“Turn the other cheek” – how should churches respond to domination?

May 19, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Jesus’ command to his disciples to “turn the other cheek” is traditionally interpreted as backing down from conflict for the sake of peace. The NIV translation of Matthew 5:39 begins: “Do not resist an evil person”. This is usually applied to individuals in community, although some have applied it to nations as a basis for pacifism. The injunction is not often applied to churches. Whether Christian communities should resist attack, perhaps from armed Fulani Islamists in northern Nigeria, or baton-wielding mobs in rural India, is an important debate for those with detailed knowledge of those situations, but I’m not sure this is what Jesus is talking about in this verse.

The detail is important: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek”. Unless the person doing the striking is left handed, this almost certainly refers not to an overt, front-on attack, but a backhanded slap in the face. Commentator Walter Wink says[1] that this “was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.”

The context, then, is one of a power differential, where Jesus assumes that his disciples will be predominantly from the lower echelons of society. They will be used to being despised and put down by those above them; they and others from a higher status background will together begin to receive this treatment because of their faith. This gives us a clue to relevant application for today. Christians in the West very rarely face direct threat to life (some who convert from Islam being an only possible exception); they do not come disproportionately from the working class, but they do increasingly face subtle intimidation, overriding of their values, and being put in their place, slapped down by a powerful secular system.

Some examples might be: YouTube takes down the audio version of a popular book by a well respected veteran Christian author and speaker because it “violates community standards”; Christian MPs are assured that the Coronavirus bill will not permit “DIY abortions” without parliamentary debate, and then are told that in fact this has happened; a teacher is removed from post for expressing privately her concerns about relationships and sex education policy; a counselling organisation is warned that it will be investigated for practicing ‘conversion therapy’; A church can be investigated for allowing more than ten worshippers inside the building, while a strip club down the street is allowed 50. A Christian group at a university is accused of right wing bias as it attempts to highlight the persecuted church at the students union.

Of course there is a view denying that Christians are under pressure in the West; that all of these recent examples and the many similar ones can all be explained as Christians failing to be ‘winsome’. Others might admit that Christianity no longer has the respect it once did in society, but the end of Christendom is no bad thing; there might be minor incidents of inconvenience but this is not ‘persecution’ as other Christians face around the world, and so should not be a concern. But this is like saying that making comments with sexual innuendo to women in the office, or persistent nasty teasing and joshing of a boy in school, are not a concern because rape or physical bullying is not occurring.

The regular ignoring or denigration of Christian views, the intimidation and low level punishments meted out by authorities – this is not full-on attack like government sponsored bulldozing of churches and imprisonment of pastors. Rather it is exactly what Jesus describes – the backhanded slap by the one in charge to the one beneath, who needs to be reminded that he only exists by permission and should not step out of line.

How should Christians respond?

Firstly, there needs to be a recognition of what is happening. Advocates of social change under unjust regimes, or those wanting to shine the light on abusive relationships and bring abuse to an end, would agree that the slap on the right cheek, metaphorical or literal, should not just be accepted as normal. It is not right; the situation is not just, and the person whose dignity is being abused has a choice how to respond.

Similarly, with the church in an increasingly dominant secular society, an environment more and more hostile to expression of orthodox Christian views, Christians need to identify when a line is being crossed between normal applications of a just system, and a backhanded slap to Christians, a contemptuous misuse of power, to say “get back in your box.”

When it’s clear what’s happening, what then?

Back to Matthew 5:39: Jesus said “do not stand against (‘antistenai’) the one who does evil”. This is a military term, referring to taking up weapons of war. In Ephesians 6:10f where this word is used, we are called to take this attitude of armed resistance against spiritual powers, but not to oppose the hit on the right cheek, the expression of dominance and call to subservience by human beings in the material realm, with violent aggression. However that does not mean, as the NIV and other translations imply, avoiding any resistance to evil other than prayer.

So what do we do? What does “offer him the other cheek” mean? Certainly Jesus is not advocating these common responses:

  1. Collude with the dominant power in such a way that they would never slap us – we are on their side! We could even do the master’s work for him, giving the message that faith should not be taken too seriously, and keeping the troublesome fellow Christians in line.
  2. Flee, by avoiding any situation where we might come into conflict with the powers. This is seen in a pietist churchianity which focuses on worship and teaching in church (or online, as permitted by regulations); does not publicly address controversial issues such as abortion or sexual morality, certainly not in any way which could be seen as protest.
  3. Submit – if we do have a run in with the powers and get the slap on the right cheek. Head down, mumble an apology, get back into line, say or do nothing more.

Jesus’s advice is rather to turn the other cheek. Not collusion, believing that there is no evil involved and the powers will be reasonable if we are on their side. Not running away, meekly submitting or fighting back, but inviting the dominant power to hit again, this time having shifted the power dynamic.

Walter Wink again:

“The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship…By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”

How might this work in practice? Some case studies:

a) A clergyman’s PTO (licence from the Bishop giving permission to officiate at services) needing to be renewed, in a Diocese with relentless liberal drift, culminating in Bishops apologising for the church’s teaching on marriage and setting up LGBT services in the cathedral. Allowing the PTO to lapse and retiring from ministry is perhaps an example of ‘flight’. Renewing the PTO and continuing with ministry with no protest is submission. Perhaps the “other cheek” option would be to continue to minister without PTO, and force the Bishop to issue a disciplinary measure?

b) A Church of England school with godly head teacher and a group of Christian parents are concerned about introduction of the new RSE curriculum. Do they

  • Follow the practice of other schools in the area, teaching RSE as prescribed, to stay on good terms with the education authorities?
  • Do the minimum; don’t make any fuss, don’t involve parents in the issue.
  • Draw up curriculum compatible with the official teaching of C of E in consultation with parents. Face down threats politely, with legal knowledge. Work with local churches to inform congregations for prayer.

c) Pushing back against overreach by governments: there are times when taking court action is a visible sign of insisting on equal treatment before the law, not submitting to injustice based on bias. Recent cases involving Cornerstone adoption agency and the ‘DIY abortion bill’ are good examples.

These actions of non-violent resistance combined with spiritual warfare are not trying to reinstate Christendom where Christianity is dominant, but a degree of justice where Christian views are of equal worth to others in a democratic system. The freedoms to practice and communicate our faith we have taken for granted for so long will continue to be eroded unless we put into practice Jesus’ teaching on how to resist evil.

Footnote: [1] Walter Wink was an influential American theologian best known for his analysis of the NT teaching on Principalities and Powers. His explanations of the spiritual dynamics and psychological processes behind power structures which keep oppressed people in subjugation are compelling. His romantic idealising of leftist political movements, and his ‘demythologising’ of the spiritual realm ultimately undermine many of his conclusions – but this exegesis on Matthew 5:39 is I believe a good one – AS.

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