“I have come not to bring peace, but a sword”

December 1, 2010Brian Terrell

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Editor’s Note: What follows was originally written on Good Friday, 2010.

“You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” This verse from the gospels, Matthew 10:34 and Luke 12:51, is a text often offered as a clincher argument against any who would witness for the nonviolent Jesus and against Christians who publicly denounce any war. It is apparent that in the minds of many Christians, this verse alone trumps Jesus’ many admonitions to love our enemies, to “turn the other cheek,” to do only good to those who would harm us.

As this thinking goes, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword” definitively negates all Jesus’ pleas for peace, including his warning to his disciples on the night of his arrest, “Put away your sword. All who take the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26, 52) “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword” is held to justify just about any act of violence or vengeance by the state, it would seem. Capital punishment, torture of prisoners, saturation bombing, even nuclear annihilation is OK by this warrior-savior who came to bring us peace not on this earth but in heaven only and that only after we are dead.

“You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword,” is used not only to tell Christians who protest wars and state sponsored violence that we are wrong. It is also used to tell us to shut up. Wartime patriotism requires good citizens and good Christians to put up a united front, to put a lid on our fears and doubts and our grief. Words as well as bombs might be employed to kill the other, the “enemy,” but among “us” insiders, no criticism of our leaders and their wars can be tolerated.

Jesus’ words taken in context, however, do not support this concept of violent struggle with outsiders and uncritical obedience and docile compliance within. In both the gospels of Luke and Matthew, Jesus is quite deliberate in saying where the sword shall fall: it is not between “us” and the “enemy” but rather it falls right into the midst of our most intimate circles. One’s foes will be found, Jesus says, within one’s “own household,” (Matthew 10:36) “for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.” (Luke 12:52)

There is a paradox, here, in Jesus’ instruction, if not an outright scandal. Could Jesus have really taught this impossible ethic? Only gentleness, love and forbearance for our enemies but, at the same time, a sword, however metaphorical, deliberately drawn to cause division at home?

Many commentators have tried to explain this “sword” as one dividing those members of a family who become Christians and those who don’t. John Dominic Crossan (JESUS: a Revolutionary Biography 1994 page 60) points out, though, just where and how emphatically the axis of separation lies: “They will be divided,” Jesus taught, “father against his son and son against his father, mother against her daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:53) “But why should faith split along that axis? Why might faith not separate, say, the women from the men or even operate in ways far more random?” Crossan asks. “The attack has nothing to do with faith but with power,” he insists. “The attack is on the Mediterranean family’s axis of power, which sets father and mother over son, daughter and daughter-in-law.”

“The family is society in miniature,” Crossan continues, “the place where we first and most deeply learn how to love and be loved, help and be helped, abuse and be abused… since it involves power, it invites the abuse of power, and it is at that precise point that Jesus attacks it.” The Christian churches traditionally have also recognized the family as society in miniature but they have not usually perceived any attack on the “traditional family” and its power structures in Jesus’ teaching. On the contrary, most often they have construed Jesus as unconditionally commending the family and the power structures that grow from it as ideal. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for one example, bases the “duties of pupils to teachers, employees to employers, subordinates to leaders, citizens to their country, and to those who administer and govern it” on the fourth commandment to honor and obey one’s parents (2199). In apparent disagreement with the Catechism, Jesus’ “ideal group” according to Crossan, “is contrary to Mediterranean and indeed most human familial reality, an open one equally accessible to all under God. It is the Kingdom of God, and it negates that terrible abuse of power that is power’s dark specter and lethal shadow.”

The sword that Jesus recommends, then, is not a literal one (always forbidden) but a symbolic one that attacks fearlessly close to home and hacks away at our own finely turned and deeply ingrained constructions of hierarchy and dominance of one person or one class of people over another. Rather than defending and preserving our way of life, this sword cuts it to pieces. This sword flays and destroys the false “peace” upon which violence and abuse depends–the “peace” of good people not raising a fuss, just trying to get along, trying to stay out of trouble, trying not to rock the boat.

