Slap, Will Smith and turning the other cheek.

Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars 2022! There followed a frenzy of viral photos, memes, opinions. Everybody gave their 2 cents worth. Finally, a 10-year Oscar ban was imposed on Will Smith.  That slap got me thinking about Jesus’ teaching about slapping.

In Matthew 5:38-39 (NIV) Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

There are many interpretations of these verses. The Contemporary English Version of the Bible renders verse 39:

“When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek.” [1]

Does that mean that Chris Rock should have let Will slap him on the other cheek as well (2 slaps, left and right)? And if he had done so, the Academy Awards should have forgiven Will and lifted the ban?! You and I know this sounds down-right bizarre!

Amy Jacober recalls what happened after she learned this version of “turning the other cheek” in Sunday school and she shared it with two of her friends.

One of them walked over and slapped her so hard across the face that she fell. When she gathered herself and stood up, they asked if Amy was going to hit back. She said she wasn’t going to. Then came the next slap. She could only cry while they laughed. In her words, “It was the beginnings of deep passive aggression and straight up bullying for years to come[2].”

At some point in our lives, we’ve either been victims or bullies (or both) or have been witnesses to bullying. It could come in many forms – physical, verbal, or emotional bullying. One thing that we instinctively know is this: bullies are relentless. Once the bully catches a whiff of weakness or fear or knows that the victim is unprotected and there will be no repercussions for the bully’s acts, it’s open season.

Some commentators have said that in these verses in Matt 5:38-41, Jesus is speaking in the context of personal matters[3]. Another says “Just stand there and take it – as long as you need to – to do the work God has called you to do” [4].

I understand that sometimes we just need to let some unkind remarks slide. Sometimes it is best to just bite our tongues to diffuse a tense situation. But surely Jesus cannot mean that we just have to take one insult after another. Sometimes just one personal insult is sufficient to destroy one’s reputation. Surely Jesus is not tacitly approving and supporting bullying.

Then what exactly does Jesus mean in verse 39?

Professor Walter Wink in Jesus’ Third Way, explains that during Jesus’ time,

to strike someone on the right cheek” (Note: the emphasis on right cheek) means a backhand slap i.e. using the back of the right hand to slap the right cheek of the victim.[5]

This type of backhand slap is delivered by the powerful against the powerless (e.g. by master against slave, husband against wife, parent against children). The purpose of the backhand slap is to humiliate and assert control over the underling.

Jesus responds with “turn your left cheek”. What happens if the underling turns his left cheek? Can the “master” now strike the underling again with another backhand slap? No!

Practically that would be impossible because the underling’s nose would be in the way. Where does that leave the “master”(bully)? He would be quite confused because he would be caught in a conundrum and the question running through his mind would be “should I hit the underling with my open right hand instead? But to strike with an open hand signals that the underling is no more inferior but is of equal status with the master.

Prof Winks says Jesus’ real advice is this:

Stand up for yourselves, you’re your own masters, assert your humanity, but don’t answer the oppressor in kind. Find a new, third way that is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal.

I do appreciate and agree with Prof Wink. “Turn the other cheek” does not mean to take a second slap or to submit.

Furthermore, verse 39, gives no facts or details leading to the slap on the right cheek. Why did the striker slap the victim? What did the victim do or fail to do? Nothing is said.

I can only postulate that Jesus is giving a policy statement to victims on how to deal with the bully. It’s not a detailed Standard Operating Procedure (“SOP”) on the actual steps of implementation. The policy or advice to victims is as follows:-

a.         Do not take revenge.
b.         Do not use disproportionate violence in retaliation.
c.         Please, there’s no need to take a second blow; please, block another blow.
d.         Please, stand your ground.
e.         Please, defend yourself and seek justice[6].

How we implement His policy or advice exactly, is up to us. For this we need wisdom. These are a few ways:

a.         We can answer back and question. Jesus questioned his accusers who slapped Him[7].
b.         We can use humour.
c.         We can befriend the victim and even the bully.
d.         We can walk away.

We do not leave ourselves open to be slapped/ insulted again. We can behave in a way that is not vengeful but still make the oppressor sit up and think twice.

We can learn much from this lovely story about the late Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa:

During apartheid South African archbishop Desmond Tutu was walking down a sidewalk wide enough only for one when a white man coming the other way growled at him, “I don’t make way for gorillas!” Bishop Tutu stepped aside, made a deep sweeping gesture and said “Ah, but I do.”

Being humble doesn’t mean allowing ourselves to be humiliated. Humility is not humiliation.

[1] Perhaps in Ye Olde England, allowing 2 slaps on the face might’ve been an effective response to avoid a fatal duel between two offended Victorian Gentlemen. But not today.

[2] CYMT Center for Youth Ministry Training, For the Least of These; The Church must speak out Against Bullying by Amy Jacober.

[3] Bible

[4] Daily Press, On Religion: An eye for an eye by Dane Davis.

[5] In Jesus’ day, the masters did not strike servants with the left hand. The left hand is only reserved for the toilet (just like in Malay culture they do not eat with the left hand)

[6] Jesus says “Eye for eye”, “tooth for tooth”. Even during Jesus’ time Judaism had already repudiated the literalism of physical retribution. Physical damage was compensated with monetary damages. See article in Daf Yomi ”Is An Eye for an Eye” really an Eye for an Eye? By Adam Kirsch Aug 30, 2016

[7] John 18:22-23

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