "turn the other cheek" reference. While I don't have a Bible in hand, I believe I can fairly well remember the passages I refer to. In Matthew, Jesus says, "Resist not evil ... turn the other cheek." In James, however, we are told, "Resist the devil and he will flee." Seemingly, these passages contradict one another, but I'm certain that the paradox can be reconciled. My question is, how would you do so? Thanks!
Thank you for writing. Your question is actually something I've long wanted to address, and here is my answer.
As G.K. Chesterton said while debating Clarence Darrow (of Scopes Monkey Trial fame) in 1931, "The Bible is a much bigger thing than the little thing some people try to make it." So many people — and I realize you're not among them, LR — diminish the Bible by insisting on viewing it literally. Now, while I lay no claim to being a biblical scholar, I realize that, like all works, it is rich in allegory, in figurative language. Additionally, many references in Scripture cannot be placed in context without understanding the cultural peculiarities of the times and places in which biblical figures lived.
In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."
Now, the question is, why did Jesus specify the right cheek? Was this an extraneous adjective? Or, like the word "Congress" in the First Amendment, is it an often overlooked word that places the passage in which it's found in perspective? Well, let's read what scholar Walter Wink wrote on the subject:
What we are dealing with here is unmistakably an insult, not a fistfight. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. One normally did not strike a peer in this way, and, if one did, the fine was exorbitant (four zuz was the fine for a blow to a peer with a fist, 400 zuz for backhanding him; but to an underling, no penalty whatever). A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.
Thus, if this interpretation is correct (and it has long been my understanding), Jesus was not advising sheep-like passivity; rather, he was providing the oppressed with a tactic for effective defiance. Obviously, there was no ACLU in Roman times; an inferior couldn't drag Pontius Pilate into court. And violent resistance was futile and could mean your death. So Jesus' prescription was perhaps people's only recourse, and it was brilliant.
Think about it: You're a Jew and you've been backhanded on your right cheek by a Roman soldier. By turning the left to him, you're turning the tables on him — in a sense. You're sending the message that you've retained your dignity, that you won't be cowed or demeaned. Now, what is the soldier to do? Those cultural and legal proscriptions prevent him from backhanding you with his left hand on your left cheek, which you've now presented to him, and if he strikes you normally with his right fist, he is then treating you as an equal. And this would defeat the purpose of the strike. As Wink wrote, ". . . the whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the caste system and its institutionalized inequality." And whether or not the tactic was foolproof isn't the issue. The point is that it provided powerless people with some recourse.
When viewed in this light, it's apparent that "turn the other cheek" doesn't contradict "Resist the Devil and he will flee" but reinforces it. They both involve opposing evil; however, while the latter is a rather general statement, the former is a specific one advocating a tactic relevant in a certain time, place and culture.
So we should all understand that we have a duty to try to thwart evil. Of course, how that can best be done in a given situation is a different matter.
© 2009 Selwyn Duke — All Rights Reserved