The Limits of 'Turn the Other Cheek'

Gandhi had it wrong; Martin Luther King had it right.

This article was originally published by Beliefnet on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2000.

The doctrine of nonviolence advocated by Martin Luther King is most commonly associated with the New Testament, specifically with Jesus' statement in the Sermon on the Mount: "Offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well" (Matthew 5:38-39).

Although one might think that the example cited by Jesus (being slapped by a violent person) is uncommon, in fact it occurs quite often. Many women, and a smaller number of men, are married to, or live with, a partner who slaps and beats them. Does one counsel such people to accept abuse, to offer the other cheek, or rather tell them to immediately leave the relationship, and perhaps file a criminal complaint? I believe that the latter course--which rejects Jesus' advice both to "resist not evil" and to offer the other cheek--is not only more effective but also more moral.

It's worth noting that Jesus speaks of offering your other cheek to one who slaps you--a painful but not normally life-threatening circumstance. It's not clear that he's also advocating that you allow yourself to be murdered rather than fight back.


Yet in the 20th century, people from Leo Tolstoy to Mahatma Gandhi interpreted Jesus' words to mean that one should be willing to die rather than fight back against a would-be killer. I find this reading of the New Testament to be troublesome. In any situation in which a would-be murderer confronts a potential victim, I believe that the world is a better place if the would-be murderer, rather than the intended victim, emerges dead from the encounter. As Thomas Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia and a great humanist, said in response to Tolstoy: "If someone attacks me with the intention of killing me, I shall defend myself, and if I cannot avoid it, I shall kill the attacker. If one of us must be killed, let the one be killed who has the bad intentions." His words are reminiscent of the Talmud's admonition: "If someone comes to kill you, kill him first" (Sanhedrin 72a).

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