Jesus said, “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” (Matt 5:38-39).
I’ve been an advocate of this teaching, but I had never really considered it in respect to spousal abuse. By saying this, was Jesus advocating for wives to endure abuse at the hands of their husbands? His words not to resist an “evil person” seems to suggest that the vile nature of the offence is not of importance. But if we take it, and even ‘give them chance’ to do worse, by striking us on the other cheek also, we will be justified by God…
The thought that this verse can be used and has been used to keep many victims of abuse in abusive marriages fills me with horror. Is there a chance we missed the spirit of Jesus’ message here? Because certainly, Jesus is for the oppressed, not the oppressor.
I think Jesus meant this in respect to a situation where the person who is slapped/wounded is in the position to retaliate and cause harm to the person who struck the blow. The teaching is about exercising restraint from aggression and vengeance. If you know you could easily strike the person back and give them a good fight, or even knock them out with a single blow, then it means something when you rather turn the other cheek.
Like Jesus said about loving our enemies… What is special about loving people who are easy to like? But it is a marvel when someone who can crush you rather turns the other cheek. It is humbling to see, and the person who struck the first blow is likely to be convicted by that action and might even apologise when they get to their senses.
But, in a situation when the person who is struck is the vulnerable or weaker party, like a wife (women tend to be physically weaker than their husbands), I do not believe Jesus’ counsel would be for them to turn their cheek and ask for (or expect) another assault… I just can’t believe that. I don’t think Jesus would advise them to hit back either, but I’m sure He would want them to leave, to escape, to get help, to put a stop to the assault. I do not believe He would ask them to or require them to sit and endure quietly until help comes from ‘somewhere,’ without taking any initiative to protect themselves or others who may be enduring the abuse with them (like their children).
I was listening to a teaching by Rick Warren, which is part of his Purpose Driven ministry, where he taught about how to restore relationships. The sixth thing he said we need to do, which he tagged as the hardest, was that we need to deny our rights. And while this is true, in that we forsook them, as well as everything else, when we surrendered ourselves to God’s control, I saw the same misapplication of scripture that has been used to keep those who are oppressed compliant.
Now, a woman who has endured abuse at the hands of her husband would go through his six stages, one of which involves admitting your own fault in the conflict (with the belief that the fault is always shared), and come to this last stage and say, “my rights don’t matter…”, and for the sake of ‘reconciliation,’ she will put herself in danger again, because she is trying to restore the marriage relationship, against her own health and sanity.
But maybe my problem is unbelief. After all, there is nothing that God can’t do… No one that is beyond His control. No situation He cannot fix if we hand it over to Him. But what does that mean in reality?
Let’s consider a case where you are battling cancer. You see that many others have battled the same disease as you, and many have died. Even those who believed and prayed and were expectant of miracles… Yet, there are those few cases you hear about that the cancer was miraculously cured. These ginger your faith that if you pray and believe hard enough, that you will also share a testimony.
Would it be faithless to go to the hospital and receive treatment while waiting on a miracle? Would it be faithless to take your medicines and avoid things that stress your body and worsen your condition while you wait for a miracle? Does belief that God can do it negate our on responsibility to ourselves and our family, to do what we can practically do to improve our health and the situation we are facing? I think not.
So, while you may not hasten to divorce, it might be needful to separate, even as you pray for a miracle…
The challenge with the marriage/cancer analogy is that with cancer, if the person dies, everyone is aware that the battle is lost. And if the medical report returns clear, everyone can see that healing has occurred. It is not so straight forward with a broken marriage.
While both spouses are alive, though living apart, they are encouraged to still hope and work towards reconciliation, even though the marriage itself is dead. But didn’t Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? Can we not believe that He will yet raise our marriage from the dead…? So there seems no end to the hanging on to hope of reconciliation for they that are married.
Going back to the turning the other cheek matter… I have wondered, if no woman ever saw the need to resist the evil that was done to her, we would not have the Women’s Rights Movement, which has emancipated many women today and allowed them to also live free among men. I have also often wondered about the scriptures that tell slaves, who have become Christian, to obey their masters in all things, without telling these ‘Christian’ masters to liberate their slaves… Rather, they were taught to treat them fairly. It seems clear that, in a case that a Christian slave was stroke on the cheek by their master (Christian or not), they would have been taught to literally turn the other cheek and bear it…because they really had no rights.
Thankfully, at the end of the day, it was Christians that led the movement to abolish slavery… But this emancipation came from those who were free, fighting for those who were oppressed. So, are the oppressed supposed to be complaint and docile, waiting for salvation to come from elsewhere?
God used Moses and many miracles to liberate the oppressed nation of Israel. When they were oppressed again, He used Queen Esther, who, as a free agent, used her connections to emancipate her people. Their fight was non-violent.
So, is the Christian way docility when we are the ones oppressed? I don’t think Jesus calls for us to take it and do nothing. When we accept abuse, it is more likely that it won’t end with us, and so, we enable abusers to victimise others, and so become partakers with them. Today, many wives are told to endure abuse by their own mothers, who also endured it, seeing no other way to overcome. This can’t be what Jesus was advocating.
Consider Paul’s counsel here… “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.” (1 Cor 7:21). Basically, if you can break free, choose it! Though he used the example of slavery, he was teaching on marriage. He reminds us, in verse 23, who we are. That we were bought at a dear price, so we should not let ourselves become slaves of men.
I think the Christian way, when we are oppressed, is a combination of faith, intelligence, and love. Faith, in that we know that everything is in God’s hands, and He is working all things for our good. Intelligence, in that He has given us a mind, and we should apply it while we wait for His intervention or in obedience to His direction. Love, in that, whatever and whoever abuses us, we should always pray and wish for them to come to know the Lord. Even though they show themselves to be our enemies, we continue to act in love towards them and not retaliate and hurt them back. That, we leave for God, who says, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; their day of disaster is near and their doom rushes upon them.” (Deu 32:35).
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