Go An Extra Mile?

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We are considering Jesus’ call to non-violent resistance. In my last post: https://www.kerygma.org.au/give-your-undergarment-as-well  we looked at the second example Jesus gave: “And if anyone sues you for your outer garment give your undergarment as well”, in its original context, to understand its meaning.

Today, we continue with the third example that Jesus gives, that confirm his call to non-violent resistance: “And if one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it for two.”

Walter Wink – a Bible scholar and theologian with a very influential voice in the Christian theology of nonviolence shares the following insights:

“This example is drawn from the relatively enlightened practice of limiting to a single mile the amount of forced or oppressed labour that Roman soldiers could levy on subject people – the Angaria. The Angaria said that soldiers had the right to force civilians to carry their pack, but they had to re-assume it after one mile. And they had mile markers every mile, on Roman roads. This way the armies could move quickly through the country, without the soldiers dropping from exhaustion, because of having to carry these enormously heavy packs.

Such compulsory service was a constant feature in Palestine from Persian to late Roman times. Whoever was found on the street could be coerced into service – as was Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry Jesus’s cross. That was the angaria.

Ranking legionnaires bought slaves or donkeys to carry their packs of sixty to eighty-five pounds, not including weapons. The majority of the rank and file however, had to depend on impressed civilians. Whole villages sometimes fled in order to avoid being forced to carry soldier’s baggage.

What we’ve overlooked in this passage is the fact that carrying the pack a second mile is an infraction of military code. With few exceptions, minor infractions were left to the disciplinary control of the centurion, head of 100 men. He might fine the offending soldier, or flog him, or put him on a ration of barley instead of wheat, or make him camp outside the fortifications, or force him to stand all day before the general’s tent holding a clod of dirt in his hands. Or if the offender was a buddy, issue a mild reprimand. But the point is that the soldier does not know what will happen.

It’s in this context of Roman military occupation that Jesus speaks. He does not counsel revolt. One does not befriend the soldier, draw him aside, and drive a knife into his ribs. Jesus was surely aware of the futility of armed insurrection against Roman Imperial might. He certainly did nothing to encourage those whose hatred of Rome would soon explode into violence.

But why carry the soldier’s pack a second mile? Does this not go to the opposite extreme, by aiding and abetting the enemy? Not at all. The question here, as in the two previous instances is how the oppressed can recover the initiative and assert their human dignity, in a situation that cannot for the time being, be changed. The rules are Caesar’s, but how one responds to the rules is God’s. And Caesar has no power over that.

So, Jesus says, ‘Okay, they’ve got you. There’s nothing you can do to keep from having to carry their packs. But the next time they do that, carry it a second mile.’

Now what we’ve overlooked here, is that this puts the soldier in violation of military law and jeopardizes him with his commanding officer. So, this is far from what we’ve made it – a statement about extending yourself. This is actually a situation in which the tables are turned on the soldier – kind of like a moral jujitsu. And the soldier is put in the position of being very uncomfortable.

Imagine then, the soldier’s surprise when at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack and the civilian says, “Oh no. Let me carry it another mile.” Why would he want to do that? What’s he up to? Normally soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this dude does so cheerfully, and will not stop. This is a provocation! Is he insulting the Legionnaire’s strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined, for seeming to violate the rules of impressment? Will the civilian file a complaint? Create trouble? Let’s watch this role played:

From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have once more seized the initiative. They’ve taken back the power of choice. They have thrown the soldier off balance, by depriving him of the predictability of his victim’s response. He has never dealt with such a problem before. Now he must make a decision, for which nothing in his previous experience has prepared him.

If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished, he will not enjoy it today. Imagine a Roman infantry man pleading with a Jew to give him back his bag: “Oh, give me back my pack!” The humour of this scene escapes us, but it can scarcely have been lost on Jesus’s hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of discomforting their oppressors. Jesus does not encourage Jews to walk the second mile in order to build up merit in heaven or to be pious, or to kill the soldier with kindness. Rather he is helping an oppressed people to find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice, despised throughout the empire.

He is not giving a non-political message of spiritual world transcendence. No, he is formulating a spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society – who are under the thumb of an imperial power, can learn to recover their humanity.

One could easily use Jesus’s advice vindictively. That is why we must not separate it from the command to love enemies that is integrally connected with it, in Matthew and Luke. But love it not averse to taking the law and using its oppressive momentum, to throw the soldier into a region of uncertainty and anxiety that he has never before known.”

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