You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
— The Gospel of Saint Matthew, 5:38-42
For someone to strike you on the right cheek, as the Gospel says, he must be left-handed, must he not? Normally, a right-handed person can slap somebody’s right cheek only if it’s a back-handed slap.
Now, in the Lord’s time, a back-handed slap was what superiors gave subordinates, as masters gave slaves, or commanders gave centurions. So if someone of equal status backhand-slapped another of that time, it would be an insult to the latter’s dignity as an equal. In such a case, what did Jesus say a person should do? “Turn the other cheek.”
The right way to fight wrongs
Now to turn the other cheek does not mean to abase yourself to further injury. It means showing the aggressor that the person he just slapped, you, is an equal. Turning the other cheek means showing the aggressor that he has incriminated himself as the most reproachable social climber, pretending to belong to a class in which he fails in manners and dignity.
So you see, turning the other cheek did not mean being passive in the face of dishonor. It was a dignified way of handling injustice.
What about going the extra mile? Under Roman imperial law, centurions and their officers could order Jews to carry their gear, but only for one mile. There were serious sanctions if an officer abused this privilege. So Jesus says, if someone orders you to carry his gear for a mile, take it for two. The officer may well get into trouble with the law and be punished, or be mobbed by the Jew’s compatriots further down the road!
So you see, walking another mile did not mean being weak in the face of dishonor. It was a clever way of handling injustice.
The funniest is Jesus’s third lesson. Jewish law entitles a creditor (usually rich) to confiscate the tunic of a debtor (usually poor) unable to pay in cash. Now Jesus said, if a creditor goes to court to sue you for your tunic, give him your cloak, too. Well, these two pieces of clothing were about the only attire peasants wore. To give both to the creditor meant to actually strip naked—in court. So, to “give him your cloak as well” meant to deliberately strip naked in the presence of an unforgiving creditor, bringing shame on him for causing the public undressing.
So giving one’s tunic and cloak did not mean being submissive in the face of dishonor. It was a defiant way of handling injustice.
Resist with truth, not force
Jesus never taught abasement. He never meant for us to passively swallow oppression, indignity, insult—and then say, “This is what the Lord suffered through, so I must do the same.” No, the Lord taught and did nothing of the sort. But colonizers and oppressors twisted Christ’s message to make believers quietly submit, supposedly as a way of “following in the Lord’s footsteps to Calvary.”
Nonsense. Allowing ourselves to be subject to indignity, cruelty and injustice does not make us holy. First of all, it is an insult to God, the sole author of our inalienable dignity. Second, passivity allows the oppressor to sin and remain in sin. So in a very strange way, we become accessory to the sin precisely by allowing it to be committed on us without denouncing the sin that it is by turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and stripping both tunic and cloak.
On the other hand, Jesus doesn’t command us to fight fire with fire either, or blood for blood. According to the Gospel, we should take responsibility over our dignity and honor, especially when emotion threatens to short-circuit our rationality and prudence.
Jesus wants us to still make full use our mind and will when we are aggrieved. Expose injustice mindfully, firmly, and fully without sinning. Thus, we reinstate the victim — us —and at the same time, we prod the aggressor to mend his ways, if by a long stretch.
The consuming fire within
It’s very difficult, I know. It even seems insurmountable especially when anger burns red-hot and ignites our inner crucible, that cauldron of poison simmering within us. We call it by many names—grudge-bearing, chronic resentment, pent-up malevolence, indignant self-entitlement, hatred—and the most apt is the Filipino sama ng loob.
Yes, there is fair anger, but there is also consuming anger. I’ve seen it in myself and in others, that feeding our sama ng loob damages us more than those we hate. Nelson Mandela was right: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”
When we constantly stoke the flames of our resentments, the flames don’t burn our adversaries, they burn us. When we derive strange nourishment from our bitterness, then we poison ourselves. Our enemies, in fact, need not do anything more to defeat us. We’re already doing it to ourselves.
And so, because we are damaged and burned and poisoned and defeated by our consuming anger, we feel ugly, and we become ugly, because what we feel, we become: sama ng loob turns into sama ng labas.
We have a Tagalog saying: “Huwag kang masungit dahil ikaw ay papangit” (Don’t be angry, you’ll get ugly). And we have enough examples of this in movies and literature: Golum and Saruman, Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader, dazzling Lucifer becoming dark Satan.
When this seductive flame beckons, let us pray today’s psalm: “Lord, you are kind and merciful. You are slow to anger. You abound in kindness. Not according to my sins do you deal with me, nor do you requite me according to my wrongdoing.”
I am here, O Lord, and I am yours, O Lord. And when I might not hold back myself, I desperately ask that you hold me close. Amen.
(Jesuit Fr. Arnel Aquino teaches theology at the Loyola School of Theology and has composed music for Mass. His article is edited from his homily last Sunday.)