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Pacifism and Just War: All Who Draw the Sword

May 13, 2013
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Last week I discussed the Sermon on the Mount with regards to pacifism and noted that it is almost impossible to avoid the pacifist implications of that sermon.  Another set of verses cited by pacifists are distinctly less convincing.  In all four gospels when Jesus is arrested someone (identified as Peter in John but left anonymous in the synoptic gospels) draws a sword and strikes the servant of the high priest.  Jesus’ response to this event is unfavorable in all but Mark (where Jesus does not make any response).  These verses are often cited as evidence for pacifism.

Mark 14:46-50 reads:

The men seized Jesus and arrested him.  Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?  Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.”  Then everyone deserted him and fled.

Matthew 26:50b-56 reads:

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.  With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.  “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.  Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?  But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”  In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me.  But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Luke 22:49-53 reads:

When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?”  And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.  But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.  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?  Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”

John 18:10-11 reads:

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)  Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

There are two major issues and several minor ones with citing these verses as evidence for pacifism.  The first major issue is that Peter has a sword.  The disciples spent almost all their time with Jesus.  Jesus must know that Peter has a sword.  Actually, two disciples have swords and Jesus told the disciples to buy swords (Luke 22:36-38) which prompted the disciples to show him that they had two swords.  Now, Jesus apparently doesn’t believe in being heavily armed because Jesus tells the disciples (who will number eleven in the period that Jesus appears to be telling them they need swords for) that two swords is sufficient but he does directly tell them to buy swords and does not tell them to get rid of their swords as any pacifist would1.  The second major issue is that in every gospel except John Jesus’ response to the appearance of the soldiers is to say, “Am I leading a rebellion?” with the clearly-implied answer “no”.  Indeed, this is an important point for this whole interaction: Jesus is not leading a rebellion although he is accused of doing so.  While some of the charges against Jesus are true or true in interesting ways (a topic I’ve discussed here) this one is false and it is important that Jesus is innocent.  This is the whole point of Jesus’ speech to the guards – Jesus is not a physically dangerous man.  If the danger to the guards had been restricted to the threat of violence from Jesus they could have grabbed him at any time in public.  The real threat was that doing so would incite a riot.  The leaders who have sent the soldiers to arrest Jesus know that Jesus is not the sort of man they are about to accuse him of being.  Because of this, Peter’s action in drawing and using a sword is a wrong move simply because that’s what would happen if you tried to arrest a rebel leader – his right-hand man would fight to protect him.  Jesus must deny Peter’s action because he is not that sort of person and, critically, because his arrest and trial is not to be forestalled.  It is actually part of the plan even though it seems to the disciples that it is the plan falling apart.  In Mark, Matthew, and John this specific fact is mentioned.  Indeed, in John’s account it is Jesus’ entire explanation of why Peter’s action is wrong.

This leads us directly to the minor problems with using these verses.  The best phrase to cite for pacifist use from all of these versions is the line in Matthew, “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”  Extracted from context this is a damning condemnation on the use of violence (and an observably true statement for most individuals who have made a habit of resorting to violence throughout history).  However, in context this phrase is immediately followed up by Jesus explaining that Peter is out of line in part because Jesus already has plenty of firepower that he is not using and so he must have reasons for avoiding violence in this situation.  More problematic is that only Matthew records any phrase that condemns all violence.  Depending on one’s stance on what inspiration means this could mean several things.  Certainly if you allow for any real human influence in the gospels it means that at least three evangelists did not remember Jesus issuing a blanket condemnation of violence at this point or that if he did they thought of it as a minor point to be passed over in the interests of following the main events.  Only if one believes that the Holy Spirit dictated every word of Scripture to the evangelists and that He did so with the intent that one would put the four gospels into a composite in which a phrase found in only one account would rise to prominence could one argue that it is in no way significant that three evangelists fail to have any blanket condemnation of violence.

