Disclaimer: The following post is intended to address the phrase, “turn the other cheek” as used by some helpers and pastors to encourage victims of abuse to simply accept and endure hurt. My intention is not to prescribe specific means of resistance during individual acts of abuse. Each of Jesus’ illustrations in Matthew chapter five occur in public as resistance to an oppressive government and while some principles may be transferable they are not directly intended to speak to a wife’s personal resistance to her husband.
I am often asked about the principle of “turning the other cheek” as it may apply to domestic abuse, and specifically as it applies to oppression and resistance. These discussions usually indicate an understanding that “turning the other cheek” means a Christian’s response to hurt is to either offer ourselves up for additional harm in the spirit of Christ or sin against our spouse by retaliating. This either or view is unfortunate and possibly deadly for victims of domestic violence who feel the need to passively receive evil treatment rather than responding to evil. However, the "turn the other cheek" passage is in fact a call to respond to evil.
“But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the left also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.”
Am I Supposed to be a Doormat?
An initial reading of the words of Jesus may lead one to think that, as a Christian, we have no other recourse when faced with oppressive behavior than to stand idly by practicing a bizarre form of “doormat” theology. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus offers this sermon to a group of followers living under oppression to the Roman Empire. The word 'resist' could easily be read 'resist violently' or resist in kind. Jesus is not suggesting passivity but rather peaceful resistance. So, in this context Jesus highlights three real life scenarios that his audience may experience.
1. A backhand to face by a Roman soldier, official, or collaborator. This would have been a slap of disrespect like one given to an animal, or slave and to my knowledge a culturally acceptable act. The right hand striking the right cheek of the victim. Jesus does not appear to approve of this behavior but cautions his followers not to resist violently by striking back, but rather exposing the aggressors privilege by offering them the left cheek. This 'turn the other cheek' posture forces the aggressor to choose whether to abandon the assault or strike your left cheek which would, more than likely, be with a fist (an unacceptable and illegal use of force). If the oppressor strikes the victim with a fist then the oppressor will be clearly in the wrong. Resistance should highlight the oppressors wrong-doing not the victims response.
2. Leave the courtroom naked. Jesus’ audience, with a few exceptions, were not wealthy individuals. To have someone sue you for your coat is significant. Again Jesus encourages us not to physically fight for our stuff, but rather abandon our garments in the courtroom. In other words expose the aggressors privilege by forcing them to publicly deal with the shame of leaving you high and dry. I've been told that in the first century to be naked was shameful, to see someone naked was more shameful, but to cause someone to be naked was most shameful. Again, the resistance highlights the victim's need and the oppressor's sin.
3. Going the extra mile is not about effort but nonviolent resistance. Roman soldiers in Jesus day could commandeer Jews off the street to carry their gear for one mile under the law. Willingly going the extra mile puts pressure on the aggressor. Once again highlighting his privilege and forcing him into a place of discomfort as others see you continue to walk past the cut off point.
Jesus taught his followers the power of resistance and the importance of holding oppressors accountable, by highlighting the sinfulness of their behavior by exposing their privilege.
Over the years I have seen pastors struggle with cases of abuse claiming that both parties are abusive. They relay stories of how they see him as overbearing but that she is prone to fits of rage and abuse herself. I sometimes call these the “big buts” as abuse is sometimes minimized by saying, “yes he does this BUT she does that.” My challenge to these thoughts is to consider whether one party is in fact abusive and one is resisting the abuse rather than assume the behavior is mutual. My friend Leslie Vernick does a good job distinguishing between controlling abuse and reactive abuse in her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. Certainly, responding to abuse with behavior that mimics or mirrors abuse is not the healthiest of choices and may sometimes be sinful but that doesn’t mean that resistance should not happen or be honored.
In the following video I walk through an exercise in escalation that may helpful for people helpers to process resistance.