Are Christians the Ultimate Pacifists?

“Why, just the other day passengers on a United Airlines airplane took it upon themselves to keep a deranged passenger from trying to enter the cockpit. Hip, hip, hooray! That behavior is an act of civil defense in a time of war, is it not? It even requires that we shake the conventions of peacetime travel when we are expected to sit tranquilly in our seats and follow federal regulations.” – Joe Soucheray, St. Paul Pioneer Press, 10/12/2001

What are we to make of those passengers who did not sit and “turn the other cheek”? Didn’t Jesus’ message to “turn the other cheek” prohibit their action?


“But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mt. 5:39)?

Is Jesus commanding the Christians in these circumstances to stand by and take the abuse? If a Christian defends his life from a criminal attack, is that what Jesus means by “living by the sword”? In the midst of a crime, should Christians do nothing to stop the attack? Many people think this is what Jesus meant.

Can a Christian be a police officer or a soldier? What about martial arts (a learned skill for discipline and particularly useful for self-defense), is that allowed for Christians? With Jesus’ words, young boys are told they must not fight back when being bullied. To strike back is said to be vengeance, and Christians know they are to “leave room for the vengeance of God.” If this is what Jesus meant when he said to “turn the other cheek”, doesn’t it also hold that the Christian airline passenger has to sit and let the bully have his way? It would then be unchristian to do what the world considered to be heroic.

“Sandy Dahl, the wife of Flight 93’s pilot, Capt. Jason Dahl, praised the ‘selfless sacrifice’ of the crew and passengers, who attempted to take back the plane from the hijackers in the doomed flight’s final minutes.” (Complete article)

I see in Scripture that Jesus turned the other cheek when being interrogated and condemned. He also chased sheep, oxen, and vendors from the temple in His zeal for the House of God (Jn. 2:15). Jesus had a righteous anger for God. We understand that Jesus’ response to each situation was appropriate. To some he was gentle; to others he was bold. When Jesus had Peter bring a sword to Gethsemane and then had him put it away once the servants’ ear was lopped off, Jesus was solidifying the principle that the Kingdom would not advance by the sword. “He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.” But what about the scourge of cords that He used to clear the temple? That didn’t look much like “turning the other cheek.”

Peter and John turned the other cheek, glad to suffer for Christ, as they insisted that they would not stop speaking of Jesus. And Paul turned the other cheek before Jewish and Roman magistrates, all the while demanding his right to fair trial as a citizen of Rome.

It takes discernment to know when to turn the other cheek. Christians must not take up the sword against the enemies of God. Our sword is the “sword of the Spirit”, which is part of the armor of God. However, Christians are not pacifist pushovers. They are strong and willing to die in defense of the Gospel. When Jesus and His Apostles “turned the other cheek”, it was not in weakness, but theirs was an act of defiance in the face of persecution. Paul’s example is perhaps the best we have: Acts 23:1-7 says,

“And Paul, looking intently at the Council, said, ‘Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day.’ 2 And the high priest Ananias commanded those standing beside him to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, ‘God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! And do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?’ 4 But the bystanders said, ‘Do you revile God’s high priest?’ 5 And Paul said, ‘I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.”‘ 6 But perceiving that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, ‘Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!’ 7 And as he said this, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees; and the assembly was divided.” — Acts 23:1-7

From the examples in Scripture, there are a variety of ways we can respond to each situation without being vengeful. We have to weigh the options and decide the best course of action. Regardless of our approach, righteous anger must not lead to sin (Eph. 4:26). When Christians defend themselves, it should be according to the law and with only enough force to stop the threat. It is an error to confuse vengeance with self-defense. If you defend your wife or children, whether it be with a gun or baseball bat, it is not vengeance. It is not unchristian to defend your own life.

What about laying the brunt of this argument on young boys when we Christians are the subject of the lesson? Adults enjoy the protection of the law and have no real parallel to compare to what boys deal with on the playground (I vividly remember what it was like from 4th to 6th grade). Adults deadbolt their doors, pick and choose the company they keep, have phones that instantly dial 9-1-1, pay tax dollars for policemen who are armed with guns, answer back when unjustly tried (God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall), hire lawyers, and claim their rights as citizens. But little boys, thrust into the company of bullies and misfits whom we will have placed behind bars when they grow up and bother us, are told to stand there and take it!? Forgive me, but I believe that is an error, a failure to defend a son, and possibly a hypocrisy if not practiced by the parent to the same degree.

Teachers can’t or don’t always protect the kids and law enforcement is only present after the fact. A boy needs to know that it is OK to repel a bully. Most of the time, if children don’t defend themselves, the bullying will get worse: turning the other cheek is a pitiful and useless avenue. Turning the other cheek would be as pearls before swine; they won’t appreciate or respect the principle being followed. Someone might argue that the good that is done is not for the bully, but for others who see the faith of the little boy. I would disagree, and would argue instead that in such cases a measured defensive action would be viewed as just and virtuous.

“But if your enemy should be hungering, give him the morsel; if he should be thirsting, give him to drink, for in doing this you will be heaping embers of fire on his head” (Romans 12:20).

For those who suggest that Christians never raise a hand in defense, and to those who insist that little boys take a beating by the schoolyard bully, they should live by that principle. And I too would teach young men to be men of peace, but I also want them to be prepared to defend their home and country. Failure to properly apply Jesus’ words almost always leads to wrong conclusions about self-defense of home or country.

No one should misunderstand what I’m saying here. I know that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” But nothing I’ve said here is contrary to any person being meek. Those passengers who stood up were heroes, but they may have also been among the meek of the earth. The Bible says not to return evil for evil, which is what many confuse defensive action to be. But disarming or subduing a criminal is not evil; and is not anything like “tooth for tooth” justice. Christians must be humble and meek and, if they are challenged in their faith and forced to carry some extra burden, then stand firm without budging an inch on what you believe. If they strike you to keep you silent, give them the other cheek and refuse to give in.

Many times people misunderstand the application of Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” reference much the same way people misunderstand the argument between murder and capital punishment; murdering versus killing is like vengeance versus self-defense. One is evil and one is not. There is no moral equivalency between the two. If a Christian subdues a deranged man trying to get into the cabin of a plane, he is a hero and the other man is a criminal. Those passengers who did this very thing were not acting in vengeance, and they were not returning “evil for evil”; but they also were not turning the other cheek.

Very humbly yours, Dan Mayfield

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2 replies

  1. I was taught a similar understanding of “turn the other cheek” as described here. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned alternative readings of the phrase. I now do not believe Jesus ever suggested non-action or passivity for that matter. Each time someone confronted Jesus he responded directly to them. I believe the Sermon on the Mount provides multiple examples of how to defend yourself without resorting to violence. Jesus specifically mentions if someone strikes you on the right cheek, to turn to them the other. This is a demand for equal treatment, not a back-handed “put you in your place” slap. He follows this with the example of offering your cloak to someone who demands your tunic. Since this represents the entire wardrobe of most Hebrews at that time, you would be stripped naked, which puts shame on the community for allowing someone to reach such depths of poverty as to not be able to cover themselves. You are demanding relief from unreasonable debt collection. The final example offers to travel two miles if someone makes you go one. This answers the hated Roman practice of Angaria which allows a Roman soldier to demand you carry their load for up to one milepost, but not further.

    I think Jesus was showing people how to empower themselves in a society where they felt powerless and without resorting to violence which would not accomplish anything.


  2. David,
    That is a nice explanation that you give. Thanks for adding insight here.
    – Dan


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