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Guest Opinion: NZ Army Not Soldiers For Jesus

Soldiers For Jesus?
Just Whose Extra Mile Is It Anyway

By Richard Davis
* see author note…

I was both angered and amused to see a recent Army recruitment advertisement (The Dominion, 9 February, 2002). The text read "We're looking for people who go the extra mile (and that's just the warm-up)". Using the words of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to recruit soldiers is bad enough, but when one looks closer at the source text and context it becomes downright sinister.

The immortal words of Jesus used in the advertisement are taken from Matthew 5:38-41: "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. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you."

It is ironic for the Army to use part of a passage from which their very existence can be challenged. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy built his entire anarchist-pacifist theology on these verses, especially Jesus' command "Do not resist an evildoer". His main exposition of this passage is found in his 'The Kingdom of God is Within You', which was a major influence on Gandhi and his practice of non-violent resistance. To Tolstoy soldiers are trained murderers, there to resist and kill evil-doers as defined by the state. Soldiers are not trained to turn the other cheek, but to strike first and retaliate. But more relevant is the understanding we have of the "go also the second mile".

American theologian Walter Wink has given a most interesting interpretation of this text. In Jesus' time Roman soldiers could force bystanders to carry their load for one mile, but no further. An apt example of this at Easter time is the case from Mark 15:21 where Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus' cross. If people were to carry a Roman soldiers load for more than the permitted one mile then that soldier could be disciplined by their commanding centurion, which may include a flogging or reduced rations. So why does Jesus' suggest going the second mile?

Wink writes: "Jesus does not encourage Jews to walk a second mile in order to build up merit in heaven, or to be pious, or to kill the soldier with kindness. He is helping an oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice despised throughout the empire. He is not giving a nonpolitical message of spiritual world transcendence. He is formulating a worldly spirituality in which people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity." ['The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium' (1998), 108] Wink asks us to imagine the entertaining scene of a Roman soldier pleading with a Jew to have his pack back, to avoid punishment!

Jesus' suggestion to go the extra mile can be seen as advocating active (yet non-violent) protest against Rome's military occupation and a way to undermine their practice of impressed labour in support of military aims. Jesus' words cannot be a support to the military; he suggests action that frustrates and turns the tables on them. The Army is therefore quite wrong if they see this text as good promotional material, one hopes it may backfire.


* AUTHOR NOTE: Richard Davis - Communications Advisor, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, http://www.presbyterian.org.nz/ - richardd@pcanz.org.nz

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