Jesus is famous for commanding, “do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matt 5:39). This is taken by many to imply that Jesus commands pacifism—the view that violence is never justified. I think that conclusion is deeply mistaken. I’d like to explain why.
As always, we need the context in which Jesus’ command is given. Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that during the Sermon on the Mount (where our passage is found) Jesus is “commending his ethic of love in the context of launching a biting attack on the reciprocity code.” As such, when Jesus said “turn the other cheek”, he did so in support of a larger message: rejection of the reciprocity code.
“The reciprocity code has two aspects. If someone does you a favor, you owe them an equal favor in return. If someone does you an evil, an equal evil is due them.” Justice so understood is like a set of scales. Rights and wrongs must be balanced. Humans seeking justice, according to the reciprocity code, must attempt to balance the scales.
You have heard…but I say to you
Jesus begins his polemic with, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt 5:17). He then makes a series of clarifications on the law, “each introduced with the formula, ‘You have heard that it was said,…but I say to you.’ The point in each case is that what one finds in the law and the prophets is the bare minimum of what the ethic of love requires.”
Yes one must abstain from murder. But hatred of others is also prohibited by the ethic of love. Yes adultery is wrong. But lust (the root cause) is the real danger, hence Jesus’ hyperbolic “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matt 5:29). Yes perjury (swearing falsely) is wrong. But speaking the truth (without being under oath) is also required.
An eye for an eye?
At length we arrive at our passage, “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).
Context helps here. Yes unbounded blind vengeance (vengeance beyond an eye for an eye) is wrong. But God’s actual desire is that “you should also refrain from paying back evil with proportionate evil… You should reject not only blind vengeance but reciprocity as well.” Simply do not try and get even.
A favour for a favour?
Jesus continues his polemic against reciprocity, criticizing instead the positive side. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,… If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? … And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5:43-44,46-47).
Jesus thereby rejects the notion that “favors must be answered with favors.”
What does Jesus literally say about violent resistance to evil? Of course, he literally condemns it. That’s what he says. But what does he mean by it? “What a speaker or writer says by using a sentence may or may not be the same as what the sentence says or means.” Jesus has already (presumably) spoken hyperbolically about lust, literally commending self-mutilation. No doubt he is just making his main point forcefully.
Taken literally, Jesus does not rule out violent resistance to evil. He rather rules out all resistance period: “do not resist an evil person.” Pacifists often point to “Jesus’ own behavior when he was arrested. But if Jesus’ behavior at his arrest is employed to support an interpretation of the text, then what his behavior supports is not the pacifist interpretation but the literal, non-resistance, interpretation. For what is striking about Jesus’ behavior upon being arrested is not that he resisted non-violently but that he did not resist.”
What I say and what I mean
When Jesus remarks, “turn the other cheek,” he is busy undermining the belief that justice requires balancing the scales with pain on both sides. He in no way promotes non-violent resistance to evil. Taken literally, he rejects all resistance. Rather, “What he says is simply, do not return evil for evil.”
This is consistent with appropriate use of violence. “Impose on the evildoer some diminution of his wellbeing only if that serves the good. Reject vengeance. Do not try to get even.”
Striking a balance
The opposite of pacifism, of course, is not wanton use of violence. Recall that pacifism maintains that violence is never justified. Jesus does not support this belief. In this passage, at least, he merely rules out retributive violence. A non-pacifist would reserve the right to employ violence when truly necessary in the interest of justice properly understood.
Determining when violence is necessary is often very simple and other times very complex. The complexities are another topic. In the meantime, it seems self-evident to me that violence is required (at least) in certain simple instances, such as protecting children from kidnapping or worse. A literal interpretation would prohibit resistance (even non-violent) in such circumstances. That can’t be right. Therefore, without direct teaching to the contrary from Jesus, I’m not a pacifist.
 Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love, Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2011), 120.
 Ibid., 123.
 Ibid., 121 emphasis added.
 Cf. Ibid., 121–123.
 Ibid., 122.
 Ibid., 126.
 Ibid., 121.
 Ibid., 125–126.
 Ibid., 126.