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Turning the other cheek

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Turning the other cheek is a phrase in Christian doctrine that refers to responding to an aggressor without violence. The phrase originates from the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament.

In the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says:

You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Matthew 5:38-42, NIV

A parallel version is offered in the Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke:

But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Luke 6:27-31. NIV

This passage is viewed as promoting nonresistance, pacifism or nonviolence.

Historical origins

Some hold that Jesus, while rejecting "eye for an eye," built upon previous Jewish ethical teachings in the Tanakh, "You will not exact vengeance on, or bear any sort of grudge against, the members of your people, but will love your fellow as yourself." (Leviticus 19:18, also called the Great Commandment). See also Expounding of the Law. The idea of "offering one's cheek" to a smiter is also seen in Lamentations 3:30, where the context indicates a form of penitence or submission to oppressors, with the hope of being spared.

An analogous sentiment is spoken by Socrates in his conversation with Crito in 399 BC before his execution in Athens. “One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.” This moral guides Socrates in his argument to a conclusion that he should not attempt to escape from punishment despite being wrongfully imprisoned. From the Grube translation of Crito found in Plato's Five Dialogues revised by Cooper.


This phrase, as with much of the Sermon on the Mount, has been subjected to both literal and figurative interpretations. See also Sermon on the Mount#Interpretation.

Straightforward interpretation

In everyday speech, the phrase "turn the other cheek" is often used to mean something like "turn away from aggression and ignore it rather than retaliate." Morality lessons that teach turning the other cheek as a good or Christian value would typically emphasize nonviolence and non-confrontation.

The most straightforward reading of the passages in Matthew and Luke, however, suggests that the phrase has a more radical meaning: a command to respond to aggression by willingly exposing oneself to a further act of aggression rather than retaliating, retreating, or ignoring it.

Since the passages call for total nonresistance to the point of facilitating aggression against oneself, and since human governments defend themselves by military force, they have led some to Christian anarchism, including the notable Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, author of the nonfiction book The Kingdom of God Is Within You.

Literal interpretation

A literal interpretation of the passages, in which the command refers specifically to a manual strike against the side of a person's face, can be supported by reference to historical and other factors.[1] At the time of Jesus, striking someone deemed to be of a lower class with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance.[2] If the persecuted person "turned the other cheek," the discipliner was faced with a dilemma. The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a back-hand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed.[3] The other alternative would be a slap with the open hand as a challenge or to punch the person, but this was seen as a statement of equality. Thus, by turning the other cheek the persecuted was in effect demanding equality. By handing over one's cloak in addition to one's tunic, the debtor has essentially given the shirt off their back, a situation directly forbidden by Jewish Law as stated in Deuteronomy 24: 10-13:

When you make your neighbor a loan of any sort, you shall not enter his house to take his pledge. You shall remain outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. If he is a poor man, you shall not sleep with his pledge. When the sun goes down you shall surely return the pledge to him, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you; and it will be righteousness for you before the LORD your God.

By giving the lender the cloak as well the debtor was reduced to nakedness. Public nudity was viewed as bringing shame on the viewer, not the naked, as evidenced in Genesis 9: 20-27:

Noah was the first tiller of the soil. He planted a vineyard; and he drank of the wine, and became drunk, and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it upon both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness.

The succeeding verse from the Sermon on the Mount can similarly be seen as a method for making the oppressor break the law. The commonly invoked Roman law of Angaria allowed the Roman authorities to demand that inhabitants of occupied territories carry messages and equipment the distance of one mile post, but prohibited forcing an individual to go further than a single mile, at the risk of suffering disciplinary actions.[4] In this example, the nonviolent interpretation sees Jesus as placing criticism on an unjust and hated Roman law as well as clarifying the teaching to extend beyond Jewish law.[5] As a side effect this may also have afforded the early followers a longer time to missionary to the soldier and or cause the soldier not to seek followers of Jesus to carry his equipment in the future so as not to be bothered with their proselytizing.

Righteous personal conduct interpretation

There is a third school of thought in regard to this passage. Jesus was not changing the meaning of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" but restoring it to the original context. Jesus starts his statement with "you have heard it said" which means that he was clarifying a misconception, as opposed to "it is written" which would be a reference to scripture. The common misconception seems to be that people were using Exodus 21:24-25 (the guidelines for a magistrate to punish convicted offenders) as a justification for personal vengeance. In this context, the command to "turn the other cheek" would not be a command to allow someone to beat or rob a person, but a command not to take vengeance.

Some point out that Jesus said "he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one" from Luke 22:36 and the Old Testament laws regarding killing in self-defense to support this view. However, even Luke 22:36 could have been figurative as in Luke 22:38 the disciples point out that they have two swords among the twelve of them, to which Jesus replies "That is enough."

See also


  1. Walter Wink. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. 
  2. David Daube. The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism. 
  3. John L. Berquist. Controlling Corporeality. 
  4. Th. Mommsen. Codex Theodosianus 8:5:1. 
  5. Michael Avi-Yonah. The Jews Under Roman and Byzantine Rule: A Political History of Palestine from the Bar Kokhba War to the Arab Conquest. 

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