Truly going the extra mile

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. […]If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. –Mt 5:38, 41 NRSV

I need to take better notes for my idea-garden. I would like to acknowledge the speaker who, in May, started me thinking about this…but I didn’t jot that down. So thank you, whoeveryouare, who preached at my church on the second? Sunday of May 2016.

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

When I mull on this line from the Sermon on the Mount, I start out from my ancestral Southern teachings. There are many interesting subversive elements to being raised as a U.S. Southerner, and particularly a Southern woman. One of the most prominent to me is the power of indirection. There’s a humongous dark side to indirection, of which I am hyper-aware. But there is unexpected strength as well, such as could be in this case. 

To be ordered to do something, to do that thing–comply–and use your body language and perhaps your spoken language to make all aware of how resentful you are, how unfair this is, how you are burdened? You broadcast that you are a victim; you show the one ordering that she, indeed, has power over you. That’s how playing the victim card works: you hand off your agency as you toss that card on the table.

What if you, instead of dragging your feet, treated the order as if it had been the request you would prefer? You would cheerfully carry out the task–you are now helping the person, after all. While there would be nothing overt that the other could complain about, since you’re performing as instructed, you have robbed the other of any thrill of power-over they might have been craving. You took out the fun part, and all that’s left is the job. This way of subverting power is something I learned with my Southern manners, a way of shifting interactions without confrontation.

The instruction to double-down on the job could be more of same: what would make it more clear that you were not compelled but were joining as a partner in the work than to do more than was required? Verrrry sneaky, Jesus.

And this may indeed be a part of what Jesus was pointing out: standing up to Roman authorities and yelling, “Hell, no!” might not be the most effective way to remove Roman rule. Except that Jesus is extremely explicit everywhere else that he’s not interested in Roman rule, oppressive or otherwise. Jesus focuses on the Kingdom of Heaven, and wants us to as well. So let’s back up and look again: what does this subversive compliance have to do with the Kingdom of Heaven?

I suspect it may be in the victim card. Or the distributions of power that having and playing victim cards illuminates. Remember, playing a victim card demonstrates that the other has power over you. We, as followers of Jesus’ Way and recipients of his saving grace, are under God’s power. As Jesus is quoted later in the book of Matthew, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (22:21)” You have given your life to God; God is the one who has life’s power over you.

(Now, there are many times and places where this teaching has been pushed into places of hurt and oppression, and I neither want to do that nor think that is where the passage points. I think we will easily go off-track if we turn this outward toward others (“You should…”) instead of keeping it pointed inward, at examining ourselves and our reactions to what surrounds us.) 

My unattributed preacher made the point that “the choice we make on the first mile guides the second mile.” In my life as a Southern subversive, I have felt this to be true: when I center my balance in God’s authority, and see the earthly commands as superficial, compliance trends toward non-issue. Does your sense of self get knotted up when the two-year-old you care for orders you to sit down and drink the “tea” with the other bears? No, because you’re not defining your sense of self by the two-year-old’s opinion of you (I hope!) as a tea-drinker or a bear. You know who you really are, and drinking the tea isn’t going to change that. Walking the Roman courier’s first mile doesn’t remove you from God’s charge; walking the second won’t either.

There are and will be times that the civil-authority order given me will come in in conflict with rules of the Kingdom of Heaven, when being under God’s authority will guide my behavior away from compliance. But in the 48 years I’ve thus far experienced, those times have been few and far between. Walking the mile is not a Kingdom issue. Walking the second mile with a smile not only reaffirms who’s really in charge of me…

…but who knows? Maybe my smile is disarming enough to make the other start thinking about the Kingdom of Heaven, too.

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