Q. Jesus said we should “turn the other cheek” if someone hits us. But couldn’t we be seriously hurt if we don’t defend ourselves against an attacker?
Jesus’ teaching about “turning the other cheek” comes at a point in the Sermon on the Mount where he’s contrasting later interpretations of the law of Moses with the true spirit of that law.
In this case, he’s talking about a law that specified that the community should mete out proportionate justice for offenses: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This law was designed to prevent individuals from taking vengeance, and also to prevent disproportionate punishments (whether too lenient or too severe).
However, by the time of Jesus, people were taking the idea of “an eye for an eye” to mean that they should “keep score” personally. Whatever someone does to you, you do back to them. In other words, they were appealing to Scripture to justify grudges and feuds!
So Jesus basically tells them, “Don’t keep score.” Let the other person get “one up on you,” without trying to even the score, in the interests of pursuing reconciliation and peace.
Jesus gives several examples of how not to keep score. Lend or give money without expecting repayment. If someone sues you, settle with them generously. If one of the occupying Roman soldiers exercises his right to force you to carry his load for a mile, carry it an extra mile. (As it has been observed, you go the first mile as a conscripted laborer, but you go the second mile as a potential friend.)
As for “turning the other cheek,” it’s important to recognize that Jesus says specifically to do this if someone slaps you, not if they punch or strike you. (See this thread for a discussion of the translation.) In the time of Jesus, slapping was intended as an insult, not to cause injury. So the idea is that you don’t return insult for insult; instead, you say with your actions, “Insult me again if you want, but I’m still interested in reconciliation and friendship with you.”
Jesus’ early followers “got it” and they present the same idea in their writings. Peter says, “Do not repay evil for evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing.” Paul says similarly, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
It must be emphasized that Jesus is not saying here that we should allow ourselves to be beaten up and injured without trying to defend ourselves or escape. There’s no imperative for followers of Jesus to suffer bullying, domestic violence, and the like without protest or resistance. If we really want to live out the spirit of this teaching and pursue what’s best for the other person, we need to take the necessary measures to stop them from being violent and help them understand how to relate to others in a proper and healthy way.