On self-defense and turning the other cheek

When Jesus says that we are to turn the other cheek, does that mean we are never to act in self-defense?

No, it doesn’t mean that at all.

Let’s look closely at what Jesus says, and try to set it in the context of the Bible as a whole. In the Matthew 5:38-41 Jesus says,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ ”

They had heard this because this was a legal principle that God gave Moses for the purpose of guiding judges in the administration of justice (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). The principle is this: punishment should fit the crime. It should neither be too light so as to make a mockery of the law (because no one is going to have any respect for the law if punishments are a joke), nor too severe as to commit an injustice against the criminal. For instance, a thief shouldn’t be executed for stealing a hundred dollars, otherwise he’s being punished more severely than he deserves.

The principle of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was given to ensure that there is an equivalency between crime and punishment—that the punishment fits the crime. It happened, though, that the principle came to be applied outside the courtroom, in interpersonal relations. It became the pretext upon which people felt justified in taking personal vengeance. This is what Jesus seeks to correct.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ ” 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.

Now is this an absolute statement that admits of no qualification—“Do not resist the one who is evil”? Are we to reject all resistance to all forms of evil? No, not at all. Listen to the examples that Jesus gives.

But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Notice, this is a minor offense. Someone slaps you on the cheek. What are you to do, slap him back, tit for tat? After all, the law says, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Is this a justification to strike back? No. Jesus says turn the other cheek. He means absorb the offense. Refuse to retaliate, in hopes that it will avoid an escalation of the conflict.

Look at the other offenses that are mentioned.

40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

These are all relatively minor offenses. They are things that may be inconvenient, perhaps exasperating, but offenses that do not result in permanent bodily injury or death. Will anyone seriously say that if someone kills one of my children I should offer him another? Or that if someone rapes my wife I should give him my daughter, too? Is this what Jesus means when he says, "do not resist the one who is evil, but turn the other cheek"? Of course not. He’s talking about a slap on the cheek. He’s talking about insults and minor offenses.

But what about more serious crimes? The Bible teaches that we are justified in using force to protect ourselves, our families, and our homes. In Exodus it says,

If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him (Ex. 22:2).

This means that if you catch someone breaking into your home, you are justified in using deadly force if necessary to stop him. Perhaps someone will say, “That’s the Old Testament.” But there is no conflict between what God says in the Old Testament and what he says in the New Testament. He’s not schizophrenic. He doesn’t change his mind. His ethics don’t evolve. He’s perfect. Always has been and always will be.

The difference between what God tells Moses in Exodus 22 and what Jesus says in Matthew 5 is the nature of the offense. In Matthew 5 Jesus is talking about minor offenses. In Exodus 22 we have breaking and entering at night when the intruder’s intentions may be murder and mayhem. God does not expect us to be passive when we are attacked by wicked men who seek to kill or injure us, or do so to our families. To be passive in such circumstances - to fail to offer resistance - is not virtue, but vice. It’s an act of moral cowardice.


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