One of the best-known but most-ignored lines in scripture is Jesus’ challenge to “turn the other cheek”. What did he mean by it?

First off, the text needs a careful reading. In Matthew’s version of it, Jesus says: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also …” (Mt. 5, 39-40) It is significant that he specifies the “right cheek”. Scholars point out that he is referring to a certain practice at the time where a superior would strike a subordinate with the back of his right hand (the left hand was considered unclean and never used in public, even for something as base as slapping another). Moreover, to slap someone in this way was intended for much more than simply inflicting physical pain. It was an act that asserted superiority, power over another, lording it over, arrogance. Masters slapped their slaves in this fashion and occasionally husbands struck their wives like this. To hit someone with the back of your right hand made a statement: “I am your superior! How dare you stand up to me in any way! This is the order of things! Know your place and stay there!”

So picture the scenario: Someone is standing in arrogance, facing the person he is about to hit. He strikes with the back of his right hand and thus the slap falls on the right cheek of the other. Now, if that other person turns her face so as to offer her left cheek, the attacker can no longer hit her in the same way. He can still strike her, but no longer with that same gesture that asserts superiority over her. Just that one shift fundamentally alters things. Moreover it alters a lot more than mere physical position. At a deeper level, the fundamental, taken-for-granted, chemistry of things is being challenged and redefined. The person who was formerly victimized has, by a simple shift of body, made the clear statement that the old order of things is now over. She has now placed herself in a position within which she cannot be struck again as a subordinate or slave. She can still be struck, but, to strike her now, in this new position, is very different than it was previously. To strike her now is to see yourself in a different light, as unjust, as ignoble, as someone whose time has past.

The key principle contained in all of this – to change your position so that you can no longer be slapped as a subordinate – can best be understood when it illustrated. We see it, first of all, in Jesus’ own life. During his passion, he is often struck, but never in such a way that it takes away his dignity. On the contrary. Jesus had so positioned himself (in every way) so that anyone who struck him found himself standing in front of a mirror that brutally exposed his own illusion, pettiness, violence, and distance from the truth.

You see this principle too at the very heart of the spirituality and strategy of non-violence. When we look at persons such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Dorothy Day, we see that they did not fight back when they were slapped, but they did not remain simply passive either so as to let a sanctioned injustice remain. What they did was precisely to turn the other cheek, they positioned themselves in such a way so that, if the aggressor continued the injustice and violence, he was no longer able to do it in the morally-sanctioned way that a superior (by divine right) can humiliate an inferior. By re-positioning themselves they became a mirror within which the aggressor was ultimately ashamed to see himself.

From this we see that the re-positioning of oneself so as not to be slapped anymore as a subordinate, ultimately means a lot more than the simple physical gesture of turning one’s head. What Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Dorothy Day were able to do was, through the integrity of their own persons, to position themselves morally so that anyone who continued to strike them as before now found himself in front of a mirror that exposed him as cruel, unjust, and ignoble. For example, in the case of Dorothy Day, civil authorities became increasingly reluctant to arrest her. Their fear came not from any possibility of retribution on her part, she was not interested in striking back, but from the painful realization of what they were saying about themselves if they arrested her: “What does it say about us, if we arrest someone like Dorothy Day? What does it make us look like?”

Violence can never be defeated by a higher, morally-superior violence. It can only be exposed and shown to be what it is, ignoble and belittling to the soul of the person perpetrating it. Nothing highlights this better than “turning the other cheek”, as Jesus prescribed this.