I’ve recently been involved in an online situation wherein a rather obnoxious personality has been exposed as abusing creative folks, putting them under contract for work and then not paying them when they deliver the work. When they complained, he would tell them that talking about the situation in public would violate a non-disclosure agreement he’d required of them. As many were just getting started in their professional pursuits, they were wary of getting into a situation that this personality assured them would be a legal battle. So they suffered.
The day came when someone stood up to him, and people started comparing notes. And speaking out. He attempted to intimidate them, again threatening legal actions. But the strength that came from standing together began to weaken the effect of his threats and bullying.
The situation has prompted me to consider the matter from the Sermon on the Mount about turning the other cheek.
"You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you." Matthew 5:38-42
I was once in a Bible study where we were going through the Sermon on the Mount. And the study broke down on these verses. Because the matter of handling abuse seemed caught up in these verses. It was felt that surely God would not expect a woman to stay in a seriously abusive marriage, in spite of this "turn the other cheek" rule given by Jesus himself.
I don’t claim to have the perfect answer for this problem. And I think it is intended to be a "problem" for us to deal with. I think Christ wants us to wrestle with this matter every time we face it. But I also think that we can’t just dismiss it, either. And there are many reasons for that.
One discussion of this passage, particularly the "turn the other cheek" matter, put forward the supposition that the first blow would likely be a backhanded one. And in Roman times, that was a blow struck by a superior on an inferior. By turning one’s head and offering the other cheek, one was inviting a blow to be struck by the palm of the oppressor. And the blow of a palm is the blow delivered to an equal. The implication being that by standing up and taking a "repeated" blow, one forces the oppressor to acknowledge one as a peer.
It’s an interesting proposition. But what does one do with the follow-up examples? Of pouring generousity on those who want to take something from you?
Let’s be clear here from the start. If you look at the verses, it is NOT about dealing with thieves and robbers. It is about dealing with people who are requesting, or demanding, service from us. That’s a different thing. So, I think it is fairly safe for us to assume that Christ is also not talking about people who beat on others in abuse.
If that’s taken off the board, we are then moved into matters of very interesting psychological dynamics. Because it’s been my observation that bullies tend to be confounded by victims who do not run, and yet are fairly unaffected by their "blows". When one stands up, without directly striking back, but just indicates that the blow was without effect, the bully becomes puzzled. His method is no longer working.
Regarding the specific obnoxious personality mentioned above, he attempted to bully me by way of insults. My response was to mock his attempts, as the insults were rather lame. I didn’t respond with heat, insisting that he desist. I didn’t weep from the wound to my dignity. I just said that I’d heard his insults before, and he was rather lame in his delivery. I turned my other cheek. Strangely enough, he mostly gave up trying to target me.
And that is what I believe Christ wants us to learn from following this "non-resistance" rule. That we are actually stronger than those who oppress us, or who would try to oppress us. That we don’t always have to choose to "fight" those who strike at us. Because, after all, we don’t always know what was behind that blow. Verbal sniping and shots that hurt us may never have been intended as such - they may be the result of thoughtlessness on the part of the other person. If we stand and take it, we may find that it is not repeated, because it was thoughtlessness. But if we fight, we create an enemy where none might have existed before. And if we run, we might lose someone who could become a friend.
Even when we do not feel strong, we should trust in the Lord. Take the stand. Endure that first blow, to find out what lies behind it. For even if it is out-and-out abuse, it may be that the ground you stand on is ground that should not be surrendered to the oppressor, no matter what. There are indeed causes worth dying for. The strength is in the refusal to be moved. To stand by what is right. To take the blow, because there is something more than what is between the two participants.
As I said, it’s not an easy thing. We have to evaluate it every time. But we won’t find the answer by automatically striking back or automatically running away. We will only find it by standing the ground.