“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” — Matthew 5:41
These words of Jesus would have been profoundly disturbing to his first-century audience. The “second mile” that Jesus was referring to was not just a nice platitude that he made up on the spot. Rather, it would have struck a very real and painful nerve.
Soldiers of the Roman Army, who in certain aspects we might consider the “Nazis” of their day, had the legal right to force any subject of an occupied territory to carry their heavy packs and gear for them. However, the legal limit was 1,000 paces — that is, one Roman mile (approximately half a mile today).
Thus, the “subject” was actually turned into an object to be used as a pack mule. But by offering to exceed the limit, the silenced and oppressed human object would be regaining status as a subject. By making this free choice, he would not only be demonstrating the extravagant generosity of God; he would also be placing the soldier into an embarrassing situation, because to allow the extra mile would actually be breaking the law.
It’s unfortunate that we’ve adopted this phrase into our culture and completely misappropriated it. We say “he went the extra mile” to indicate someone worked extra hard on a project or stayed late at work or put up more Christmas decorations than anyone else on the street.
It’s also unfortunate that the historical and cultural weight of this passage is missed. This verse comes right smack dab in the middle of the most explicitly nonviolent teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5. Here we have the classics: love your enemy, give to those who ask of you, and turn the other cheek.
As a firm believer in nonviolence who has spent time in some places of almost Roman-esque oppression, it is exhausting to have people challenge pacifist views over and over again with tired clichés to prove pacifism is pointless, stupid, and even cowardly.
The offer of the “second mile” was actually a way to unmask the power play, to nonviolently subvert the system by playing right into the ridiculousness of it all. And this is not cowardly. It takes great courage. This subversive act flips the power dynamic. The soldier’s attempt to intimidate and humiliate the peasant now leads to uncomfortable embarrassment. The oppressive system has been caught with its pants down, and it doesn’t know what to do.
It is in these moments that the opportunity for true witness is opened up. This is what I love most about the picture above. Jesus isn’t just passively walking with the soldier; he is sharing with him and even teaching him. For added effect, remember that Jesus was a Jew. And even though Jesus is clearly the one without any power at all in the situation, the soldier is captivated by what he has to say, because Jesus speaks from the unique wisdom that exists only in the hearts of the oppressed.
There is a reason the word martyr literally means “witness,” and there is a reason why the greatest witness to the heart of God was precisely God himself becoming a martyr — accepting death at the hands of the oppressors to overturn not only the system of empire, but also sin, death, and oppression everywhere.
This revised article originally appeared on Corey Farr’s blog. This particular image, “The Second Mile,” is one of a collection of 45 thought-provoking photos by Michael Belk, which can be found at Journeys with the Messiah.