Dear Friends,

“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” from the gospel of Matthew has been used to justify and endure much harm.

Several years ago a friend introduced me to Walter Wink’s subversive interpretation of that text. To paraphrase: at the time it was written, only the right hand could be used to touch someone, with the left hand reserved for “unclean” tasks. Additionally, a slap with the back of the hand was intended to humiliate a person considered to be inferior. A punch was considered a blow between equals. So, a hit on the right cheek with a right hand would have to be a backslap, or an insult, as it is not physically possible to use a right fist on a right cheek.

Turning the other cheek would present the left cheek, which leaves only two options: a fist punch as equals or no further hits. This new interpretation offers a way to fight oppressive regimes and force systemic change. 

I can’t do justice to the full explanation, but it’s well worth reading Wink’s full text to understand similar, and even humourous, interpretations of “if anyone wants to… take your coat, give your cloak” and “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” from the same bible passage. You can find it here.

As Canada faces a stark reckoning with our own racism, with brutal and tragic events happening in close succession, I find myself asking about the current equivalent of “turn the other cheek.” How can I turn the other cheek or help empower others to stand their ground and overturn systems of oppression? I don’t have answers. Heck, I don’t even have the right questions. But I’m committed to learning, listening, and standing up for truth, following Jesus’ subversive example.