It took me a really long time to understand Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek. But on the day that I did, I gained a whole new perspective on how Christians should respond to oppressive laws, acts of injustice and also when violent, physical retaliation in the form of war, is appropriate.
In His sermon on the mount, Jesus made the case for heartfelt motivations being of a higher order of righteousness than compliance with religious laws. Jesus declared the blessed outcomes of resulting from right attitudes – in the ‘beatitudes.’ By calling into question the motivations for using religious laws as the standard for righteousness, He equated intention with action – the person who secretly lusts in his heart is just as unrighteous as the person who acts on lust and commits adultery.
Jesus gave some pointed advice on how to directly respond to unjust, oppressive laws.
Under Roman law at the time of Jesus’ ministry, persons of higher social rank had the right to slap the face of a person of lower social rank – but the slap had to be given with the left hand as the right hand was reserved for religious actions and could not be defiled. So if someone wanted to slap another person in the face with their left hand, they would have to deliver the blow to the right cheek of the other person, who had no right to retaliate. Clearly an unjust, oppressive law. If the person receiving the slap were to turn his left cheek, the slapper would have to use their right ‘holy’ hand. By following Jesus’ suggestion to turn the left cheek to be slapped, it would mean that the oppressor would have to stop and think before striking again. He would have to consider firstly, if he should defile his right hand, an unrighteous act in the way of thinking in that era. Secondly, he would hopefully question himself as to whether or not his action was right and fair to the other person.
Using a radical form of non-violent action as the line of defense is the principle I believe that Jesus was advocating. This principle is not unlike our modern day principle of moral suasion where an appeal is made to the conscience to consider what is fair and what serves the common good. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Mahatma Ghandi are two examples of persons who followed through on the principle of non-violent protest and moral suasion. Similarly, the United Nations, as an institution, seeks to avert war and its underlying causes of injustice, poverty and oppression, through diplomacy and dialogue.
But does there come a point when violent, physical retaliation is appropriate? I believe that there is.
We know that Jesus taught in the synagogue. Some heard and accepted His teachings and others didn’t. Many of those who didn’t, continued to oppress and extort their fellow citizens. On one occasion, Jesus had a violent response to the heart-hardened money-changers, when he overturned their tables, smashed up their ill-gotten material gains and drove them out of the synagogue.
In today’s world, we have terrorists wreaking havoc wherever and whenever they can. For all the diplomatic interventions, economic sanctions and other non-violent initiatives, these terrorists continue to torture and murder innocent people of various religious, ethnic and political persuasions. The principle of moral suasion and non-violent intervention has not pierced through the hearts of these perpetrators of violence and terrorism. In these circumstances, as difficult as it may be, war can be justified.
Christians must join together in prayer for right outcomes in the current war on terror. We must pray that the weapons of war will be broken and that the sources of funding for terrorist activities will be eliminated once and for all. We ought to pray for the terrorists and be hopeful that transformation is possible. As was the case with the apostle Paul, many in the terrorists’ ranks can be radically converted. We must also to pray for the victims of war – regardless of their religious affiliation. Above all, we need to be involved, when the time comes, to contribute to rebuilding all that was lost in war and to promote the principle of moral suasion and non-violence as the best route to a peaceful world.