Goodwill is Free Will (Part 1)
When people say that somebody “goes the extra mile”, they usually mean that the person works really hard, is truly dedicated, and does an especially good job.
That is a misunderstanding of the phrase.
The saying comes from the Bible, Matthew 5:39, when Jesus instructs his listeners, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two.”
Jesus is referring to an exploitative practice of his day, whereby a Roman soldier or administrator could requisition the labor of a Jewish peasant, and force him to carry a load for a mile, without pay or the ability to refuse.
To go ‘the extra mile’ is to respond to a person who is abusing you, not with animosity, but with grace and generosity.
This teaching is given alongside a couple of others, which are similarly counter-intuitive and not what most readers want to hear:
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
“If anyone sues you for your coat, give your cloak as well”.
All these instructions run counter to normal human instincts, and so they’re very difficult to accept. If someone is abusing you or ripping you off, you don’t want to just take it. You want to push back. You want to hurt them as bad, or worse, than they hurt you. Make them regret ever messing with you.
Jesus knows the instinct to hit back is natural, but he commands something different, because retaliation is a trap.
Retaliation ensnares us in a cycle of escalating harm that can ultimately destroy everything we care about. In Jesus’ specific context of first-century Palestine, to fight a Roman soldier would result not only in the resister’s death, but possibly also horrific violence visited on one’s family and village.
In the decades before and after Jesus walked the earth, the area he lived in experienced many uprisings against Roman rule, many efforts to fight the oppressor on the terms of the oppressor – with swords and spears. Without exception, every uprising ended with staggering amounts of bloodshed and misery, and Rome remained.
In offering the counter-intuitive, nonviolent teachings that he did, Jesus understood that, when we are abused, we experience not just the pain and indignity of the mistreatment in that moment, but also rage and hopelessness at having no control over our lives and our bodies.
The violent oppressor wants his victims to play by his rules, because it increases his dominance over them.
Jesus did not counsel hurting the oppressor as the oppressor hurts you, because that doesn’t actually work. But neither did he say, “There’s nothing you can do.” Instead, he tells people to do the thing no one is expecting. Treat evildoers in the opposite way they are treating you.
Next week, I’ll write another post that goes into how Jesus’ teachings are actually a subversive form of resistance, which indeed diminish the power of oppressors. The non-violent way of Jesus was NOT a passive acceptance of abuse.
But the first point is simply that Jesus encourages us to believe that we can make active choices even as we are being hurt and oppressed. In an impossible situation, where agency is being stripped from the abused, Jesus helps us discern where control can be found again.
In the face of wrongdoing, acts of grace and goodwill are the first and best way to say, “My life, my time, my body, my actions, belong to me.”
The Table is a Christian church in Davenport, Iowa, seeking transformation:
from greed toward generosity
from violence toward peacemaking
from isolation toward neighborliness
from fear toward faith
Worship Sundays, 5pm