Emily’s Next Question

Emily’s Next Question April 22, 2015

EMILY: Some people read Jesus’ comment “to turn the other cheek” to mean that people should forgive their oppressors. Others take it to be a sign of revolution and defiance. How do you read the passage?


GRANDPA: You and I have both known people who are exceedingly touchy. If they think you are criticizing them in any way, they snap back. To protect their own pride is foremost in their minds. In fact, I find myself snapping back or wanting to snap back at some comment or other almost every day. Having learned from Jesus, I now reflect on how much this reaction sours the moment, injures the other person, and diminishes myself. So I take the comment of Jesus in a practical sense. If you don’t take offense easily, if you don’t react strongly (even when an accusation about you is actually unfair), that often has a calming effect. For one thing, the other person probably did not want to be unfair, and probably did not mean to pick a fight. So your calm is usually a relief to him.

The main point is that your calmness is proof that protecting your own ego is not your main concern. Your main concern is keeping an open and peaceful bond between friends. In a way, you are putting the other person first. This is in a small way “dying to self,” so that a new turn in life can be born. In other words, the advice of Jesus is aimed at replacing a potentially combative and deteriorating situation with one that is more loving and creative. You can test it in practice. You can see for yourself.

The trouble with raising this story up to a level of collectives and social groups – for instance, “class struggle” – is that the level of group conflict involves many more complexities. Once a group conflict breaks out, events frequently get out of control, and do not end up as anybody intended. Hannah Arendt, in her book On Revolution, notes that of the 200-plus revolutions that have occurred since 1776, in only one of them – the War of Independence of the United States – have the revolutionaries been considered by later generations true benefactors and models for their nation or group.

In judging the morality of collective conflict, one must note in how many ways such conflicts typically become impersonal, impulsive, and blind. When people in one collective think of people in the other, they do not imagine them as family members, unique in their personality, humane, and fair-minded. No, across the no man’s land, rival groups imagine the worst in each other. They create mythical monsters who must be destroyed. Group passions speedily become involved. Respect for the integrity of other persons, which plays such a creative role in exchanges between individuals, hardly appears at all when one group attacks another. A kind of savagery seems permitted, even legitimized.

“Saint Augustine” by Antonio Rodríguez (1636 – 1691) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As St. Augustine remarks in The City of God, when a powerful nation makes war on a weak one for unjust and unreasonable purposes, it may be that other powerful states must go to war to protect the weaker nation. Just war theory does not propose that war is inherently wrong and must never be fought. Rather, recognizing that there will always be threats of wars, just war theory seeks ways to restore justice, which is a mighty contributor to the good order and international tranquility.

In other words, “turn the other cheek” does not apply so directly and simply to the conduct of collectives as it applies to individual persons, in family and other familiar settings. Still, the leaders of nations can learn paths of wisdom that might enable them to walk humbly with their Lord, and refuse to be baited into rash action by provocateurs.

In short, I would not look to the words of Jesus about turning the other cheek for total guidance in the handling of disputes among nations and other collective groups, but I will not deny that some crucial lessons can be learned from them. I absolutely do agree that “turn the other cheek” works well in many, though not all, personal encounters.

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