Like and turning the other cheek and getting naked, going the second mile is an act of resistance. It is part of a reframed spirituality that seeks to upend the power structures in the ancient world. It exposes injustice and insists on a recognition of universal human dignity. As with our previous examples of resistance, I lean heavily on the research of Walter Wink (affiliate). This time, it focuses specifically on occupying Roman armies.
The First Mile
Roman foot soldiers, like the Persians before them, frequently forced Jews to carry their packs. These packs weighed sixty to eighty-five pounds. So you have a hungry day worker, already desperate to provide basic sustenance, pulled away from work to serve the occupying force. Entire Jewish villages used to flee town as the Roman Army approached in hopes of avoiding the humiliating and survival threatening work.
Now, perhaps to limit the level of disgruntlement amongst occupied populations, the Roman military limited the carrying distance to one mile. It is into this context that Jesus says, “and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” So what exactly is Jesus up to?
The Second Mile
This is not about kindness towards your enemy. Nor is it going above and beyond expectations. This is about putting a Roman foot soldier in an uncertain position.
First, carrying a pack typically demands coercion. But this commoner is engaging in the practice willfully. The peasant rejects the intended humiliation of a task intended to demean. Could this be an implication by the peasant that Roman soldiers are too weak to carry their own bags? Will the legionnaire look frail before his fellow soldiers? And then there are the legal ramifications. After all, the law limits the coerced carrying distance to one mile. Suddenly, the soldier risks punishment.
Now, if he is friendly with his commander it might just be a slap on the wrist. Then again, it could be some kind of demeaning labor. He might lose pay. Or his food ration might me adjusted. He could lose rank. Even worse, his commander could discharge him. The most common punishment, flogging. The point is, nobody knows what punishment the soldier will have to endure, but if his commander finds out, punishment will come.
That sense of superiority disappears. He starts clamoring for his pack put the commoner refuses to give it up. It creates a public scene. Other soldiers start laughing at the man chasing a peasant begging for his pack. All eyes are on the legionnaire who now looks like a fool. Assuming he remains with the company after the incident, how likely is he or those who witness the event to coerce another peasant into carrying their pack?
Under-classed and Over-worked
Just like with turning the other cheek and getting naked, going the extra mile is about exposing injustice. It acts as light in that it reveals what is wrong with the world. Sometimes this exposure prompts change. Employee uproar about COVID protocols at Amazon fulfillment centers forced the company to make and highlight public changes (NY Times). So how might employees today walk an extra mile to reveal other issues?
As I write this, employees at an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, have three days remaining in their vote to unionize. Amazon likes to pitch themselves as a progressive company. After all, they offer a fifteen dollar an hour minimum wage and healthcare.
What they do not highlight is how they constantly geotrack employees. This allows them to both sniff out potential union organizing and demand employees run their bodies ragged grabbing items. Nor do they highlight the poor working conditions within their warehouses. Or a massive turnover rate because employees decide fifteen an hour is not worth what Amazon puts them through personally. Or that other warehouse jobs in Bessemer, Alabama, pay more than Amazon does.
If in fact Amazon was a progressive company, they would not have to worry about employees wanting a union to represent them. There would be no need to have someone come along to assure a healthy work environment or reasonable productivity expectations. But Amazon has done everything in their power to prevent the union from forming. This includes hours of mandatory meetings telling employees why the union is bad for them. Amazon also lied to employees about the timing of the vote. In doing so, they convinces some employees to cast a no vote before hearing how a union might benefit them.
Since the union representatives are not allowed on Amazon property, Amazon petitioned the city of Bessemer to change the timing of the stoplight exiting the warehouse property. This effectively shut down the one place union representatives could regularly access employees.
The Second Mile Today
All of this so a company that made more than $150 billion dollars in 2020 can avoid putting a fraction of their profits towards changes that would lead to humane and dignified treatment of their workers.
Perhaps more Amazon employees need to make public their everyday work experiences, not to complain, but to expose. That would be revealing how they have already gone the second mile.
This post is part of an ongoing series. Link here for a list of every episode in this series.