'Turning the other cheek' robs oppressor of power

To the editor:

Victims of domestic violence often turn the other cheek. Perpetrators of violence might distort sacred scripture to their advantage. Jesus teaches “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39) Patients and friends who have experienced intimate partner violence, the new term, have shared how hurtful this verse can be. Does Jesus literally mean what he says? Having recently given a presentation on intimate partner violence, a different interpretation emerges that is important to consider. Jesus’ words do not promote passivity but promote nonviolent resistance. This is a critical point for victims of intimate partner violence.

Walter Wink and other biblical scholars suggest this interpretation of “striking” based upon customs of the time. The left hand was considered unclean. It was considered a form of submission to strike another with the back of the right hand striking the right cheek. A strike with an open hand expressed equality, not submission. When Jesus says to turn the other cheek, He is saying “do not strike me again.” If you turn the left cheek, the perpetrator could not strike without bringing shame to himself. Instead of conveying inferiority it would convey unintended equality. According to Wink, turning the other cheek “robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate.”

Wink makes similar points about offering your cloak and offering to walk two miles. The law prevented your cloak from a legal claim because without both your tunic and cloak you would be rendered naked. This would bring shame to the person accepting the cloak. A Roman soldier could ask for you to carry his goods for one mile. If he accepted more than one mile, that would bring shame to the soldier.

It seems important for victims of intimate partner violence to consider this interpretation of sacred scripture. Jesus is saying not to be passive but to resist without violence. Intimate partner violence is tragic and unacceptable whether physical or verbal.

—Steve Hopf, MD

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