A Subtle Form of Rebellion

For generations, fundamentalist Christians have misinterpreted the meaning of the the teaching of Jesus referred to as “Turn the Other Cheek.” slap.jpg, 53948 bytes, 7/16/2000It’s easy to understand this misreading as we are now approximately 2,000 years removed from the origin of the story. For many Christians, it has become a symbol of martyrdom, of willing submission to a greater power, but in reality, it’s original purpose was far more controversial. Teachings such as this one are what caused Jesus to draw the attention of the Pharisees and the Romans alike.
In order to understand what was truly being said, we have to look at the context of the story. Let us not forget that Christ was a Jew, ..and that by contemporary assessment, he was a conservative Jew as per the traditions of his community and his time. His family, and the members of his community, would have kept kosher households, and would have observed rules and traditions that governed everything from milking cows to which hand they used when going to the bathroom. And this is where it all begins.
The hand used for such “unclean” acts as urinating was the hand ..deemed fit for other unclean tasks such as punishing someone of lower status than yourself. As Walter Wink explains in his book “The Powers That Be” the left hand was used to strike someone who had earned punishment. Striking someone was considered such an unclean act that it could only be done with the unclean hand, and even then, only with the back of the hand, not the opened palm. This method of punishment kept the class separation intact because you would never strike someone of equal status with your hand (weapons were another issue). And striking that person in this fashion acknowledged that you considered them to be nothing more than a personal act of toileting.
By advising his followers to “turn the other cheek” to their oppressors, he was telling them to bring that person to their own level, to make him or her physically acknowledge the wrong that he or she was committing. If I approach you to strike you with the back of my left hand, I will naturally connect to your left cheek. This keeps me in compliance with my class standing and the traditions of ancient Judaism. But when you turn the other cheek to me, I am forced to either hit your right cheek with my open left hand, a violation of our class status which lowers me to your level, or I must use the back of my “clean” right hand, which then causes me to be unclean for having committed this act with my clean hand. It was an equalizer, a physical protest of the action that Christ knew would cause social unrest.
So when Christ entered with his message of “Turn the other cheek,” he was actually advocating for nonviolent protest, much like Gandhi gandhiand the other practitioners of Jainism (a branch of Hinduism) during the Salt Marches in 1930, or Martin Luther King’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.Civil Rights marches of the 1950s and 1960s. This was not a simple act of “make me a martyr” or “go ahead and hit me because I can take it.” This was nothing less than social revolution at its time, which is what caused the priests, the Pharisees, and the Romans to become so unglued at Jesus’ teachings. This is why they called him a heretic. He was!
The unfortunate part of all of this is that Christians have moved so far away from the understand of Christ and his historical context, that they have misinterpreted much of what he was really teaching. Biblical scholars have tried to return the true messages by going to the authentic sources, looking at them in historical context, and presenting them to the Christian community, only to be turned away by the conservative, patriarchal leadership who do not want to give up their power. It is sad that these men turn their back on the truth and continue brainwash entire populations and generations in the name of the man on whom they are truly turning their backs.


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