I now continue my consideration of the Gospel record with the goal of determining if the call to peacefulness by Christ is universal in scope and absolute in practice.
“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.”
The language is striking. Jesus specifically rejects the notion that His goal is peace in all situations and at any cost. Of course, the opposition between even family members could be only spiritual in nature.
However, in actual experience hostility broke out into overt violence against Christians. The early Church responded with what can only be described as non-violence. However, given the general climate of hostility, sometimes leading the Roman Government to persecution (including martyrdom) , non-violent response was the only policy by which the Church might survive. That is, to raise in armed opposition would only confirm the case against them (that they were traitors) and provide the pretext for total extermination.
In any case, for Christ to define the consequences of his work as the opposite of peace is incompatible with a mind set that places peace at the pinnacle of value.
Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.” The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied.
This striking but often ignored passage requires careful consideration. Jesus clearly wasn’t planning any resistance on either His or the Disciple’s part to the Passion. Christ is apparently referring to some time in the future when Christians will defend themselves with the sword. Given my belief in Christ’s divinity, it appears likely that He was speaking to Christians hundreds of years in the future.
It is also striking that Christ’s disciples were armed. It raises the question of why an absolute pacifist would allow his most intimate followers to carry weapons of violence and then openly discuss their acquisition and value. The question answers itself.
When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
Note that Christ in this exchange says that it is God who gives power and authority to rulers. Clearly they are expected to discharge their duties in fear and trembling before the LORD. However, it must be admitted that those duties include the threat (and use if necessary) of force to maintain the peace and protect from internal crime or external invasion.
And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
The climactic statement of Mark’s Gospel is uttered by – a Roman centurion!
Recall that I have conceded the imperative of peacefulness in Christ’s teaching. The question under consideration has been the extent in terms of scope and practice. That is, does peacefulness extend to the absolute totality of pacifism?
Such a conclusion requires that an extremely high standard of pacifist consistency and intent in Christ’s teaching be met. Although any single item discussed in this and the last post might be explained away, the cumulative message is difficult to ignore. That message is that although Christians are to seek peacefulness first and foremost, there are extreme situations in which other responses, including organized violence, are necessary and authorized.
In the next post I will consider additional situations and teaching in the New Testament.