Quest for a Violent Jesus, Part 1: So Many Swords!

From the earliest days of Christianity, mercy and nonviolence have been integral to the character and legacy of Jesus as understood by most of his followers. It’s unfortunately true that some of the most popular and influential Christian institutions have diminished or even contradicted this theme, but there have always been prophetic voices calling us back to the fundamentally peace-loving and forgiving ethos of Jesus. For a growing number of Christians today (your humble blogger included) this isn’t just a nice fact about Jesus, that he happened to be a pacifist, it is the very heart and essence of his message, his life, and his revelation of the divine.

Those who seek to challenge or to mitigate Christian nonviolence find plenty of cause to do so in the Bible’s own words. Violent visions of God and judgment aren’t just relegated to the “Old Testament,” they are common in many books of the New Testament, from the letters of Paul and Peter to the politically charged visions of Revelation. If you want a God and a universe which are ultimately and inescapably violent, the Bible’s got you covered. Those of us who espouse nonviolence as the true heart of Christianity – and the true heart of God – do so based almost entirely on the words and person of Jesus as described in the gospels.

And that’s why critics love to throw certain verses from the gospels in our faces.

Jesus and Violence in the Gospels

While the gospels overwhelmingly portray Jesus as a teacher and practitioner of peace and nonviolence, it has not gone unnoticed that in certain passages – especially in Matthew and Luke – Jesus appears to undermine nonviolence and even perhaps to justify and threaten violence. This is particularly ironic in Matthew, where Jesus articulates his most emphatic warnings against retribution and hate in the famous “sermon on the mount” (Matt 5-7), and in Luke where Jesus is portrayed as fundamentally innocent and non-retaliatory.

But is it true? Does Jesus slip up and reveal a dark underbelly of justified violence and divine vengeance? For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll address examples of Jesus’ controversial sayings in two categories: those relating to personal ethics (in this post) and those relating to apocalyptic judgment (in the next post). Then, in a third post, we’ll take a look at Jesus’ “cleansing” of the temple, a story often invoked to illustrate his use of violence.

For now, here are two commonly quoted New Testament verses about Jesus and personal weaponry.

Not Peace But a Sword (Matthew 10:34)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt 10:34)

In debates about Jesus and violence, Matthew 10:34 is one of the most common comebacks, a trump card to snuff out any notion of Jesus as a feel-good, anti-war hippie. For some skeptics and critics of Christianity, it’s an unflattering gaffe where Jesus shows his true colors. For Christians committed to violence as the only and ultimate solution to the world’s problems, it demonstrates decisively that Jesus is on their side. But, of course, this kind of “gotcha” Bible verse game is misguided and unhelpful, to say the least. Context and intended meaning are always of first importance, and these cannot be gleaned from any single verse.

In Matthew 10 Jesus is giving his followers a pep talk before sending them out on a mission among their Jewish neighbors (10:6). Their mission is not to make converts or cause trouble, but to announce the good news of the “kingdom of God” and to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse people with skin diseases, and cast out demons” (10:8). But, he warns them, don’t expect anyone to welcome you with smiles, hugs, and baked goods. Messing with unclean people and spirits meant breaching religious and social boundaries that were not to be crossed, and Jesus knew first hand that announcing healing and forgiveness in public will often land you in serious trouble with the powers-that-be.

This is the context for Jesus’ remark, and the “sword” of which Jesus speaks is not a literal weapon but a metaphor for a message of reckless forgiveness and social subversion that threatens to tear mundane human society apart. Jesus isn’t gleefully endorsing violence, far from it. He is acknowledging the sad truth that radical peace and nonviolence are met in this world with intense hate and aggression. He is warning his followers that anyone who adopts and proclaims the gospel of peace will likely become persona non grata in a world that runs on retribution and division. When those with a vested interest in wealth and war hear this message, it cuts them like a blade.

Buy a Sword! (Luke 22:36)

“But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” (Luke 22:36)

And here’s the one where Jesus invents the Second Amendment. It’s a rough world out there, and you have to take care of what’s yours. Go ahead and arm yourself, Jesus says so! (And while we’re here, Jesus has apparently also changed his mind about money and possessions. Cool deal!) In all seriousness, I concede that this one is rather odd. It’s certainly cryptic (to our ears) and difficult to interpret, but that cuts both ways. This cannot possibly be a flat endorsement of personal arms or violent self-defense, given the breadth of Jesus’ anti-violence teaching elsewhere and the fact that later in this very chapter Jesus scolds his disciples for presuming to defend him with swords against the authorities who come to arrest him (Luke 22:51).

The interesting thing about this passage is how it makes reference to the events we examined in the previous one. In Luke 22, Jesus is about to be arrested and executed. He is having one last private conversation with his followers, and things are looking grim. Jesus says, “the last time I sent you on a mission [as narrated in Matt 10], I told you to take nothing. This time, bring a money purse and a sword.” It’s gonna be bad out there! Then he adds this:

“When scripture says, ‘He was reckoned with the lawless,’ it must find its fulfillment in me.” (22:37)

Whether this “fulfillment” of Isaiah 53 is original to Jesus or shoehorned in by Luke, the clear implication is that buying swords would make the disciples into the “lawless,” putting Jesus in the role of the “suffering servant” who loves them and dies for them.  Jesus is making a point about himself, but, as in so many other stories in Luke, the disciples misunderstand him and take it the wrong way. They respond by saying, “Look, Master, we have two swords here!” Jesus rebukes them saying, “Enough of this!” (22:38) This is often mistranslated as “That is enough,” as if two swords is just the right amount of swords.

Jesus’ point was never about swords. He is unimpressed with the weapons the disciples already have, and he is angry when they try to use them to protect him. All along he was simply trying to prepare them emotionally for the trauma of losing him. The worst turn of events they could have imagined is about to unfold, and Jesus will never once suggest that they respond with violence.