The pneuma divina passage this past week included Matthew 5:39, which the Revised Standard Version translation has us hear Jesus tell us not to resist evil. This brought question from the chat about resisting systemic evil. Not surprisingly, the conversation in the chat room looked to examples like hacktivism and Edward Snowden. Many examples could be presented that involve resisting evil, often by participating in a “lesser” evil (for example, would it have been moral to assassinate Hitler?) These are difficult, real world, ethical dilemmas. In the light of this passage, the answer to “What would Jesus do?” might appear to be to simply stay quiet and take it. For isn’t that what turning the other cheek and going the second mile are all about? Well appearances can be deceiving. We need to dig a bit deeper.
The first thing we need to look at is the Greek word porneos. This is the word that is translated as evil, but it could also be translated evil doer (or with the definite article the evil one, i.e. the devil). In fact, some translations help us out by translating it just that way. So we can still resist the forces of evil, but how are we to do that while not resisting the evildoer? I think Jesu provides a great example right here in the passage. When he encourages us to go the second mile he is providing a subversive plan to confront systemic evil while simultaneously participating in the process of forgiveness.
Palestine was under Roman rule during Jesus’ lifetime, thus when he spoke of someone Compelling you to carry his pack, everyone understood that that someone was a Roman Soldier. The law imposed by the empire permitted a soldier to force someone to carry his pack one mile – one mile, not two. Thus, if you were to carry the pack for a second mile, the soldier would find himself under judgment of the same oppressive systemic evil that forced you into carrying the pack the first mile. The situation created exposes and resists the evil of the system while showing thesoldier the nature of his participation in the system and his need to repent of the evil he is doing . Rather clever isn’t it? Brilliant I’d say!
Going a second mile with the person who has harmed you provides you with the opportunity to bear witness to your willingness to forgive, but not forget. It shows a willingness to continue the process toward true forgiveness, which requires repentance from the one who has harmed you so that the relationship might be restored. It is the path of correction, not punishment. It is the path that God created, Jesus walked, and we are invited to follow.
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Brimfield, MA. He blogs about the intersection of spirituality and society at CultureDove.blogspot.com and the intersection of spirituality and ornithology at https://birdparables.blogspot.com