Does “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39) apply to a child under eleven year old who is being bullied? My response to this real-life question from friends is “No”, “Yes”, and “No.” Here’s why:
First, on a societal/cultural level, the US is a nation that glorifies response to oppression. (Disclaimer: I’m a Canadian. We are famous for apologizing when we are bumped or our toes are stepped on.) The theme of the underdog who ultimately triumphs dominates in the media. Americans value and teach standing up for your rights and stopping bullying in its tracks. The law of Moses makes it clear that while the response to injury must be restrained (“eye for eye” does not mean one must take an eye, but rather that one cannot escalate to “eye plus tooth for eye”) the expectation is that one will defend oneself against the attacker or the invader, especially in time of war. Resistance to one’s government, just or unjust, remains a disputed issue within the Christian community, with some arguing that it is never permitted, and others stating that the believer is obligated to stand for righteousness and against injustice, whatever the source. With that cultural and biblical background, it must be wrong to say to a child, “Sure: let yourself be bullied!” The answer to our question should surely be a “No!”
But what if this child has accepted Christ and understands that this journey with him involves being counter-cultural? An eleven year old can comprehend what it means to turn the other cheek. As a theologian who has been a children’s pastor, as the father of four children, and as an observer of many more, I know that children can understand such concepts, grapple with them, and attempt to live them out in real life. We are told to “bless those who persecute you” (Rom 12:14), which is at odds with what our culture values. Evil CAN be overcome by good (Rom 12:21), even if that isn’t done by Hollywood. So then, the answer for a child who has chosen to follow Christ must be a “Yes, do turn the other cheek,” right?
The age of a child is significant. In Jewish understanding, children become responsible for their own actions at age twelve and this is celebrated with a bar/bat mitzvah. Before that time responsibility for their actions rested with their parents. In one way, the bar or bat mitzvah was a party for the parents even if the kids got the gifts!
So where does the responsibility for the bullying lie? Jesus warns strongly against mistreatment of children, especially when an adult is mistreating a child (Matt 18:1-10; 19:14).
What if this is one child mistreating another child of similar age? Some of the Old Testament rules regarding treatment and responsibility for livestock are useful. An ox that gores and kills a human is to be killed itself, and the owner punished by not benefitting from its meat. However, if the owner knew that the ox had a “habit of goring” and did not prevent its doing so, both the ox and the owner were to be killed (Exod 21:28-29). The rules for livestock are not all negative, punitive, and restrictive: the ox treading out the grain was not to be muzzled, in order that it could enjoy some of that grain (Deut 25:4). As Paul observes, these regulations were not given only for the livestock but also or even more so for us (1 Cor 9:9-10). Beyond that, instructions target the owner of the ox since the ox can’t read.
How does this apply to the case of the bullied eleven year old? Societal authorities (teachers, parents, care-givers, etc.) bear the responsibility of curbing bullying, both in stopping the individual incidents and in being aware of situations where there is a “habit of goring. We live in a broken world and bullying is one of the results.
The child could choose to respond in a Christ-like way, turning the other cheek. This would indeed to a marvelous testimony of good conquering evil, of the cross breaking the grip of sin. An argument can also be made that responding and fighting back is justifiable and ultimately it is the conscience of the child that must dictate the correct response (Rom 14).
The adults in the situation have a much greater and more serious responsibility. Those who have the power and obligation to stop the bully must do so.