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Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to one’s culture.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Jesus and the Sword

This post is about scripture and life. Or rather, it is about the way in which a particular scripture is applied to our lives in a way that I think is dishonest and spiritually dangerous.

America is involved in a period of armed conflict. Though we have tried desperately to avoid religious undertones in our motives for waging war, I have been quoted scripture by several people defending our right to go to war.

However, it is my firm belief that there is no text in Jesus’ message or in his actions presented to us in any of the gospels that can be construed as justifying the use of force to achieve one’s ends, physical or spiritual.

The scripture most often quoted, of course, is Matthew 10:34. I would like to spend a little time excavating this scripture and explaining why it is most definitely not a justification for Christians to wage war in Christ’s name.

Matthew 10:34 (NRSV) - "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword."

I often hear this verse as a justification for armed conflict. This use of Matt. 10:34 is not only textually incorrect, but is one of the better examples of ways in which our forefathers have mangled our theology almost beyond recognition.

There's a reason that verse appears only in Matthew's gospel. Matthew is the gospel written to rural Jews (btw, at the time they were called "pagan," which originally just meant "unsophisticated country bumpkin," but that's not relevant, but just interesting to me) by a Jew. Matthew's basic message is "Christ calls you out and demands sacrifice." The cultural setting of the text was to address the plight of Jewish Christians, still living among their traditional Jewish families and friends, who were being pressured to renounce this divisive new faith and rejoin their "proper heritage."

In Matthew's gospel, the words of Jesus are a justification for leaving behind your family, to exalt your loyalty to Christ before that of your family. Just as Jesus left his father to join us, Jewish Christians should be willing to leave their families (if necessary) to join him.

Jesus is the realization of prophecy. He fulfills the old and ushers in the new, and his message is about cultural change.

So let's put 10:34 back into context.

Matthew 10:27-40.
27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 40‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.

So what is he saying? Be bold before men. If people threaten you, do not fear them, for they can only harm your body. If you stick up for me here, I will stick up for you before God. If you deny me here, I will reciprocate.

Now the crucial part. Jesus is explaining that his teaching will cause discord in the Jews' families. His message will not bring peace, but the sword. To the Jews, the symbol of the sword is not one of violence, but of "splitting." The sword brought to a cloth parts it into two pieces. What Jesus is saying here is that his message will polarize relationships in the Jewish household. Some will see Him as messiah, others as a blasphemer. But when these conflicts occur, Jesus does not want family unity at all cost, he wants allegiance to him to come before the family, even if that means that sons will have to oppose fathers, and daughter-in-laws will oppose mother-in-laws.

There’s a reason those specific examples were chosen. The author is saying the younger generation (the Jewish Christians) may have to part with the older Jews (their parents). Jewish sons brought their brides into their father's household at that time, and it was a Jewish tenant that the son must honor his father's authority in matters of faith. But Jesus calls the young husband and wife to turn against the son's parents, if necessary, in order to pursue a relationship with Christ. The devotion to the "old ways" is not an excuse to not follow Christ's calling.

And so then read the rest. It's VERY anti-family. But again, it's just saying that Christ must be our first love and our first devotion. Anyone, even a cherished family member, who comes between us and Christ represents proof that we are not worthy of Christ or his message.

Matthew 10:34 is not a call to violence. It is simply a dramatic statement of how radical Jesus' message truly is. Christ first, family second, even if this order creates conflict in your family and makes your elders your enemy.

This verse has to be one of the most misquoted in the New Testament. Well, maybe not as much as the 1 Corinthians passages people use to argue that Paul thinks women should not participate in worship. Still, this one is pretty commonly taken out of context.

Why someone would choose to make Jesus say that conflict is the answer based on such a tortured misuse of scripture when his own actions in the garden seem to contradict any belief in violence for any reason is beyond me. When Peter drew his sword to defend his Christ against soldiers who were going to lead him to death, he was chastised. And Jesus' actions and opinions against violence appear all over each of the gospels.

Just think about who Simon the Zealot was. He was a revolutionary who had murdered people in order to attempt to being about the end of the Roman occupation. In our terms, Simon was a terrorist. But did Jesus seek to kill him? No, Jesus made him a disciple and a member of his own circle.

