Nonchristians often bring up the idea of “turning the other cheek” in the context of criticizing military action or criticizing self defense. They may think of it as inconsistent for Christians to say they believe in “turning the other cheek” as Jesus taught but also believe in supporting the military. Nonchristians in a similar manner often tend to criticize Christians for accepting the Old Testament because it has the legal principle in the Law of Moses to “take an eye for an eye” or a “hand for a hand.” But nonchristians criticize such things without knowing the context. The context matters a lot. Also, Jesus wasn’t so easily categorized as nonchristians make him out to be. There were some interesting incidents in the gospels recorded in the New Testament that have to do with Jesus, his disciples, the sword, and self defense. You won’t find unanimity from all Christians on the meaning of these passages. But these passages certainly don’t present the simplistic view that nonchristians tend to have of the Bible on these topics.
I first dealt with this issue from growing up in the Church of the Brethren, which takes a position of pacifism regarding war. I picked up a pamphlet from the Church of the Brethren once that made the statement, “all war is sin.” Because it accepted that all war was sin, regardless of the reason for the war, it was wrong for Christians to take part in killing in a war. Thus there have been conscientious objectors that in the past were drafted but they were allowed to serve in roles that did not put them on the front lines where they could be involved in fighting. I decided to look into this in the Bible and I concluded the pacifist position was not really supportable by Scripture. Most conservative Christians in America believe killing can be necessary in self defense and that there are at least some circumstances where going to war is necessary for a nation. What those circumstances are is a challenging question.
I found that when you study the kings of ancient Israel there were some instances where the Bible commends kings for preparing for the defense of cities. (The issues surrounding the Israelites conquering Canaanite peoples is I think a separate discussion.) There were situations where Israel went to battle not because they wanted to but because they had to, unrelated to the people groups in Canaan they were conquering. So the Old Testament does have support for the idea of a national defense, totally apart from the conquest of Canaan.
The “eye for an eye” principle in the Old Testament (see Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, Deut. 19) was something for the national level. It was never intended to justify revenge. It was harder on sinful violent acts than we are today. The Bible generally treats sin as more serious than we think of it today. But this was a law for ancient Israel and I think it was because they were a true theocratic state. I don’t think the Bible implies all nations should do the same necessarily. The Jewish legal system included a sort of trial where evidence was presented. If someone was found guilty of some act of violence then the principle could apply. I’m not sure how often it was carried out.
Jesus taught something different because he was telling people they could not use this command in the Law of Moses as an excuse to be violent toward someone, even if they were wronged. Responding to violence with more violence can escalate the violence rather than ending it. Jesus also I think emphasized how we tend to react in a selfish way, such as when possessions are taken from us. In the United States we often talk about our rights. But there are situations when it is better to give up on what may be your rights, as an example and a witness to others, and to avoid escalating a tense situation and making everything worse. This is the context of the “turn the other cheek” idea from Jesus (see Matthew 5:38-39). It was what Jesus said about how an individual should react if some other individual mistreated them in some way. It was not in a legal context about the consequences of a crime.
When I was looking into the pacifist point of view, I was surprised to find that in Luke 22:36 Jesus tells his disciples to take a sword with them after he was arrested or no longer in the world. He was about to be arrested and he implied that the disciples would face some opposition and possibly some hatred from some. He even said that if they didn’t have a sword to sell their cloak and buy one if they had to. At this statement someone spoke up and said “See, Lord, here are two swords.” Jesus then said “That’s enough!” ( Luke 22:38, NIV). This passage has been interpreted different ways. But it seems that some of the disciples took it the wrong way because in Matthew 26:51-52 Peter later attacks the servant of the High Priest and cuts off his ear! This was not what Jesus meant they should do. But Jesus did tell them to have a sword. I think the sword statement was meant to be for later after Jesus was no longer on Earth, for self defense.
Another interesting statement from Jesus was when he was speaking to Pilate in John 18:36. Pilate asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews. Jesus’ reply was “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36, NIV) Jesus disciples sometimes thought Jesus was indeed intending to become the new King over Israel and somehow defeat the Romans. But that was not God’s purpose. He deserved to be King, but he came to die in our place to be the Savior of the world. But this statement is not against the principle of fighting against an injustice or against an unjust government necessarily. The arrest of Jesus was the ultimate injustice. But it wasn’t God’s will at the time to start a rebellion against the Romans, or even against the hypocritical Jewish leaders. This statement of Jesus is very puzzling to Christians of the pacifist perspective. We should never want violence, but in an evil world, violence can come to us and it takes wisdom and courage to deal with it.