What 'turn the other cheek' means (and doesn't) in an age of terrorism

Belgian and European Union flags fly at half mast following Tuesdays's bomb attacks in Brussels.Reuters

The horrific attacks in Brussels, claimed by ISIS, have left us once again shocked, saddened, grieving for the families who've lost loved ones, others who've had friends and family injured, and scrambling for solutions to jihadist terrorism. I believe Jesus has something powerful to say to the problem, but his words need to be carefully understood before being applied.

Two Ways to Respond to Mistreatment

When we're attacked or mistreated, there are two common ways to respond:

Option one is to get even. The Old Testament allowed for some degree of this, permitting someone to take 'eye-for-eye' and 'tooth-for-tooth' to get back exactly what was taken from them (Exodus 21:23-25). Option two is to give in – to let the perpetrator get away with what they've done. Jesus addresses both options in his famous Sermon on the Mount, saying:

"You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say, do not resist an evil person!" (Matthew 5:38-39)

At first, it sounds like Jesus is affirming option two – that we should give up and let the bullies win. He's not. In fact, he's giving us an ingenious third option beyond getting even or giving in.

A Third Way

While writing Resilient, my book of reflections on the Sermon on the Mount, I wrestled long and hard with these words of Jesus. The key to their meaning comes in the illustrations Jesus goes on to give:

"If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don't turn away from those who want to borrow." (Matthew 5:39-42)

As scholars point out, in Jesus' day a slap to the cheek wasn't so much assault but insult. (In a humiliating gesture, it was done with the back of a hand to the right cheek.) To be sued for your shirt meant you were too poor to pay your bills and were now having your very clothes taken from you. And to carry a Roman soldier's pack was a demeaning task demanded of a Jew. Jesus uses these three humiliating experiences to describe a response to injustice that empowers a victim to respond without retaliating:

  • If you're insulted with a slap, don't slap back or accept the denigration – surprise the offender by offering your left cheek too. They won't know what to do, and you'll show that you're above repaying the insult.
  • If you're unjustly sued by someone greedy, don't take revenge or give in – expose their greed by offering them all your clothes!
  • And if you're asked to carry a soldier's pack, don't get violent or feel inferior – take charge by going even further than asked.

What Jesus is (and isn't) Saying

Jesus isn't saying evil should be rewarded, that self-defence is wrong, or that injustice should be tolerated. What he says is that evil shouldn't be resisted in equally evil ways. When we're insulted, humiliated, or face injustice:

Don't get even.

Don't give in.

Get creative.

As the apostle Paul puts it: "Don't let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good." (Romans 12:21)

In the Face of Terror

Sentimentality will not help us fight terrorism, and when would-be activist-types glibly declare on social media that 'nonviolence' is the solution to these problems (often while far from any violence themselves), it is sometimes sentimentality speaking. It's sobering to note that Andrew White, the vicar of Baghdad, who has paid heavily working for peace in Iraq, called for troops to be sent in to combat ISIS.

Few of us are sufficiently informed about the realities of terrorism to boldly state what should be done to counter it. The situation is a complex mess of ideology, culture, warped religion, retaliation over past events, and pure evil. I'm not going to join the chorus of 'solutions' being offered. But as a follower of Jesus, here's what I'm contemplating in light of his call to 'turn the other cheek' and not fight evil with evil.

1. If we are to be faithful to Jesus, we must deal with truth, not error. There is much fear mongering going around on the net, exaggerated for political ends. The facts are not always easy to confirm, but stick to reputable media reporting and not the propaganda of fringe alarmists on various sides of the issue.

2. If we are to be faithful to Jesus, we must renounce revenge. Any force used must be to save innocent lives and restrain evil, not to 'pay back' the terrorists, their country, or their religion.

3. If we are to be faithful to Jesus, prayerful, imaginative response is required. We are not to surrender or acquiesce, but do creative, surprising acts to interrupt the cycle of violence. Retaliation is easy. This is hard work requiring prayer, study and creativity.

4. If we are to be faithful to Jesus, we must be clear who the enemy is. In this case it is ISIS and other jihadist terrorists, not Syrian refugees (refusing asylum to these victims of war on the basis of ISIS is to mete out cruelty upon cruelty) or Muslims in general (blaming all Muslims for Islamic terrorism is like blaming all Christians for the hate rallies of Westboro Baptist). When we confuse this we can play into the terrorists' hands. As Australian peace activist Jarrod McKenna said after last year's attacks in Paris: "ISIS wants you to hate Muslims. It's their best tool for recruitment. Don't let ISIS win. Love your Muslim neighbour."

5. If we are to be faithful to Jesus, we are to love our enemy. This is where Jesus goes next with his 'turn the other cheek' idea, telling us to pray for them, meet their physical needs, and show them kindness (Matthew 5:43-48). We may think this naive but as the number of Muslims having visions of Jesus suggests, and stories like former KKK leader Johnny Lee Clary's transformation show (forward 22-minutes into the video), prayer and kindness are powerful weapons.

Some question whether Jesus' call for nonviolence can be applied to nation states. It's a good question. We need to keep in mind that Jesus originally gave these directives to people under Roman occupation, and the Romans could resort to terrorism (just look at the cruelty of crucifixion) to enforce their rule. Jesus was giving his followers tools to respond to organised evil. And both Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr demonstrated what can happen when one applies them beyond interpersonal relationships.


We cannot be naive. Islamic terrorism is very real and western countries are its target. Scripture affirms the role of governments to enforce order for the safety of its citizens (Romans 13:1-7), and every support should be given to authorities to track down each culprit and those who support them. But the history of the world shows that violence begets violence, and Christians are called to live differently. "Bomb them!", "Kill them!", "Deport all Muslims and shut the door on refugees!" is not a Christian response. Remember:

Don't get even.

Don't give in.

Get creative.

Don't conquer evil with more evil. Conquer it with good.

Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker and broadcaster, frequently contributing to faith programs on BBC Radio 2. His books include Resilient: Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life and Resurrection Year: Turning Broken Dreams into New Beginnings. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter, and get his free ebook Five Practices for a Resilient Life.