What a circus! If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be comic.

We’ve had an endless barrage of television interviews by fawning presenters with turncoat politicians who frantically try to convince themselves as much as the viewer that their treachery to their own party and of the electorate in their constituencies was in fact a noble act and justified under the circumstances.

“Hanv Gandhi dista tuka?” asks Vijai Sardessai rhetorically in more than one interview. “I’m not Gandhi, to keep turning the other cheek.” He says this in the context of what he perceives as his own betrayal by the Congress, years ago. He wants us to believe that he hadn’t pondered all this prior to the election result, when he asks us also to believe that he had to make a ‘sudden’ decision to back the BJP only after the results were declared.

Watch the video at 6:50.

I’m no Congress fan, and they should realise that if they got as many seats and votes as they did, it was more an expression of disgust with the incumbent government than an endorsement of support for them.

But isn’t it amusing how politicians love to use quotations and idioms, as a sort of smokescreen to hide behind?

Batman-Slaps-Robin

Let’s examine ‘turning the other cheek’ and Mahatma Gandhi a little more closely. Vijai probably is influenced by Richard Attenborough’s 1982 epic biographical film ‘Gandhi’. In one scene in Gandhi’s early years in South Africa, he stands up to a gang of white roadside urchins menacingly blocking his path. Gandhi remarks to his companion, Presbyterian missionary Rev. Charles Freer Andrews, “Doesn’t the New Testament say “If your enemy strikes you on your right cheek, offer him the left?”” Andrews nervously interjects that perhaps it was meant metaphorically. Gandhi, unruffled, reveals his interpretation: that one should show courage, “be willing to take a blow, several blows, you will not strike back nor be turned aside. And when you do that, it calls on something in human nature, that makes his [the oppressor’s] hatred for you decrease and his respect increases.”

Philip Yancey makes reference to this same scene in the film in his book “The Jesus I never knew”. Gandhi may not have used those exact words, of course. But we know he was deeply influenced by the Sermon on the Mount, which contains some of the central tenets of Christianity, including the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. In the gospel of Matthew 5:38 -41, Jesus tells his disciples: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. 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. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him two.”

Vijai seems to have missed the message as well as the messenger in his own interpretation of “turn the other cheek.” One can overlook the fact that he wrongly attributes it to Gandhi; one can’t expect him to have his nose buried in the New Testament to know Jesus first said it. But he seems to think that “turning the other cheek” is tantamount to being a doormat, a sucker for punishment. Gandhi rightly views it as a noble expression of courage in the face of violence, something not easy to do.

I grew up hearing about “turning the other cheek”, in the gospel at Mass and in catechism class. I remember being troubled by it, and having this put to the test in a playground fight. If someone struck me, what would I do? Would I offer the other cheek? Would it matter? Would my opponent really respect me more for it? Or was that not the point at all, but the principle behind it that really mattered?

So what are we to make of Jesus’ advice to “turn the other cheek”? Do we read acquiescence from it, with a fond hope that your oppressor will eventually respect you for it? Or could it be a powerful political tool for resistance, as Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. after him believed?

I found New Testament scholar Walter Wink’s views on the subject (in his books “Engaging the Powers” and “The Powers that Be”) quite enlightening. He believes the Jesus was advocating a “Third Way” of responding to injustice (in contrast to the other two ways of either violent resistance or passive acceptance).

He examines the mechanics of being literally struck on the right cheek; this can be achieved only by an overhand blow with the left hand, or a backhand slap by the right. Wink argues that the left hand was commonly not used; so a backhand slap with the right was how a superior (perhaps a landlord) struck an inferior (a peasant). One struck an equal with a fist.

If the inferior, having been struck once on the right cheek, turned the other cheek, the superior would be compelled to deliver an overhand blow with the right fist, therefore unwittingly having to treat the peasant as his equal in society.

As for “going the extra mile” and “sharing your cloak as well”: Roman law compelled civilians to carry the baggage of soldiers for a mile if asked, but not further, for fear of abuse of the law. By going beyond this, the civilian would put the soldier in an embarrassing situation of having to get his gear back, in case he was found out and got into trouble.

A coat in Roman times was apparently used as a blanket by the poor at night, while the cloak was the inner garment. By surrendering not only the coat but the cloak as well, the debtor would in effect be stripped naked and the nakedness would shame the oppressor. Thus, argues Wink, Jesus was advocating a powerful nonviolent form of resistance.

It calls to mind the women in Manipur resorting to nakedness as a form of protest to shame the Army for its atrocities (rape of Manipuri women) some years ago.

Coming back to Vijai Sardessai, perhaps another reason he associated “turning the other cheek” with Gandhi, is that thanks to demonetisation, Gandhi quite literally has “turned the other cheek” if you compare the old and new bank notes. We see his left cheek in the old, and his right in the new notes. You can check for yourself, unless you’re a better Indian than me, and have gone completely cashless!

(An edited version of this article was published on 9 April 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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