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Pacifism and Just War: Not Peace but a Sword

May 20, 2013

In the last two articles I have reviewed some key passages in defense of pacifism. Some I thought highly of and others I did not. In the course of that review I also discussed one of the key verses put forward by non-pacifists, Luke 22:36-38, in which Jesus instructs his disciples to buy swords. It is now time to move on to some of the other key passages brought forward by non-pacifists of various flavors.

There are two as-yet un-discussed passages to mention. One is Matthew 10:34-38 which reads (NIV):

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 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—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

The other passage is Jesus’ clearing of the Temple.

The passage from Matthew has almost nothing to recommend it. I’m astonished that people actually use this one as it is irrelevant to the issue of pacifism. However, it does include the words “I did not come to bring peace” and I suppose that’s good enough for people who hate context. I have included the context above so that you can see what Jesus actually means – that conflict will arise even within families over Jesus. To make this into a case for just war (or any war) one would have to first establish that “sword” here means a real sword (since the term is often a metaphor for conflict). This can’t be done as the discussion of hatred within families never goes far enough to tell us whether physical violence erupts. Secondly, one would have to establish that violence was being done by the faithful not to them and that this was done correctly and not sinfully. None of these conditions can be met. Instead, Jesus talks about the disciples suffering (not causing others to suffer) for his sake (“Whoever does not take up their cross…”).

The clearing of the Temple is not as weak a case for the a proper use of violence but it is also deeply flawed. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) give us very little detail on what Jesus does to clear the Temple saying only that he overturned tables and drove people out. The manner of his doing so is not explained further. In John 2 a more detailed explanation can be found in which Jesus makes a whip and then uses it to clear the Temple. However, John also specifies that Jesus drives out sheep and cattle and the whip may be used on them. While Jesus certainly causes a scene it seems unlikely that this scene is a violent one in large part because such a violent scene would bring a violent response. Even if the Temple guards initially feared Jesus’ followers in the crowds enough to forestall such a reaction a violent riot in the Temple would be a great piece of evidence for use at Jesus’ trial. However, instead of pointing to this incident the prosecution at Jesus’ trial focuses on other things. This suggests that whatever Jesus did it was not disruptive enough to register as an action against the Temple or state.

As I mentioned earlier in this series Jesus is not a violent figure while incarnate. (As I also mentioned earlier Jesus’ potential violence in places like Revelation is significantly less useful for determining whether human beings are justified in using violence.) The gospels contain no records of Jesus doing violence to anyone else either physically or miraculously (unlike some of the apocryphal works from later centuries in which Jesus fries the wicked right and left with divine power). While other religions may draw a mandate for just war from the actions of their founders Christians cannot do so. The best a just war theorist can get from Jesus is his apparent approval of his disciples carrying swords.

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