The Problem with Staying Silent

by Phillip Brown

          One of the difficult and often misunderstood concepts to deal with in Christianity is the idea of turning the other Cheek. (Matthew 5:39) What did Jesus really mean when he said that? Well there is certainly more than one school of thought on the matter and I think that by briefly examining this verse from Matthew we can gain a better perspective on our own behaviour when it comes to responding to confrontation and general challenges to Christianity and our values as Christians. And I think that you (the reader) might agree that when people take a shot at us as Christians staying silent is not necessarily the correct answer.

          As it is rarely a good idea to look at anything in isolation, let’s look at the verse in question in context and see what we can discover about its meaning:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ 39 But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (NASB)

          As part of his very well known and oft quoted Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is clearly discussing the morality of certain behaviours in certain circumstances. The above passage discusses an even higher degree of morality than that which was written in the Jewish Law of the Old Testament. For example, whereas in verse 38 Jesus says “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.” He then counters that suggestion of a type of revenge, or punishment equal to the crime with the saying “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” in verse 39. But is Jesus suggesting a complete lack of defense and, essentially, non-reactionary pacifism? At first glance, it may seem so, but modern biblical scholarship would seem to suggest that this interpretation might not be correct. When viewed in its historical and cultural contexts, verse 39 refers to being insulted by being slapped in the face. Most likely in a backhanded fashion, which would constitute a rather serious insult indeed. One scholar, Walter Wink, believes that this passage in particular refers to a master slapping a slave, or peasant. Wink suggests that the historical context is particularly important to this passage. This is because one would have to be slapped with the back of the right hand, as the left hand was reserved for less than savoury things. By turning the other cheek you would force the master, or superior to hit you with a forward-handed, or a closed fisted blow. In historical and cultural context, though, it is understood that only when equals fight do they use closed fists. And so by turning the other cheek, you are forcing the superior to meet you on an equal footing and that would seem to cause them to lose the social power that they hold over you. Although Wink’s exegesis of this passage certainly has critics, it seems to me that he definitely has the historical and cultural context correct. And responding non-violently, when not absolutely required, definitely seems to fit the overarching biblical context.

          Another understanding of this passage is simply to lay down and take what’s coming to you. This seems to the more common interpretation of this passage today. I have observed that this is how most younger ministers and Christians tend to view it. But what strikes me as peculiar with regards to this exegetical understanding of Matt 5:39 is that it reeks of the particular brand of thinking that is most common among those who have a particular post-modern liberalistic bent. Christians of this sort seem to follow a generally “fast and loose” interpretation of most scripture. And I would go so far as to say that they subscribe to, what many more conservative Christians call, a “watered down” version of Christianity. These folks seem to live more by the post-modern definition of tolerance (to accept all points of view as equal without question) than they do by The Word. And typically have grievances with stricter interpretations of scripture, citing that those biblical views are judgemental, unloving and not “Christ-like.”

          Now given that the latter of the two understandings of Matt 39 is simply more emotional and not even rooted in a biblical context, but rather it is an interpretation shaped by the environment around us and thus they love the things of this world and the love for the Father is not in them (1 John 2:15), I do not think that this understanding could even be appropriate. My thinking is that the core message behind Matthew 38-45 and particularly verse 39 is one of a non-violent, but certainly reactionary kind. And this brings us to the point of the article.

          Having gone over a couple of ways to interpret one of the biblical passages regarding how to respond to “an evil person” or more likely just someone who challenges our beliefs, we can now discuss what a proper Christian response might be. I submit that apologetics is an appropriate response to most challenges. In western culture today, we are constantly ridiculed and, at least verbally, slapped in the face simply because we have faith in Christ. And by turning the other cheek we are letting them take that road of insult and ridicule. But that doesn’t mean that we are to remain silent. When Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees, even He responded to their challenge about which commandments are the greatest (Matt 22:37-40). And in his responses to the Sanhedrin during His trial (Luke 22:67-69) for example. Jesus made very clear and bold statements. He was not violent, but he was reactive. We can let our challengers insult us and ridicule us and turn the other cheek and let them do it again. But we do not have to remain silent! In fact remaining silent can be problematic, because others around us then get the impression that there is no response to be found. And that could cause us to lose the opportunity to share our faith with someone. On more than a few occasions, the challenger has been given reason to pause when I have responded to their jibes.

          More often than not, we can make a great case and give a factual, reasoned response without being insulting, aggressive, or violent in any way. As per scripture, we should respond with “gentleness and reverence”. Remaining silent and not giving an account for the hope that you have is sometimes the absolute worst thing that you can do. We should always give people the opportunity to learn about why we believe what we do. Otherwise we are letting people continue on in ignorance, without any better understanding of Christianity than when they decided to take their shot to begin with. Of course, the circumstances will have to dictate whether, or not we should respond to such attacks on our values. Turning the other cheek more than likely means to not remain silent, but to react in a non-aggressive way and with truth, integrity and love.