Ethics & Morality

Because Jesus Said, “Turn The Other Cheek,” Is Self-Defense Wrong?

May 23, 2014

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Because Jesus Said, “Turn The Other Cheek,” Is Self-Defense Wrong?

Jesus is the “prince of peace” (Isa. 9:6). But peace is not to be confused with pacifism[1]. In fact, the purpose of Jesus’ earthly ministry was not to bring peace or pacifism, but to save souls from hell (Luke 19:10) and to reconcile them with God (2 Cor. 5:18-19). This is why He said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). Indeed, Christianity produces opposition and sometimes violence from others. Why? Because Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 8:12), and all who are evil “hate the light” (John 3:2). Jesus’ primary goal is not temporal world peace, but peace with God and His children (Rom. 5:1; 1 John 1:7).

People frequently argue that it is wrong for Christians to exercise self-defense by referencing Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:38-42:

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. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 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. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

However, to argue that it is wrong to defend yourself and others – even when it involves lethal force – is an abuse of this text and actually cheapens Christ’s words.

The Context Of Matthew 5:38-42

It is critically important to remember the context of these words in Jesus’ “sermon on the mount.” The quote “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was part of the Law of Moses (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). This was good because it restricted the victim from inflicting more punishment than was due. It also kept vigilantes from exercising what they perceived as “justice,” since punishment was to be determined by a judicial system (cf. Lev. 19:15-21; Prov. 20:22; 24:29). Additionally, it required the punishment to fit the crime.

Yet over time, the oral tradition of the Jewish rabbis perverted the spirit of the Law. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Jewish leaders had taken what God had legislated for good and twisted it into something evil. They were using this law of retribution vindictively. People were using this law to retaliate against their enemies. Jesus came to restore the spirit of the Law and commence an age of greater holiness.

Jesus in this text is not establishing a new system of justice for government or for those in positions of authority. Instead of seeking revenge, Jesus, in His last will and testament, wanted His disciples to “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). We must never forget that vengeance ultimately belongs to God (Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30; Prov. 24:29).

Christians Are To Pursue A Meek & Humble Spirit

Jesus is not speaking in terms of physical assault in Matthew 5:38-42, wherein one’s life or safety is jeopardized. Otherwise He would have used a different example than a mere smack on the cheek. Rather, Jesus is talking about insult and slander.

Since most people are right-handed, how does one slap you on your right cheek if they are standing in front of you? What we find in verse 39 is imagery of someone hitting your right cheek with the back of their hand, which was an ancient insult (cf. Job 16:10; Lam. 3:30; Matt. 26:67; John 18:22; 2 Cor. 11:20). A slap on the face was demeaning and dishonoring (Crain 183).

If Jesus’ words are to be taken literally, are we free to retaliate after we have turned and our second cheek has been struck? Obviously, our responsibility goes beyond a mere strike on the cheek and into the realm of personal insult. When we limit Jesus’ words to literal interpretation, we are in fact cheapening the profound teachings of Christ.

The point is this: when someone insults you, do not respond by insulting in return. The same is true for lawsuits for the purpose of selfish gain (v. 40), requests that are inconvenient to carry out (v. 41), and property rights when others have proper need (v. 42).

When we respond to hatred with love, we might be afforded the chance to be the “salt and light” of the world (Matt. 5:13-16). When we act in ways that are unnatural to society, we are demonstrating the glorious power of Christ in our lives (Gal. 2:20).

Jesus, in Matthew 5:38-42, was simply not talking about self-defense. Albert Barnes wrote,

Christ did not intend to teach that we are to see our families murdered, or be murdered ourselves, rather than to make resistance. The law of nature, and all laws, human and divine, justify self-defense when life is in danger. It cannot surely be the intention to teach that a father should sit by coolly and see his family butchered by savages, and not be allowed to defend them. […] Our Savior immediately explains what He means by it. (59)

Self-Defense Is A Good Thing

Defending self or others is justified, even if it involves lethal force. There is “a time to kill,” “a time to speak,” and “a time for war” (Ecc. 3:1-8). Jesus at one point told his disciples to carry swords (Luke 22:35-38). The sword was the instrument of death, much like a firearm is today. He knew when He sent His disciples out, they would be traveling through dangerous territory.

Later, when the guards came to arrest Jesus, Peter had his sword with Him. Jesus didn’t say, “Why do you have a sword?!” He said “No more of this!” (Luke 22:49-51). The implication is that the sword had an appropriate place in a physical arena, but has no business in contending for the Kingdom of Heaven. Additionally, there is not a single instance in the Bible wherein men who regularly carry weapons are told to repent by removing them (cf. Luke 3:14; Acts 10:1-8, 44-48; 16:25-34).

It is also the responsibility of the righteous to protect the innocent. Psalm 82:4 says to “rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Should we stand idle while someone we know is being assaulted? By doing so am I treating others as I would want them to treat me (Matt. 7:12)? Additionally, men have the responsibility to provide for their families (1 Tim. 5:8). Are we to limit this command to merely providing food and shelter, and argue that this does not also imply a man should protect his family from rapists and murderers?

Conclusion

It is wrong to twist Jesus’ words to say something He did not say. Whether we are studying Matthew 5:38-42 or another passage, we must always remember the context of what read. God’s Word permits man to defend himself and those around him. Yet this does not negate the serious responsibility people have when they choose to carry a firearm or another method of self-defense.

