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What does It Mean to "Turn the Other Cheek"?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Turn the other cheek is a biblical reference mentioned in the New Testament in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus enjoins his followers, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In the Sermon on the Plains in Luke, the same sentence is repeated. Turn the other cheek is often interpreted as not responding with aggression or fight to aggressive attacks; the answer to violence is passivity and humility.

Such thought is not only present in Christianity, and certainly exists in other religions. The idea of Ahimsa, an important part of some sects of Hinduism and Buddhism that existed for centuries prior to the advent of Christianity expresses that acting with violence incurs very bad karma. You can also find this idea outside of Christianity in the work and philosophy of people like Mahatma Gandhi.

Biblical interpretation of turn the other cheek varies. Is Christ counseling his followers to never act in violence, even in self-defense? Some Christian sects, such as the Quakers believe this fully. There is no act of violence that can be praised. Other modern Christians would seem to act in full non-concordance with this philosophy. For instance, supporting the death penalty would seem in direct conflict with the concept of turning the other cheek.

There are multiple interpretations of how turn the other cheek is meant, and when it’s acceptable to not act in accordance with these teachings. Some, for example, believe that violence in self-defense is absolutely moral, especially if you use a small amount of violence to escape someone who would hurt you. Striking someone down, but not killing that person, may help you prevent a person from acting in an unrighteous manner. If you knock someone out cold, who is attacking you, you may prevent him or her from killing you, a greater sin than simply attacking you. Alternately, running away instead of allowing someone to continue hurting you is viewed as viable and imminently sensible.

Some argument against this teaching focuses on how “turn the other cheek” has been used in the past to sanction the violence of the oppressor. In abusive homes, pastors might counsel wives to behave better so they would not be beaten, instead of counseling them to flee a marriage where a wife or her children’s safety was at constant risk. As more has been understood about the nature of spousal abuse, this counsel is seldom given in most mainstream Christian churches. Too many women and children, and sometimes men, would pay the price for putting this philosophy in practice, turning the other cheek instead of escaping to safety.

Some scholars argue that to turn the other cheek is a highly metaphoric phrase. It isn’t to be taken literally but instead means that there is benefit to not using aggression when it can be possibly avoided. This is the stance of people like Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Instead of sanctioning violent overthrow of the status quo, they advocated nonviolent resistance. The many sit-ins, walkouts, and deliberate acts of passive civil disobedience were viewed as a means of turning the other cheek since no violence was offered in this disobedience. Instead people quietly stood for what they believed, taking the full slap of the law on the other cheek without engaging in violence.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon1006557 — On Apr 04, 2022

Why should I ‘turn my other cheek’ when a bison turns his other horn and a zebra his other hoof. -Boghos L. Artinian

Author's Comments: The Armenians 'turned their other cheeks' to the Ottomans and the consequence was the slaughter of 1.5 million in the genocide of 1915.

By anon266104 — On May 04, 2012

One aspect of turning the other cheek is vengeance. I think the Lord is teaching us to not seek revenge. Also, Jesus taught that others would know who His disciples were by the way they loved others. One hymn says, "they will know we are Christians by our love."

By anon108773 — On Sep 04, 2010

Interesting post. I would wonder how you would reconcile the turn the other cheek with Jesus clearing out the temple. At what time is it proper to be aggressive?

By anon107633 — On Aug 31, 2010

Turning the other cheek takes inner strength. Violence begets violence. When someone is aggressive towards you and you respond with humility, you put out their fire as they have nothing else to keep their blaze alive so they have no choice but to calm down.

Also, walking away from the situation gives them no punching bag as usually an aggressive reaction causes stress and stress needs a release and the nearest object (i.e. you) becomes the target.

Thank you Jesus, for this valuable lesson given on the sermon on the mountain.

By anon77306 — On Apr 14, 2010

To me, turn the other cheek means become the living example to others that force of any kind goes against our ability to be submissive to God's will and to respect ourselves as well as others. Solitude and time teaches one patience but exposure to indifference is the true test of this commandment and helps others to learn by our example.

By wmac — On Aug 24, 2009

Turning the other cheek is a defense Jesus gave his followers to keep things from escalating to real violence. You invite more judgment, rather than be defensive. Jesus said, For which of my good works do you stone me? They put down their stones to discuss the issue, his divine authority.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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