This discussion of inspiration can be simplified and summarized in the following way: if what Jesus actually said were something like, “Peter, put away your sword because violence is always wrong and not at all what I want my followers to do,” then three gospels give us horribly mangled accounts of what Jesus said with one of the central points missing.  This merely circles us back around to some of the first problems I noted with these verses from a pacifist perspective: why didn’t Jesus just say that?  Why are the disciples walking around armed without receiving a stern lecture (especially when Jesus is clearly trying to draw a clear distinction between himself and the violent anti-Roman factions who do carry weapons to fight a holy war with)?


[1] Jesus’ comment about the swords is sometimes rendered as “That’s enough!” with an exclamation mark as if Jesus is saying something more like, “Wait, you guys seriously have swords?  That was metaphor!  I can’t believe you people!” Jesus’ tone is entirely speculative however.  The word used can mean “quite a lot” (“Two swords?  Wow, you guys don’t do things by halves”), “sufficient” (“Two swords?  That will do”), or “fitting” (“Two swords?  Good, you’re already properly prepared”).  As my expansions on these phrases demonstrate this gives us every option between disapproving of two swords and heartily endorsing them.  One option that is not available is a translation that would indicate that the disciples need more swords although, as I noted in the main text, this leaves most of them without a sword.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. dylanwolf permalink
    May 13, 2013 10:30 am

    I’ll be honest, these are the verses I think about most when I talk to Christians who are extremely pro-gun. I’d never really unpacked the implications of Peter having a sword to begin with.

    While it doesn’t make an absolute statement about pacifism, it does seem like people who see willingness/ability to defend one’s self or others violently as its own virtue (whether on a military or personal level) are siding with Peter against Jesus in a scene from one of the central narratives of Christianity.

    • Eric permalink
      May 13, 2013 11:24 pm

      I agree. While I think that this whole passage is hard to parse because a much more important story is the main focus Peter certainly comes out as the man in the wrong.

  2. May 13, 2013 10:43 am

    Just looking at the Luke 22 passage, it seems Jesus’ reason for the disciples’ bearing arms is so he can be numbered among the transgressors (Isaiah 53). Seems almost comical or insulting actually, but he is clearly motivated by fulfilling this prophecy.

    • Eric permalink
      May 13, 2013 11:21 pm

      I’d be interested to see you unpack this a bit more.

  3. aarport permalink
    May 14, 2013 3:15 pm

    According to Isaiah 53:12, the Messiah will rise to greatness and divide a portion of inheritance from God among the strong and faithful. Interestingly, this is because he counts himself with rebels and then continues to intercede for them while bearing their sin. As seen in other passages of the NT, rebel uprise against the government is strictly condemned as government authorities are called servants of God (Romans 13). Therefore it is by God crushing the one who intercedes for the rebels that he will be made great. Verse 9 says this is in spite of the fact that he will do no violence or speak deceitfully.

    So basically, Jesus makes himself an accessory to rebellion by asking the disciples to get weapons to become “rebels” as he is playing out the inauguration of his kingship. But the prophecy is not entirely fulfilled until Jesus undoes Peter’s violence against Malchus (a servant of the high priest).

    • Eric permalink
      May 15, 2013 5:05 pm

      There are two fairly critical points in your analysis that I find questionable. The first is identifying the rebels of Isaiah 53:12 as political rebels. The word in question, pasha’, does carry connotations of rebellion but is frequently used to refer to those who rebel against God (hence the favored translation “transgressors”). In Isaiah is always seems to refer to those who rebel against God’s kingship and does not appear as a term indicating political rebels. It would be odd if this term suddenly clearly denoted political rebels without any context to provide that sense. (Also, Isaiah 53:12 makes sense without these overtones.)

      Secondly, I broadly disagree with your analysis of Romans 13.

      • aarport permalink
        May 15, 2013 11:49 pm

        Thanks for the article. I think you’re right, the rebellion doesn’t need to be political in Isaiah, though the disciples at times thought they were participating in a political rebellion. Malchus (as a servant of Caiaphas, but also as being used by God to arrest Jesus – Isaiah 53:8) would still be a “servant of God’s anointed” more than a political entity anyway.

  4. Eric permalink
    May 16, 2013 9:53 pm

    I would say that while by modern standards the disciples may have thought they were involved in a political rebellion by their own standards a division between politics and religion just wouldn’t have made any sense.

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