Our struggle, then, as Christians is not with those who are far away and different no matter how much these might hate us or how much they might threaten us, as much as it is with our own homegrown power structures. These structures are not only those of the state but include those of the church as well. “It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole race of man and the world with him,” wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in 1966, two years before his death. “And when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my church can ever be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction. But it is true, nevertheless, that the faith in which I believe, is also invoked by many who believe in war, believe in racial injustice, believe in self-righteous and lying forms of tyranny. My life must, then, be a protest against these also and perhaps against these most of all.”

“No one,” says Jesus (Mark 3:27) “can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods unless one first binds up the strong man.” It is too easy, perhaps, to perceive the strong man that Jesus bids us to bind and plunder in the empire: the huge and oppressive military, ecclesial institutions, and financial institutions of the world (or these institutions’ big shots, generals, presidents, bishops and CEOs). While such perceptions would not be inaccurate, we should resist the temptation to wash our hands of our own collusion with the strong man’s house.

“That terrible abuse of power that is power’s dark specter and lethal shadow” manifests itself also in “society in miniature,” namely in the family, in our friendships and partnerships, in our most intimate relationships. The “strong man’s house” is certainly the White House, the Pentagon, the Vatican and the New York Stock Exchange but it is not only these. The strong man’s house might also be our own home where we live with those whom we love. It may be our parish, our religious community, our neighborhood association, our peace group…anywhere power is abused is the strong man’s house and there will be no peace in that house until the strong man is bound.

Communities of good people who gather to resist abusive power structures and witness to the Kin-dom of God that negates “power’s dark specter and lethal shadow” too often adopt the deadly patterns of the institutions they oppose. Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, was keenly aware of her own authoritarian streak and felt “bitterly oppressed,” too, by Catholic Workers who looked to her for leadership, “all looking for organization instead of self-organization, all of them weary of the idea of freedom and personal responsibility… they all complain at the idea of there being this freedom, that there is no boss.” (House of Hospitality, 1939)

Dorothy’s life and writings are testimony to her arduous struggle not only to bind the strong men of church and state but also to her deliberate attack on the axis of power within her own Catholic Worker community, the power over others that her own ego and others in their weakness urged her to take onto herself. She saw her own position as that of “a dictator trying to legislate herself out of existence” and this “certainly at the price of bitter suffering” for herself.

Dorothy Day’s extraordinary courage might be noted especially in her struggle over her own domineering nature, even as she recognized that she sometimes failed. For most of us, though, the struggle to bind the strong man within our own small circles of those we love or, indeed, within our own hearts is so difficult that we do not even try. The courage that comes to hand as we face down and “speak truth to power” in society at large fails us when we contemplate addressing power at home and we retreat to the safety of old hierarchal patterns of relationship. Contending with the most heavily armed empire the earth has ever been cursed with seems easier, at times, than confronting the petty little kingdoms of our own making. Yet it is exactly here, first, that Jesus says a sword must fall.

I write this in a bleak time, Holy Week of 2010, amid the craven alibis of strong men in the Vatican defending a power structure that enables the abuse of the innocent and in the second year of a new president who promised change but seems instead hell bent to surpass the cruelty and lawlessness of his predecessor. I write this at a time when close friends at a beloved Catholic Worker community are painfully addressing their own history of autocracy, struggling to accept the burden of freedom and personal responsibility to which they are called. I write this, too, as one full of complicity in the strong man’s works, as one who enjoys the privileges and comforts of living in the false peace of his house.

For what can we hope? The sword that Jesus came to bring will fall, as it must, to rend and to destroy forever our households of dominance. The strong man at last will be bound (and so find liberation) and the “hungry will be filled with good things” (Luke 1:53) from the treasury of his (our) ill-gotten goods. I pray that we will have the courage not to fear that sword or the pain and confusion that it is likely to bring to the likes of us. May we have the courage not to raise a hand in defense against this holy and righteous sword.

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