Sources
Barnes, Albert. Notes on the New Testament: Matthew and Mark. 1832 Reprint. Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1974.
Crain, Sellers Jr. Truth For Today Commentary: Matthew 1-13. Resource Publications: Benton, Arkansas, n.d.

[1] Pacifism: (noun): opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes; specifically: refusal to bear arms on moral or religious grounds. “Pacifism.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 23 May 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pacifism>.

Ben Giselbach is the pulpit minister at the Edgewood church of Christ in Columbus, GA. He and his wife Hannah have two children, Ezra & Colleyanna. Ben is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University and has written three books in his You Are A Theologian Series: Thinking Right about the Bible, Thinking Right about God, and Thinking Right about Salvation.
5 Comments
  1. carlmj

    Even as someone who identifies as near-Pacifist/non-violent, I enjoyed this overall. I would say though that the passage in Luke 22 doesn't have anything to do with the issue of self-defense though, or at least would be careful in dragging that passage into the discussion. Jesus specifically states that the purpose of having the sword was to fulfill a prophecy of being numbered among transgressors. This passage is not about them being sent out, but about them coming to arrest Jesus. It is when they go out into the dangerous work that they are to not take a sword actually, though I think this could be for more reasons than just a defense of pacifism. Jesus says the two swords are enough for the fulfillment of the prophecy, but I would have a hard time believing that it would be proper for self-defense, and even when it is used in self-defense, Jesus speaks negatively about those who live by the sword. That last part especially I think should ring in the heart of many in our nation who almost seem joyful about the chance to "take down a bad guy." I do agree that the Sermon on the Mount passage alone is not a call to complete non-violence, and many who advocate that position can misuse verses, but we also ought to make sure we don't misuse verses to support the other side of the argument as well. Thanks again for the article.

    • caleb coy

      Thank you Carl. The sword passage is often misunderstood, yet Jesus's instructions only make sense in accordance with prophecy and revelation of his mission, not security. We are of course not forbidden from owning weapons. They might be used to fight off animals, for instance. It is true we cannot look to this passage alone as exemplifying Christ's call to non-violent passion-ism. We must look at his gospel in totality to see that. We are led by examples like Stephen, who fought not against persecution with a weapon.

      • Ben

        Thanks Caleb. I think the Bible teaches very plainly that it is wrong for Christians to respond to religious persecution with any kind of violence. It is, after all, an honor to suffer for the sake of Christ (cf. Phil. 1:29; Acts 5:41).

    • Ben

      Carl, thanks for the comment, and I hope your work at Lanett is going well. Glad we will be nearer neighbors in the coming months. Luke 22:35-38 certainly does have a place in the discussion about self-defense. As the disciples specifically did not need to bring provisions for when they were sent out earlier (cf. 9:3, 10:3-4), it is obvious that a moneybag, knapsack, and sword are standard for pieces for those who will be on their own. That is the point of this passage: a sword was considered a standard provision. What purpose does a sword serve [for righteous men] other than for self-defense? Though Jesus was alluding to Isaiah 53:12, His command also implies that carrying a sword for the purpose of self-defense is divinely sanctioned. He wouldn't ask His disciples to do something wrong, after all. Additionally, it is stretching this passage to view these two swords as mere ornaments - they served a practical purpose. Unless of course they were rubber swords. It is true that the sword in this passage represented, at least in some way, a symbol of preparation for pressure (since I believe Jesus passively rebuked Peter's entirely literal interpretation (v. 38)). It is also true that Jesus did not want his disciples to respond to religious persecution with violence (cf. Luke 22:49-51). Subsequently, the early church always had a non-violent response when persecuted for Christ (cf. 4:25-31; 8:1-3; 9:1-2; 12:1-5). Clearly, the point of this passage (Luke 22:35-38) is to ensure Jesus' disciples are ready and self-sufficient. But again, as this passage relates to the article, Jesus allowed his disciples to carry swords, and swords at this time played a role in self-defense. To my knowledge nowhere in the Bible does it teach "when they go out into the dangerous work that they are not to take a sword actually." And I do not believe it is just the two swords, but all of the provisions, that are a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 53. There is a world of difference between defending yourself against criminals (e.g. murderers & rapists) and retaliation over spiritual persecution. Peter was rebuked for responding aggressively toward persecution (Luke 22:49-51), and Matthew 26:52 teaches that it is wrong for Christians to resist lawful authority (cf. Rom. 13:4). Jesus did not tell Peter to throw his sword away, but to "put it in its place." Be careful equating self-defense with "living by the sword," as it could easily be construed as insulting. I would hardly say the husband who is defending his wife from a burglar is "living by the sword." Such a statement is an abuse of the context of Matthew 26:52. Rather, I would strongly argue he is fulfilling his God-given responsibility as the provider and protector of the weaker vessel.

  2. Scott Thomas

    Good article, Ben. I think you're right about the interpretation that that Jesus is speaking specifically about insults. Something people often overlook is that Jesus Himself didn't always turn the other cheek. In John 18:22 Jesus is slapped by one of the temple guards and instead of simply offering him the other cheek, Jesus confronts His assailant.

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