Have you ever felt confused by this saying of Jesus? It literally means that if someone has hit us on the left cheek, we should instinctively (sense heart response) offers them the other cheek to be hit if they wish, not out of spite, but out of love. This sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Why didn’t you defend yourself?

The way of the world is definitely not to look the other way. When I moved from my parents’ house to shared accommodation when I was 21, I moved into a house with two other young people my age, both “friends”. I mean because I had quite a bit of respect for one of these guys, I had doubts about the other, but we always spent a lot of time together. I soon discovered that my mistrust of this guy was well founded: he was a biblical “sloth”, always walking away from his responsibility to provide his part or doing his chores and, worse, picking fights. . Turning the other cheek was never going to work in this situation.

However, turning the other cheek, bestowing grace on the other person, which is an “unmerited favor”, was the life edict of the legendary writer Leo Tolstoy. Here was a man who struggled all his life to find the meaning of this. He is genuinely someone who ‘went to hell and back’ to find him.[1] Being involved in fundamental pacifism based on the words of Christ ironically made him a Christian anarchist: because the Church supported the State, and the State went to war, Tolstoy came into conflict with the Church to the point of his own excommunication. It looked like Tolstoy lived “turn the other cheek” as best you can. On the back of Schopenhauer[2] influence lived the rest of his life, by choice, in abject poverty. He always had a firm conviction that the message of the Sermon on the Mount could be lived literally, an understanding that perhaps led to a rather tortuous life in the end.

Frank people always have critics, and Tolstoy was no exception. In the mid-1940s, Eric Arthur Blair, also known as George Orwell, wrote of Tolstoy’s philosophy: “If you turn the other cheek, you will receive a stronger blow than the first. This doesn’t always happen, but it is to be expected and you shouldn’t complain if it does.”[3] Orwell suggests in his essay, Lear, Tolstoy and the Foolthat Tolstoy’s philosophy was flawed in that “The distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having an appetite for power”,[4] hinting that pacifists, like Tolstoy, could very easily be power mongers. While I suppose this could be true, I find it hard to follow the “why” logic. An additional quote from Orwell probably demonstrates his penchant for Test the power of justice, as seen in those whom Orwell considered “saints”, is not so fair:

Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which on the surface seem to imply a total renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind. you yourself cannot hope to gain any material advantage, surely that proves you right? And the more you’re right, the more natural it becomes for everyone else to feel intimidated into thinking the same thing.”[5]

The point of this, when it comes to turn the other cheekwhere do you draw the line? Tolstoy may have been guilty, ironically, of not applying pacifism when he was in conflict with the church. Anarchism is, in itself, a fight against the “powers”. Perhaps what Jesus exhorts his disciples to do is to engage in pacifism for themselves (don’t defend themselves), but to be the advocate for the weakest member, in Tolstoy’s situation, for the downtrodden and helpless victims of war, of which there are many. In this context it can be shown that Tolstoy was really doing God’s will, as many of his time did too, standing against the powersview anarchism-of-the-darkness.

Theologian Helmut Thielicke sees that on a worldly level it is impossible to find the logic to turn the other cheek. He says, if you share accommodation, and the other person doesn’t do the dishes and leaves the dirty work to you, you’re obligated to treat them the same and leave the dishes to them, right? This is so that they can appreciate for themselves what that the treatment feels like… yet on a higher ‘heavenly’ level, it is possible to turn the other cheek when we acknowledge the spiritual truth that all are serving grace: Christ died for the wicked. This is unabashed respect that goes with each person you know and with whom you relate; it is to see them through the eyes of God.

Furthermore, Thielicke says that no one is beyond God’s sonship, and that it is the “gift of Grace who gives me new eyes, so that with these new eyes I can see something divine in others”.[6] And we [are to] help by putting ourselves under the mercy of God and [allow that to] irradiate others so that this unhappy world can be disinfected”.[7]

It’s about seeing the need in others who might offend and intimidate you. It is about seeing your fear and returning love through mercy, based on God’s grace.

It helps open the offender to the freedom of “why did you treat me so nicely when I did something despicable to you?” It is in a sense a miraculous response to a miraculous action. He recognizes that what it means for anyone to turn to God, no less repentant, is a “transvaluation of values.”[8] In fact, that has happened to anyone who genuinely turns the other cheek, in love, without fear.

It is only the miracle of grace that allows the authenticity of the process to occur. Turning the other cheek is simply a better way. It is a better way because whether the person who hits us or offends us returns or does not is insignificant. Indeed, it is in thanks to Orwell’s quote that we should expect people to strike back, but in ourselves we must stand firm on our (or God’s) stand of love and grace.

You see, we must see the son of God in them; the child who has been bought by love, and given the gift of life, whether they choose it or not. Seeing this miracle of turning the other cheek in action is the very sight of Jesus himself, with a look that he could say, “You can’t make me love you less, no matter what you do.”

Do you think it’s possible?

© Steve J. Wickham, 2008. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] Mr Eaton, The Path That Leads to Life, The Sermon on the Mount’s Radical Challenge to the Church, (Christian Focus Publications, Geanies House, Great Britain, 1999), p. 95.

[2] Tolstoy’s life changed forever after reading the following: But this same need for involuntary suffering (of the poor) for eternal salvation is also expressed in that expression of the Savior (“Matthew 19:24”): “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man shall enter the kingdom of God.” Therefore, those who were very concerned about their eternal salvation chose voluntary poverty when fate had denied them and they were born into wealth. Thus Sakyamuni Buddha was born a prince, but voluntarily took the beggar’s staff; and Francis of Assisi, the founder of the mendicant orders who, as a young man at a ball, where the daughters of all personalities were seated together, was asked: “Now Francis, will you not soon choose between these beauties?” and who replied: “I have made a much more beautiful choice!” “Who?” “La poverta (poverty)”: whereupon he abandoned everything soon after and wandered the earth as a beggar.
Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Flight. II, §170.

[3] G. Orwell, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool”, Controversy No.7, Great Britain, London (March 1947). Available: http://orwell.ru/library/essays/lear/english/e_ltf

[4] Orwell, Op cit.

[5] Orwell, Op cit.

[6] H. Thielicke, Life Can Begin Anew: Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, translated by JW Doberstein (Fortress Press, Philadelphia), p. 74-5.

[7] H. Thielicke, Ibid., p. 74-5.

[8] H. Thielicke, Op cit., p. 77.

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