By Dom Cioffi
Once baptized by John the Baptist and after he had first preached to citizens of Galilee, the man known as Jesus of Nazareth wandered up a mountainside and sat down. Later, legions of his followers approached in anticipation of hearing him speak.
In his ensuing speech, Jesus laid out his beliefs and the central tenets of what would form the basis of Christian discipleship. When he finished, his followers labeled it “The Sermon on the Mount,” and to this day it remains one of the most famous and influential teachings in the history of mankind.
One of the most oft referenced lines from that sermon is as follows: “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Over the millennia, this has been watered down to the more well-known phrase, “Turn the other cheek,” which exists today in both religious and non-religious vernacular.
Many pacifists throughout history have quoted this biblical text and used it as the basis of their own belief systems. Both the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi said Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount provided the foundation for their political protests.
But is this approach applicable to a violent aggressor? Could we really be expected to turn the other cheek when faced with grave physical danger?
Gandhi expressed the intensity of his non-violent beliefs with this shocking quote at the start of World War II: “I want you to fight Nazism without arms or with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman, and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”
Granted it is with the insight of hindsight, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t think the Allies made the right decision to fight the Nazis with overwhelming aggression. They did not turn the other cheek; they stared the Third Reich down and pummeled them.
So, while some, like Mahatma Gandhi, believe that violence is never the answer in conflict, others insist that Jesus was speaking figuratively and in no way meant that anyone should lie passively during criminal offenses or acts of military aggression. Like so many other lessons from the great theological and philosophical texts in history, the meaning you derive is many times the meaning you want to derive.
I can’t say that I’ve turned the other cheek much in my life, but I can see how the approach could lessen inflammatory situations. Instinct has always tended to dictate my reactions to stressful situations, so if you cut me off in traffic, I’m probably going to react with some type of hand gesture (and it won’t be a friendly wave).
And I certainly had a much shorter fuse as a youngster.
I can remember one instance where I literally did take a punch to the face and had the opportunity to turn the other cheek. But while Jesus may have wanted me to engage in pacifist behavior, I opted for my own “cheek for a cheek” rule of retribution.
Like many high school “disagreements,” this one occurred in the boys’ locker room with an oversized bully. There was the prerequisite name calling and vulgarities before things got rolling with a quick punch to the side of my head. Luckily, I reacted quickly, as this kid’s tight-fisted swing only resulted in a glancing blow. Don’t get me wrong, it still hurt, but it could have hurt a lot worse if it was a direct hit.
My very un-Christian reaction was to counter with my own punch. And while I would like to boast about some innate fighting prowess and precise aim, it is much more likely that his big head simply got in the way of my fist.
The resulting blow dizzied him enough for me to tackle him onto the ground where we remained until our gym teacher broke it up. So, while I failed to turn the other cheek and no doubt also built up some seriously bad Buddhist karma, my approach, at the very least, got this kid to leave me alone.
This week’s feature, “West Side Story,” revolves around this same type of conflict and how one small gesture can compound into a chaotic nightmare.
Steven Spielberg directs the remake of this 1961 classic, providing all the dancing, singing, and epic cinematography to satisfy purists and allure new fans alike. Check this one out if you’re a devotee of the original or love musicals in general — either way, you’ll likely find this production compelling.
A boisterous “B+” for “West Side Story.”
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.