Jesus tells us, "Do not offer resistance to one who is evil." Does that mean letting people do whatever they like?
“If anyone you strikes on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).
One might call these words of the Lord a Middle-Eastern hyperbole — a pedagogical paradox. This knife-sharp saying affects and even fascinates us, and the proof of that is that no one can forget it.
St. Paul even gave his own version: “Overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21; 1 Thes 5:15). Among all possible responses to aggression — anger, vengeance, reprisals, sorrow, scorn, or simply indifference — here is this disconcerting response of gentleness, patience, compassion, and forgiveness. What St. Paul called “the fruit of the Spirit.” This is the concrete face of charity (Gal 5:22-23; 1 Cor 13:4-7) and it was Christ’s response to those who crucified him.
Not offering tit-for-tat doesn’t mean we don’t have to react
So why the right cheek? My professor of Holy Scripture once pointed out to us the difference between an almost friendly tap on the cheek and a slap, which strikes and humiliates.The latter is a gesture of scorn and rejection. But even in this case, Jesus asks us not to retaliate, blow for blow, nor to flee either, but to remain there, vulnerable. That is the only way to break the cycle of violence.
We must not be too quick to say that’s impossible. The American evangelist and author Pastor David Wilkerson recounts in his book The Cross and the Switchblade how Providence led him into the world of young New York gangs. The gangleader, infuriated by his preaching and its growing influence over his gang members, threatened to cut him to shreds. The pastor replied, “Go ahead, but know that every shred will go on saying ‘I love you.'”
One could cite so many martyrs who offered their lives up to their executioners. But these giants of Love must not make us forget all those who, in daily life, make peace where there is war, offer kindness where there is cruelty. Is that madness? Heroism? Or simply the audacity of loving as Jesus did: unconditionally?
That doesn’t mean we must never react, or that we must accept everything. When it’s only ourselves at stake, we may renounce asserting our legitimate rights: “If any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well” (Mt 5:40). But when it’s a question of the personal good of someone else or the common good of society, charity demands justice be done and that justice be respected. The goods, health, honor, and, above all, life (corporal and spiritual) of our brothers cannot be abandoned into the power of evil. Through charity to our enemies themselves, we will sometimes be called upon to stand up to them. That may range from contradicting them in a court proceeding to a legitimate right to defense when war becomes necessary. In all these borderline situations, the disciple of Christ can still be recognized in two things: he does not harbor hatred in his heart and has recourse to force only happens when all else has failed.
Father Alain Bandelier