The Charles Atlas bodybuilding ads that appeared in newspapers and magazines years ago showed a large, well-built bully kicking sand in the face of what looked like a not-so-strong 90-pound man lying on the beach with his girlfriend. The message: If you're not able to defend yourself, the people you wish to impress will hold you in contempt. With a well-muscled body, your ability to retaliate will be apparent, and bullies will find someone else to pick on.
It sounds so logical â€“ from a simply physical viewpoint â€“ that it's the basis on which most nations form their military forces.
As the last few decades of turmoil in the Middle East have shown, competing military forces, no matter how relatively strong or impressive, can't bring radically opposed viewpoints into harmony. But Jesus gave us an effective alternative: "Resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:39).
Taken out of their spiritual context and considered independently of his life's teaching and example, Jesus' startling words can seem to commit us to a role as weaklings, unable to defend ourselves. But in their spiritual context, his words and actions teach us that we can lean upon the infinite power of God, which will remove whatever hides from view the harmonious relationship each of us has to all the children of divine Love's creation.
The desire to bully, injure, or even kill the bearer of an opposing viewpoint, melted in the presence of Jesus' calm reliance on God's ability to purify the hearts of his listeners. His ultimate crucifixion might look like the price exacted by turning the other cheek, but his resurrection actually provided eternal proof that hatred, or misdirected human will, can't nullify the true relationship between God and His creation. Nor can it nullify any sincere desire to obey Jesus' command to all his followers that they love God and their neighbor as themselves.
Jesus' directive to turn the other cheek cannot be separated from its spiritual context any more than a bar of music can be separated from its context and still make musical sense. Jesus didn't advocate or exemplify weakness but pointed humanity toward a different kind of strength. A strength that can overcome even the largest parade of merely physical might. A purely spiritual strength that dramatically awakened the world to a new era of spiritual dominion.
Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered the spiritual laws Jesus turned to in his victories over the conflicts, diseases, and deformities that seemed so real and intractable, explained the instruction to turn the other cheek as "fear not that he will smite thee again for thy forbearance" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," p. 444).
To turn the other cheek demands that we turn fearlessly to the only power able to melt the lie that enmity has a rightful place in human consciousness: the power of Spirit. As we surrender to the mind of Christ, which governs all consciousness, it will change the perception of hurt and lack to a healing sense of Love's ever-present care. Through the Christ-spirit, the cause of enmity among the children of God will be erased as gently as the suffering endured by those whom Jesus healed.
The huge shift in thought and outlook required to trust our defense entirely to God would certainly require a revolution in thinking and praying. Most likely, it would happen gradually rather than all at once, individually rather than collectively. But isn't that the way to harmony that Jesus came to show us? It may take longer than we wish, or less time than we might expect, but as the song "Let there be peace on earth" has it: "Let it begin with me."
As family life teaches us, any conflict will only be healed when one party decides to cease retaliating and allows the common yearning for love and peace to melt self-justification.