Saturday, September 12, 2015
Luke’s Gospel records Jesus saying to his disciples “if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Lk 22:36). If Jesus is advocating nonviolence why does he say this? Would Jesus advise Americans today “if you don’t have a gun, sell your laptop and buy one”?
In my book Disarming Scripture I discuss this passage in detail, and point out that in the very same chapter, when Luke tells of how the disciples then tried to use those swords to defend their Lord, Jesus sternly rebuked them for it, healing the person Peter struck, and yelling at him “No more of this!” (v. 51). Matthew’s account of the same incident records Jesus as saying to his disciples “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword!” (Mt 26:52).
So why did Jesus tell his disciples to buy swords in the first place? Or said differently, why would Jesus tell his disciples to buy swords, but then rebuke them for using them?
There are a number of explanations that biblical scholars have proposed to make sense of this, but let’s face it: Understanding Jesus is hard. Maybe that's why the Gospels record over and over how the disciples got Jesus wrong, as Luke does here, and why we still do today. Jesus speaks in paradoxes and parables. He says confusing things like “if you want to be the boss, be a slave” and “love those you hate” and “if you want to be first, be last.” Jesus commonly says things that are intended to throw people off, in order to make them question their assumptions. So if you are not thrown off by the things Jesus says, you just aren’t paying attention.
The question for us as his followers is how we can properly adopt his teachings and way. A reader wrote to me asking this very question,
“On the question of why Jesus told them to buy the swords, are you open to the idea that this was for self-defense? Jesus is speaking about a huge change in their situation. Before when the disciples went out preaching, they didn’t need a moneybag and a knapsack because people were happy to welcome them and generous to provide for them (v. 35). But following his death their message will no longer be welcome. They will have to face persecution and can no longer count on people’s generosity (v. 36). “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack.” In that context he tells them they should buy a sword. I think he is saying that they will need one for their own protection. But he did not intend for them to use swords on this occasion to prevent his arrest and crucifixion.”
As discussed above, Jesus directly rebuked his disciples for using a sword to defend him, but is it possible that Jesus was telling them to use the sword later for their own self-defense?
Based on how the disciples and early church responded to the persecution they encountered, I think the only possible answer to that question is that they did not think so. The fact of history is that the disciples and early church did not defend themselves with swords, even though their lives were endangered, even though it would have been clearly a case of self-defense, and their contemporaries commonly did reach for their swords.
Instead, they were persecuted and killed. That is just a fact of history. The early followers of Jesus (for the first few centuries, pre-Constantine) were in fact known for refusing to defend their lives with violence, and associated this with faithfulness to Jesus. That’s the whole idea of being a martyr for Jesus.
Now, does that mean that we as Christians today should not defend ourselves when our lives are in danger? Some would say yes. They would understand Jesus’ teachings as forbidding the use of violence. Nonviolence here is primarily about what you are not permitted to do, similar perhaps to saying “no sex outside of marriage.”
I don’t want to necessarily disagree with that, but I do want to propose that if this is all we get from Jesus, we are missing the real power of his teaching. A focus on what one should not do is reflective of a low level of morality. The more morally advanced question is, what can we do to make things better – what can we do to restore and reconcile?
For example, take divorce: One could easily take Jesus’ words to say that divorce is categorically forbidden. On a low moral level we ask questions of permission and prohibition. So the question here becomes, “Am I allowed to get a divorce or not?” But the deeper and more important question to ask is “What do we need to do to have a good and healthy marriage” and more specifically “How can we break out of our patterns of hurt and conflict, and restore trust, and the joy, surprise, and closeness in our relationship again?” After all, I think we can also all agree that no one likes divorce. It’s a painful and tragic experience. So the goal is to see if it is possible to help marriages to be restored.
That’s a totally different question, because the focus is not on “am I permitted to do this” but rather on working towards restoring, reconciling, and redeeming. This focus on redemption is the core focus of Jesus. Again, it’s not a focus on what is forbidden, but a focus on redeeming and healing and making broken things whole. When we instead focus on what is permitted/prohibited we really miss the very heart of the message of Jesus and his gospel which was all about restoring broken humanity. That’s what Jesus spent all his time doing. That’s what he’s in the business of doing today.
That means that wherever Jesus finds us, no matter what imperfect place we are at, the focus is not a legalistic one of condemning us. If you are divorced for instance, the point is not to say that this was some kind of moral failure. The point is to ask, no matter where we are, what can be done right where we are at that will lead to life? This is an approach that is not naive or idealistic, but very aware that our human experience is one of imperfection and struggle. It begins right in the middle of that, and seeks to move us towards love.
In regards to self-defense, I totally understand why a person would want to defend themselves or their loved ones. So would I. You will get no condemnation from me there. But what I do want us to try to do is think together about what we might be able to do to promote peace and resolve conflict. How can we work towards that, while of course caring for the safety and well-being of everyone involved?
As long as we are asking the question of “is this justified?” we will not be able to get to that bigger and harder question of “how can I work towards making things better?” In the case of divorce, a trained couples therapist would certainly not forbid a couple from getting a divorce. Of course that’s an option. But the focus would be on working to repair and restore the relationship. Perhaps we can say the same with the use of violence for self-defense. In fact, it may be for many of us that we can only get to asking how we can work to resolve conflict and reduce violence after we first allow ourselves to say it’s a justifiable and understandable response. Perhaps we need to say to each other,
I can’t condemn you for resorting to violence in self-defense. I might do the same if I were in that situation. But let’s work together to see if we can find a better way. Let’s find out how we can actively work to lessen violence, resolve conflict, and restore relationships. Let’s learn how to work for justice and peace.
The big picture here, exegetically speaking, is that we need to get away from reading a particular verse or sentence from Jesus and turning this into a rule or universal principle. What we instead need to do is immerse ourselves in all of what Jesus taught until we actually get it and can then run with it, expanding and developing it, living it out in our lives and world. That’s a very different approach to biblical interpretation than most of us have learned, but it’s one that will lead us to a much deeper understanding of the way of Jesus, and why it is truly the way to life.