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Have you ever been confused by this saying of Jesus’? It means literally that if someone has struck us on our left cheek, we should instinctively (meaning heart response) offer the other cheek to them to hit if they wish, not in an attitude of spitefulness, but in love. This seems crazy doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t you defend yourself?
The world’s way is definitely not looking the other way. When I had moved out of my parent’s home and into shared accommodation as a 21 year old, I moved into a house with two other young men my age, both of them “friends.” I mean that because one of these guys I had a fair amount of respect for, the other I was dubious about, but we always spent a lot of time together. I soon discovered that my distrust of this guy was well-founded-he was a biblical “sluggard,” always turning from his responsibility to provide his share, or do his chores, and worse, he caused fights. Turning the other cheek was never going to work in this situation.
Yet, turning the other cheek, issuing grace to the other person, which is “undeserved favour,” was legendary writer, Leo Tolstoy’s life edict. Here was a man who struggled all his life to find the meaning of it. He is genuinely one who ‘went to hell and back’ to find it. Being engaged in fundamental pacifism on the back of Christ’s words made him ironically a Christian anarchist-because the Church was supportive of the State, and the State went to war, Tolstoy conflicted with the Church to the point of his own excommunication from it. It seemed Tolstoy lived “turning the other cheek” to the best of his ability. On the back of Schopenhauer’s influence he lived out the rest of his life, by choice, in abject poverty. He always felt strongly that the message of the Sermon on the Mount could be lived literally-an understanding that perhaps led to quite a tortuous life in the end.
Outspoken people always have critics and Tolstoy was no exception. In the mid-1940’s Eric Arthur Blair, a.k.a., George Orwell wrote of Tolstoy’s philosophy, “If you turn the other cheek, you will get a harder blow on it than you got on the first one. This does not always happen, but it is to be expected, and you ought not to complain if it does happen.” Orwell suggested in his essay, Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool, that 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 the appetite for power,” intimating that pacifists, like Tolstoy, could very easily be power mongers. Whilst I suppose this could be true, I find it hard to follow the rationale of “why.” A further quote of Orwell’s probably demonstrates his penchant for proving the power of righteousness, as seen in whom Orwell considered “saints,” is not so righteous:
“Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind. For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics – a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to draw any material advantage – surely that proves that you are in the right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.”
The point of this, when it comes to turning the other cheek, is where do you draw the line? Tolstoy may have been guilty, ironically, of not applying pacifism when conflicting with the church. Anarchism is, of itself, a fight-against the “powers.” Perhaps what Jesus urges his disciples to do is engage in pacifism for self (don’t defend yourself) but be the advocate for the weaker member-in Tolstoy’s situation, for the downtrodden and defenceless victims of war, of whom there are many. In this context it can be shown that Tolstoy was actually carrying out the will of God, as many of his time also did, standing against the powers–viz anarchism-of darkness.
Theologian Helmut Thielicke sees that at 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 their dishes and leaves you the messy job, you are compelled to treat them the same way, and leave your dishes for them, right? This is so they can appreciate for themselves what that treatment feels like… however, on a higher ‘heavenly’ level it is possible to turn the other cheek as we recognise the spiritual truth that everyone is deserving of grace-Christ died for the ungodly. This is a brazen respect that goes with every person you meet and relate with; it’s seeing them through the eyes of God.
Moreover, Thielicke says no one is beyond the Sonship of God, and that it is the “gift of grace that gives me new eyes, so that with these new eyes I can see something divine in others.” And, “we [are to] help by putting ourselves under the mercy of God and [allow that to] radiate to others in order that this unhappy world may be disinfected.”
It’s about seeing the neediness in others who might offend and intimidate you. It’s about seeing their fear and putting back love through mercy, based in the grace of God.
It helps to open the offender up to the freedom of, “why did he/she just treat me so kindly when I did a despicable thing to him/her?” It is in a sense a miraculous response to a miraculous action. It recognises that what is involved in anyone turning to God, repenting no less, is a “transvaluation of values.” That indeed has happened for anyone who genuinely turns the other cheek, in love, without fear.
It is the miracle of grace alone that enables the authenticity of the process to occur. Turning the other cheek is simply a better way. It’s a better way because whether the person who strikes us or offends us back or not is insignificant. In fact, it’s in appreciation of Orwell’s quote that we must expect people to strike back, but in ourselves remain resolute in our (or God’s) stance of love and grace.
You see, we must see the child of God in them; the child that has been bought by love, and given the gift of life, should they choose it or not. Seeing this miracle of turning the other cheek in action is the very vision of Jesus himself, with a look that might say, “You cannot make me love you any less, no matter what you do.”
Do you think it is possible?
© Steve J. Wickham, 2008. All rights reserved Worldwide.
 M. Eaton, The way that leads to life, The radical challenge to the church of the Sermon on the Mount, (Christian Focus Publications, Geanies House, Great Britain, 1999), p. 95.
 Tolstoy’s life was forever changed after reading the following: But this very necessity of involuntary suffering (by poor people) for eternal salvation is also expressed by that utterance 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 to enter into the kingdom of God.” Therefore those who were greatly in earnest about their eternal salvation, chose voluntary poverty when fate had denied this to them and they had been born in wealth. Thus Buddha Sakyamuni was born a prince, but voluntarily took to the mendicant’s staff; and Francis of Assisi, the founder of the mendicant orders who, as a youngster at a ball, where the daughters of all the notabilities were sitting together, was asked: “Now Francis, will you not soon make your choice from these beauties?” and who replied: “I have made a far more beautiful choice!” “Whom?” “La poverta (poverty)”: whereupon he abandoned every thing shortly afterwards and wandered through the land as a mendicant.
Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. II, §170.
 G. Orwell, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” Polemic No.7, Great Britain, London (March 1947). Available:
 Orwell, Op cit.
 Orwell, Op cit.
 H. Thielicke, Life can begin again: Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, translated by J.W. Doberstein (Fortress Press, Philadelphia), p. 74-5.
 H. Thielicke, Ibid., p. 74-5.
 H. Thielicke, Op cit., p. 77.
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