How one religious idea gave us integrated lunch counters (and so much more)

Sure, religious zealots have done some terrible damage throughout history, but some beautiful religious ideas have also shaped history for the better.

This post is part of a series looking at some of the ways religion has changed the world. I look at how the Benedictines figured out how to make amazing beer here, how a Calvinist preacher created a world where John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was possible here, and how an 18th century renewal movement unleashed the abolition movement here.

Here’s a fourth religious idea that changed the world.


The idea that the suffering of one Christian can be used by God for the benefit of others is as old as the Christian movement, but one regularly ignored or forgotten by believers and nonbelievers alike.

Christians believe that Jesus’ suffering on the cross pays the penalty for their sins, but even before his death Jesus taught his followers that their own suffering could have a redemptive power.

In Matthew 5:38-39, he said,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

It’s a well known saying, but its meaning often eludes people. He wasn’t commending passive acquiescence, but something far more powerful.

Note that Jesus specifically refers to being slapped on the right cheek. Ever wondered why he does that?

Well, in Jesus’ time the left hand was considered “unclean”, or at least only fit for unclean tasks. I’ll let you figure out what that means. Using your left hand, even as a gesture, carried a penalty of ten days’ penance in the Qumran community.

So if someone was slapped on the right cheek it would have to have been done with the back of the assailant’s right hand. And a backhanded slap was always intended as an insult.

If you slap someone with the back of your hand you’re trying to humiliate them, to put them in their place. It was a way to admonish your inferiors. Masters backhanded their slaves; husbands slapped their wives his way; parents hit children like this; Romans backhanded Jews. In all these examples, the relationships were not considered equal. The one who was slapped, be it a slave or a child or a Jew, could never retaliate.

Submission was their only response.

That’s why Jesus’ advice to offer the left cheek was so revolutionary.

When a Jew offered a Roman oppressor the left cheek they were robbing him of the power to humiliate them.  The person who turns the other cheek is putting the assailant in a tricky situation. Should he hit his victim’s other cheek? He can’t backhand his victim’s left cheek with his right hand (try it – it’s impossible). If he hits him with his left hand he dishonors himself. If he hits him with a fist, he makes the other his equal.

In other words, turning the other cheek is a way of undermining the whole idea of institutionalized inequality.

It strips the oppressor’s power to dehumanize the other.

American theologian, Walter Wink said that when people followed Jesus’ teaching on turning the cheek they were doing the following:

  • offering a creative alternative to violence;
  • asserting your own humanity and dignity as a person;
  • meeting force with good humor;
  • breaking the cycle of humiliation;
  • refusing to submit or to accept the inferior position;
  • exposing the injustice of the system;
  • shaming the oppressor into repentance;
  • being willing to submit rather than retaliate;
  • depriving the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective;
  • being willing to undergo the penalty for breaking unjust laws

While Christian peace traditions like the Quakers and the Mennonites have nonviolence as a core value, Christianity as a whole has struggled to remember these principles.

That was until a Hindu activist from India started reading the Gospels, as well as Christian thinkers like Tolstoy and Thoreau. Mohandas Gandhi was raised in the Jain tradition, and while also being influenced by Advaita Vedanta, Islam, and Buddhism, he was impressed with Jesus’ teaching regarding turning the other cheek. From these sources he developed his revolutionary approach to nonviolent direct action.

An American missionary to India, E Stanley Jones befriended Gandhi and wrote several books introducing his thinking to the world. In his book, Gandhi: Portrayal of a Friend, Jones wrote:

“Nonviolence was accepted out of necessity. And yet out of choice. And further: Undoubtedly an overruling Providence was using India as a paving ground for a new type of power – the power of the soul. But the Mahatma repudiated with all his might the idea that the method of truth and nonviolence was used because you are weak and cowardly. He insisted that it was the method of the strong, and only the method of the strong.”

In turn, a young Martin Luther King, Jr, read Jones’ book and was deeply affected by it. Later, he told Jones’ daughter that it was this passage that clinched his decision to work nonviolently for civil rights in the United States. King showed her that in the margin of her father’s book, he had written, “This is it!”

Jesus’ idea that by willingly embracing suffering you can “convert” the one inflicting it became a central tenet of the civil rights movement.

But did it work?

During the 1960 lunch counter sit ins, protesting segregated restaurants in the South, one young man named Eddie Dickerson joined a group of other young white men in attacking a group of civil rights protesters. The attack was described this way by the victim:

“Eddie Dickerson, from Cambridge, Maryland, a white fellow, two years ago, dragged me off a stool, and kicked me in the stomach about seven, eight, nine times. Really gave me a good roughing up. One of the roughest times I’ve ever spent was at the mercy of his hand.”

On his way home, Dickerson found himself haunted by the nonviolent response of those he had attacked. He left his friends and walked several miles back to the church where the protesters were staying to ask them, “Why didn’t you hit back?”

Their behavior and their answers to his question caused him to begin to question both his violent and racist behavior. Soon, he even questioned segregation itself, eventually becoming a civil right activist and going so far as to join in lunch counter sit ins himself. Dickerson said,

“I don’t have any doubts no more. I feel pretty strong that everyone – no matter what color skin he has – should have equal opportunities. God meant it that way. And it don’t make sense to beat them up so they’ll believe it. It has to be done by nonviolence if it’s going to work…”

Not every segregationist was won over this way. But Eddie Dickerson is a beautiful example of what Jesus intended when he taught his followers to turn the cheek. Stories like his led Dr King to conclude, “The method of non-violent resistance is one of the most potent, if not the most potent weapon available to oppressed people and their struggle for freedom.”

Of course, the civil rights movement didn’t end with lunch counter sit ins. Dr King was just getting started. As he said at the time, “What’s the use of having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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3 thoughts on “How one religious idea gave us integrated lunch counters (and so much more)

  1. O what we underestimate or don’t get at all if we don’t know the cultural context of some of the Biblical teachings. Thank you for sharing the impact of one phrase so often used to advocate unthinking submission when it meant such an opposite approach. Always thought-provoking Mike.

  2. I’m going to have to really think through this one – great post.

  3. […]  Michael Frost, pastor, author, and excellent example of an effective teacher (whose latest book is called, Keeping the Church Weird: Embracing the Discipline of Being Different), explains: […]

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