And Judas, the one who would betray him? Did Jesus kill him or even lift a finger to prevent him from condemning him to death? Of course not.

Jesus brings a sword to our lives. It is an instrument of division, should we ever doubt who commands our highest allegiance.

He does not appear at any point in any of the Biblical narratives to condone violence as the solution to any problem, no matter what the stakes.


Blogger dmajc said...

Ok, but He does not rule out force either. When he says I come to bring a sword, He's saying - "I am not here to make everyone get along and respect each others viewpoints, I am here to state the truth, the truth that I AM." As it says in another place - He who falls on the cornerstone will stuble, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.

What this does is divide the whole world, rightfully, into two camps - Those who are with Christ, and those who are not. Black and White. No compromises. Of course Jesus wants us to love and get along. But at what point do we take a stand and drive the money changers out of the temple as He did, in defense of THE Truth - His Father.

Jesus is not only the fulfillment of the Old Testament - HE IS the God of the Old Testament, and while this God of ours, made whole in Christ, does not love violence, He knows that it is neccessary at times because of our (man's) stubbornness and rebellion.

God is not anti-war - he is anti-darkness, or anti-deception, or anti-lies.

How can we say that violence is never God's Will and then lift up the crucifixion as our hope?

Part of the problem is that we Americans are weak-HEARTED. Jesus was not weak-HEARTED, even when he was weak in body.

We need to realize that one day Jesus is going to kill all people who do not acknowledge Him, not because He wants to, but because he has no choice. HE IS.

So how does this relate to current wars? I don't know. I don't presume to say that God wants the US to attack terrorists and selfish dicators, but I also do not presume to say that he doesn't. God is God, and I am not. He is in control. All this bickering neglects the important question - What does God this about all this? Instead of answering that question as if we are God, we need to ask Him more and more and more, because He will answer...

8:35 AM  
Blogger jrichard said...


What you have quoted in your first paragraph has nothing to do with force. I agree he is saying that his message will be divisive and I agree that in the "other place" (Luke 20) he is saying that his foundation will crush opposition, but that has nothing to do with personal violence. It's a similar statement to John's (John 8) "Seek the Truth and the truth shall set you free." The truth is inevitable, it needs no intervention by strength. And Christ's message DID crush many, but not through armed violence.

We are not called to use force, for Christ is our force.

And there were several cases in which Jesus did, in fact, rule out force. It was lawful for the mob to stone the adulteress, and he said "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." in other words, "I don't care if it is lawful to kill her, you all have sin. Do not kill her."

I agree about the division rhetoric. And the call to LEAVE (not attack) that follows those verses.

And we do not look to the transcendent God of the OT as a model. We look to Christ. If Christ is the human embodiment of God and he never attacked or killed anyone (despite all the suffering and injustice he both saw inflicted on others and personally endured), where do we get a call to attack or kill anyone? Not from his teachings and not from his examples.

And your crucifixion example does not support your position but mine. If force is just, then what happened to him on the cross is less a tragedy. But it was the greatest injustice, the slaying of an innocent man for no crime. And he bore it and did not strike back, nor even lift a finger to stop it. Because this world doesn't matter.

You say that America is weak-hearted, and I agree that some are. Those who are not moved to compassion by the plight of the poor and disadvantaged are both weak hearted and a betrayer of Christ. I think those who turn to violence as a solution are impatient, weak-hearted and weak-minded.

And you can characterize Jesus as "killing everyone" if you want. His rhetoric seems to be about "saving" people. But then, why use His words?

I agree with this last statement. But that is exactly the problem. Americans have a cultural mythos that would have us believe that we are the new "chosen people," a new Israel. That whatever we do is automatically supported by God, just because we utter his name before we unleash devastation upon others.

Well, if we are the new Israel, we seem to be susceptible to the same arrogant sins as the original.

I presume to say that my savior does not call us to violence because he never called his followers to violence, nor did he himself ever commit acts of personal violence against any of his torturers or murderers, though he clearly had justifiable cause.

2:20 PM  
Blogger dmajc said...

No one I know thinks that America is a new Israel. I certainly don't. But what is the new Israel is the body of Christ.

