Hope you all had a terrific “Memorial Day”!
Welcome back to work! I had the privilege to read several of your beautiful stories of celebrating the holiday by honoring the value of ALL people who have been killed in the human disease of violence and warfare. What creativity some of you have shown in bringing great honor to God and his children! Thank you for sharing those stories. And we stand in remembrance with those of you who have lost loved ones to these conflicts.
Today, we will continue our discussion on how a follower of Jesus should respond to violence and whether or not we are ever to involve ourselves in this type of activity. We are building on several concepts here as we go along. Here is what we have established so far:
1) We may disagree on this issue, but we UNITE in prayer for those engaged in war (click here for post)
2) Jesus is the FULL EXPRESSION of God. (click here for post)
3) Jesus CONSISTENTLY condemns violence of any kind (click here for post)
In this post we will be looking at the VERY FEW passages in the life of Jesus that some have suggested give us license to use physical violence if necessary. However, it is my contention that these passages have been interpreted this way because people approach them with pre-conceived notions that violence MUST BE acceptable at some level. These already held convictions, then, read into these texts what the mind already wants to see.
In contrast to this type of eisegesis (reading what we hope to find INTO the biblical text rather than allowing meaning to arise OUT of it), we will be seeking to make better sense of Jesus’ words and actions by fitting them into the broader context of His easily understood and consistent commands against violence.
Here are some thoughts on several of the passages in question:
In this scripture, Jesus is pictured as actually commanding his disciples to obtain weapons. What does a pacifist make of this? Let’s read it and then make a few comments…
They said, “No, not a thing.”
36 He said to them, “But now the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.”
38 They [the disciples] said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “It is enough,” he replied. (NRSV)
1) Jesus tells them to only buy TWO swords? If Jesus really intends for them to use violence against a mob that is sure to approach them, would only TWO swords really be enough? It seems as though Jesus has something else in mind rather than physical protection through violence as only two swords for twelve men is rather inadequate.
2) Jesus directly rebukes Peter for actually using a sword just a few verses later.
49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
In a similar telling of the story found in John 18:10-11, Jesus actually responds to Peter’s violence with a blatant rebuke. Certainly Jesus wouldn’t contradict Himself this blatantly by arming his disciples for an impending battle and then just a few verses later when the conflict arises (apparently in the form of self-defense) condemning them for using the weapons!
3) Jesus openly declares he is not leading a violent rebellion. In the very next verse!
52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?
4) Jesus is likely referring only to the fulfillment of Scripture.
37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.”
38 They [the disciples] said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“It is enough,” he replied. (NRSV)
Jesus quotes Isaiah 53:12 saying that he is destined to be arrested as a criminal. In Jesus day, criminals carried weapons, and Jesus encourages the disciples to obtain these “props” in order to fulfill this prophecy. Much like he has them obtain a donkey for his parade into Jerusalem to fulfill that prophecy. Thus Jesus needs only TWO swords to satisfy this need.
This section is about the fulfillment of prophecy, not an empowerment of disciples to physical violence. To suggest otherwise, makes Jesus out to be a rather incompetent military general. =)
Again, the greater context of this verse is key to understanding Jesus’ statement.
32 “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. 34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn
a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household [Mic. 7:6]
37 Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
1) Jesus is not talking about a literal sword. Many times Jesus speaks in a non-literal fashion to add emphasis. For instance, he tells us to “gouge out our eye” if it causes us to sin and “cut off our hand” if it causes us to sin (Matthew 5: 29-30). Surely he doesn’t mean for us to actually DO these things! He is speaking in hyperbole.
2) Jesus means that he will bring DIVISION to even our most cherished relationships. Jesus uses strong hyperbole to stress the reality that following Jesus has a cost. That cost includes alienating us from friends and even family when we choose to follow him and they do not.
Or apparently from other believers who are offended that we would dare to suggest that Jesus was a pacifist! (hahahaha, take it easy, it’s a joke!)
Luke records the same words this way: (Luke 12:49-53)
49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo [my death], and how distressed I am until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
The proper way to interpret Scripture is to let verses clarify other verses, particularly parallel passages. And now Luke 12:49-53 confirms the non-literal interpretation of Matt. 10:34. Jesus did not endorse physical violence against one’s own family, but he warns people about possible family division.
And finally, the one that makes the very least sense to me in the context of this whole discussion…
12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, ” ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers.’”
14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.. (TNIV)
This story is often quoted as an example of Jesus employing physical violence to achieve his goal. And though I am of half-a-mind to not even mention it for the lack of credible support of this view, I suppose we may as well discuss it.
There is absolutely no reason to read this story with any understanding that Jesus performs physical violence on other humans. Certainly he creates a commotion, but he is not endorsing or engaging in violence as a solution to anything. Here are several better ways to understand this passage:
1) Jesus as involved in civil disobedience. Jim Consedine puts it this way,
“. . . . there is another way of looking at this episode that is more consistent with the rest of his teachings. Seen as an act of civil/religious disobedience, similar to that conducted by Te Whiti and Tohu, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Ploughshares activists centuries later, it makes much more sense . . . . . . All of these people acted from religious outrage and disrupted civil processes, similar to the way Jesus acted. All are recognized internationally as leaders of non-violent direct action and role models of non-violent living. So should Jesus be.”
Jesus neither harms people nor animals, but is creating a form of active protest toward the religious leaders. This will be a great point of reference as well look into a future post on how Christians can be ACTIVE and not passive as we embrace a lifestyle of non-violence.
2) Jesus as a Preacher. Just as Hosea marries a prostitute to make a strong preaching illustration, Jesus overturns tables to show his disdain for the sham that the religious leaders have made of worship for God. It is tantamount to a dramatic sermon illustration. In the pattern of the prophets, he condemns the religious authorities. In fact, this is a method of preaching that would have been understood and commonplace for His Jewish culture.
3) The Jewish leaders are apparently not offended by any “violence” done against the moneychangers, but toward Jesus’ upsetting of their structures and His ministry to the blind, lame, and children.
Jesus has overturned the position of their tables and welcomed the less honorable (by their standards). His act of civil disobedience is aimed at flipping the status quo. Had he injured the moneychangers they would have had reason to arrest him, and yet instead despite their anger with him, they are unable to do so and he leaves unhindered. In light of the religious leaders looking for any reason to arrest Him, the fact that Jesus leaves the scene “un-chained” is a strong indication that he does not “harm” anyone.
Now, if you are still hanging in there through this long post (certainly our longest of the series), then I commend you. There are certainly many ways of understanding each of these stories that fit with the context of Jesus many other words of non-violence.
We’ll pick up next time on how the early church fathers and the Christians immediately following Christ interpreted and understood him on these issues.
(thank you to “The Brick Testament” for the great pictures!)