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).


While only a few Christian sects, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, accept Jesus' words as binding them to a position of total pacifism (during World War II, Jehovah's Witnesses in America refused to fight against Hitler, while those in Germany refused to fight for him), every nation with a large Christian population has at times chosen to disregard or reinterpret Jesus' words. Oddly enough, Jesus' foremost 20th-century disciple on absolute nonviolence was not a religious Christian but the devout Hindu--Gandhi.In 1940, when Hitler was scoring victory after victory throughout Europe, Gandhi addressed the following advice to the soldiers of Great Britain: "I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions.... If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourselves, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them."

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