My Catholic elementary school had a football team. Just to give you a feel for how long ago it was that I first learned the game, on my first day with my fourth-grade team they handed me a helmet made completely out of leather. Calisthenics, agility drills, and lots and lots of running prepared our young bodies for the rigours of the game, but that was only a small part of what we needed.
We learned the basics of the game quickly. Our coach early on sat us down in front of a chalkboard and with x’s and o’s laid out the basic elements of the strategy of the game. The gaps between the centre who anchored the front line and the guards on either side of him had a number assigned to them. He did the same with the spaces between the right and left guards and the tackles, and then the tackles and the ends who then completed the offensive line. The quarterback, two halfbacks and the full back in the backfield also received numbers. This gave our quarterback the ability to call the simplest of plays with the first number being the gap and the second being the running back he would hand the football off to.
Slowly over the course of my grade school years and then on into high school we developed more and more complex plays to take advantage of our team’s strengths and the perceived weaknesses of our opponents. The game took on a mental as well as physical aspect. We always entered a game with a plan in mind.
The first reading from Leviticus lays out a basic plan for all the followers of Yahweh to pursue. This passage from one of the five books of the Torah recounts the words of God that Moses was told to repeat to the Israelites following their exodus from Egypt. “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” They must uncompromisingly follow this path of holiness laid out before them during their desert wanderings.
Paul’s words in his letter to the Corinthians deepen the claim that Leviticus stakes. God is in us. “You are God’s temple.” We are of, with and for him. We “belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.” Our team colours must be true. Our individual wisdom or craftiness are futile in light of the greater plan we are part of.
The Gospel passages from Matthew raise our game to a new level. Both Matthew and the author of Leviticus cast aside the old “law of talion” — “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Or in God’s words, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.”
What are we to do when faced with blatant injustices or confronted by oppressive institutions? Are we meant to just swallow the insults and endure the pain? Jesus proposes a very different approach, and it wasn’t fight or flight. According to the late Dr. Walter Wink, a theologian who spent most of his teaching career at the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, there was a “Third Way.”
Professor Wink argued, “Jesus never taught passivity in the face of evil. Jesus also never taught that violence is the appropriate response to evil.” He writes that Jesus calls “his followers and us to point out the abuses others make on us out of their power positions and not out of love. You point out to them where they are abusing you or the situation and you open them to the opportunity to learn and change and grow.” Doesn’t that sound like the words of God to the Israelites in Leviticus? “You shall reprove your neighbour.”
Wink offered examples based on Matthew of the non-violent but forceful resistance and conversion plan Jesus proposed. And he placed the well-known examples in the social context of first-century Palestine. When we read “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them the second mile,” Wink hears Jesus talking to a people who “were under Roman occupation and the authorities had agreed that it was permissible for a Roman soldier to conscript a Jew to carry his pack for one mile.
The Romans were methodical and organized and there were mile markers along major roads.” If the Roman legionnaire tried to force someone to carry his 30-kilo field pack beyond one-mile limit, he committed a punishable offence. Oppression had its limits even for the Romans.
However, Wink sees Jesus directing “his followers to (offer to) go a second mile.” By doing so “that forces the soldier to see that they are using their authority over you and not treating you as an equal” and “that they are abusing their power over you and to consider changing their behaviour.”
“Love your enemies,” we are told, but also show them how they are being unjust and give them, Wink tells us, “the opportunity to grow and learn from that experience and to be open to God’s grace to change their violent and unjust and oppressive ways.”
Who could do that in the face of violence? Ever hear of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr.? How about Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez or Malala Yousafzai? They all had a simple and effective plan — “love your neighbour as yourself” — even if that meant going the extra mile.
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.