And Rick, you cannot seperate the God of the old testament and Jesus the Christ. They are one in the same. This is part of the spiritual immaturity of American Christians, that we don't understand that and therefore have diffuculty reading and understanding the OT. But Hebrews illustrates many followers of God who believed in and sought after Jesus, they were just on a different side physically. So we have a lot more to consider, namely the whole picture from creation and beyond.

My point again has not as much to do with whether the US can or should go to war, but rather that God in Christ should not be limited and defined by us, but rather sought by us.

Of course Christ wants to save all, but when it's all said and done, which is what I was talking about, all will not choose to be with Him, and because of that, they will be cast into the darkness. This is death. Sometimes I wish it weren't that way, but it can't be any other way. God cannot be "mostly" pure.

4:10 PM  
Blogger jrichard said...

I didn't mean that Americans literally think they are the new Israel, it's an attitude or an underlying psychology. Every time someone sings "God Bless America" or frames our struggles in the world as God against His opponents, we tap into this mythos.

As a culture, we believe we are superior to other countries, and many people will tell you it's because God chooses to bless us as a "Christian nation." We believe that we are a chosen people, that we are somehow special and set apart from others.

This arrogance leads us to struggle to communicate with others. We believe that we have the best of everything, despite evidence to the contrary on many fronts.

Though the individual citizens cannot articulate *what* it is that is so special about the United States, they often wrap up their emotional expressions in religious terminology, whether they themselves are religious or not.

When you examine the conventions of speech, "patriotic language" deeply resembles the patterns of religious convention. Americans without a strong religious culture of their own use the love of their country's ideals in place of a religious creed or pact. Those within a strong religious culture would struggle mightily to separate their feelings about their country from their feelings about their God.

We've replaced "God and Queen" with "God and Country." And thus we elevate our country to a level of influence it should not hold, and pull God down from the heavens. And so some of us feel that an attack on America is an attack upon God. Or that God blesses whatever America does by default.

John McCain said this in the weeks following September 11. And he was not alone.

David, I am not separating God from Christ. And I would be careful throwing around assumptions about what people do and do not understand (for example, I took four classes in ancient culture in order to put the Torah back into its original cultural perspective, and I'm fairly confident I understand the relationship between God and man represented there).

And I have taught Hebrews. Hebrews is a book that teaches us that perseverance means sticking to our principles, even when our legs become weary and our culture seems to liquidate below us.

We can learn a lot about God from the OT, but when we look for an example of how we are called to live our life, Jesus is that example. God had about a dozen covenants with man. Each covenant had different laws, different normative values and addressed different cultural situations. We can learn a lot by looking at these earlier covenants, but (and Matthew makes this point again and again) it is folly to try and return to the commitments of an age that God Himself has declared over.

If you wish to join the Rabbinic Jews an undertake the weight of trying to keep the 613 laws of purity, by all means try. They will think you're crazy (since non-Jews only have 7 law to keep under their law) and Jesus and Paul have both said the law does not save.

We seek to model God. Even in this action, it makes less sense to try and model the transcendent God who is only glimpsed as He offers laws and rulings from on high. Better to look at God in human form, who interacted with the world as we do, and thus provides a better example.

Having said all this, I agree wholeheartedly that we too often limit God in our understanding of Him. And I think sometimes that we constrain Him too closely to the Bible's words while ignoring his presence in the world.

But I also think that we often distort Jesus and his teachings to justify the feelings we have about how we think the world *should* be. In American, Jesus looks awfully American (and this is what i was getting at in my first points). And I think if Jesus is really to be a model for our lives, we must start our journey by examining his. What he did, we should do. What he refused to do, we should be very tentative about doing without a strong spiritual rationale.

For Jesus, personal safety is not justification for violence. Despite being threatened, actually tortured and killed, he did nothing to intervene. Despite knowing that his friends and family faced persecution and death, he did nothing to protect them, but taught them that this world is meaningless when compared to the communion with the Father in the next life.

So when I think about how I should view my enemies and the people who threaten my safety, I look to Jesus and his followers, and am moved by the fact that though nearly all of them dies grisly deaths, not one took up a weapon in either aggression or self-defense.

So, while I refuse to put God in a box, and will perform any task that he asks of me, I try to fight my nature as Christ did, and hope that I can be nearly as merciful and graceful to those who would take my life or worse.

1:53 PM  

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