Turn the other cheek never made sense to me. I could get with the love and harmony and peace on Earth stuff, but never that turning the other cheek business. Like you, I had been taught a false exegesis of Matthew 5.
Matthew 5Jesus was giving commonsense advice to his people: Jews who'd been conquered by the Romans. He was advising them that open defiance was not the answer, but more importantly than this, he was advising them of ways to be defiant while still at the same time obeying Roman law. In those days only the right hand was used to "smite." Their left hands were only used for dealing with that messiest of businesses at the back end of the alimentary system, because of course they didn't have anything like toilet paper. To understand "turn the other cheek" you first must understand that in this culture at this time the following two things were true:
38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39 but I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. 41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. 42 Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
1.) Only slaves were ever backhanded.
2.) The left hand was only used for one thing...wiping.
When Jesus told his followers to turn the other cheek, he wasn't telling them to quietly submit to violence without even the hint of protest, he was telling them the exact opposite of that. He was telling them how they could silently protest the abuses of evil men. Only a slave was ever backhanded, and if someone turned their cheek the only way to hit them was with a backhand. So, turning the other cheek was a nonverbal message in those days: it was the same as saying: I'm not your slave. It was defiance. Jesus wasn't teaching his followers submission; he was teaching them defiance. When you understand the culture and the lack of sanitary facilities, you'll understand that turning the other cheek was never meant by Jesus the way they teach it to everyone now. Jesus intended turning the other cheek to be the quintessence of defiance!
Learning that fact was a milestone for me. The Christian belief system ingrained in my childhood and dismissed as a young adult was suddenly and miraculously both turned on its head and at the same time displayed in a totally different light. Jesus wasn't saying to his followers—to me—submit to evil men, he was telling his followers to fight back in the only way that a conquered people can fight back, by silently protesting, by mocking evil men without cracking a smile, by making sweeping gestures that were sheer hyperbole, that were so farcical by their very nature, that they could only be taken as mockery.
The Romans, in those territories they controlled, laid down oppressive laws which were designed to keep a conquered people from rising up, and further, to aid the Roman legionnaires in their bid to make further conquests. When a roman soldier walked down a road with his pack on his back, if he saw a man out farming or mending a fence or doing any of the things that peasants and countryfolk do every day, that soldier could, by law, require that peasant to take up the soldier's pack and carry it for a full mile. This law allowed the Roman legionnaires to arrive at the site of an impending battle without being completely fatigued. Jesus told his followers to carry that pack two miles. Why? Because doing something like that was an extravagant mocking protest. It was a way of telling that legionnaire that Jews were not slaves, but free men.
Defiance, truth to power, standing up for something, these require two things which every person has to some degree or another, they require courage and pride. It was the lack of those two things in every sermon I heard that finally drove me away. In actuality, pride and courage are almost two sides of the same coin. You can't have much of one without some of the other. Our pride gives us courage and our courage gives us pride, you see? It was this turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile business that just never fit, never made sense to me. A man with the courage to be eaten by lions must by definition have pride beyond comprehension. Now, finally, I understand why someone with both the courage and the pride necessary to be eaten by lions would turn the other cheek.
Finally, between pride and courage there is a buffer, which—depending on the outcome—is called wisdom or folly. When an eighteen-year-old graduates from high school and signs up for the Unites States Marines, a lot of people would say that he's a courageous American doing what Americans have done since time immemorial. Others—including his mother—would probably say he's a deluded fool. They wouldn't give him credit for courageousness, no he's not courageous; he's just an idiot. But of course mother and soldier-son are both right and they're both wrong. There's a certain folly inherent in any courageous act. If everything works out the way you hope it will, you're a hero, otherwise, well you're an idiot. Jumping down into the lion cage to rescue the toddler is going to land you on the front-page or the obituary page. So finally, the last quotient in this odd emotional equation reveals itself: luck or fate.
If all these emotional and cultural concepts could be distilled down into an equation it might look like this:
Courage = (pride + faith + fate) - fear.
First I found faith; then I lost it, before I finally regained it. What a long strange trip it's been! The equation finally balances and finally, at last, I get it. God Bless us, every one!