Not Peace but a Sword

Medieval Sword

This is a medieval sword, not Ancient Roman, but I thought it looked cool.
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/albioneurope/7312976032/

If you claim, as Anabaptists do, that Jesus taught nonviolence, somebody will inevitably point out that Jesus said this:

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34 NIV)

Seems pretty clear-cut out of context, doesn’t it? The first question I would ask to anybody using this verse to defend violence is what they think Jesus meant by the “sword” here? Do you think he means a literal sword or something metaphorical? Presumably they think a literal sword – translatable to guns or bombs today – if they are using it to defend enacting violence. The second question would be who is it that is using the sword here, to which I imagine they would respond the disciples.

Let’s look at some context:

26 “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.[b] 30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

32 “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.

34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 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—
36     a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’[c]

37 “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. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:26-40 NIV)

Even if we just narrow in on that 34-36 segment, Jesus says that his message will turn family members against each other. If we believe this is a literal sword, we should be killing everyone in our family who aren’t Christians. Hopefully that gives you pause to wonder if he is really talking about a literal sword (gun/bomb, etc.)

Expand out to the rest I’ve quoted here or farther into the beginning of the chapter that talks about sending out the disciples to preach boldly and it seems pretty foolish to see this verse as being about literal violence. The entire context is about Jesus’ message.

Don’t forget that Jesus’ message was extremely controversial in its day. In many ways it still is today, perhaps none being more controversial than “love your enemies” once we start to work out its implications. Walking around proclaiming that the Kingdom of God had come in its fullness got more than enough people angry at him to have him killed, particularly those with power who wanted to maintain that status quo (Roman and Jewish).

His message divided families and not just in some abstract theological arguments. Many Jews saw this new sect that later became known as Christians to be heretics. Many Roman sympathizers supported using force to stop this new radical movement before it disrupted their daily lives. These opponents to Jesus’ message even killed Jesus and the disciples for it, so if Jesus was talking about a literal sword, it definitely seems like he meant the sword that would be used against his disciples rather than a sword they would use against their enemies.

Christians, we share the message of Jesus boldly. We share his radical love for everyone, but especially the outsider. We share his willingness to challenge oppressive power structures. We share his work in establishing structures that instead honour the God-image worth of every single human being. We share that our loyalties are always first to this Kingdom where all are welcomed, not to whatever political nation we find ourselves in. We share that we strive to follow the example and teaching of our King, including care for the poor, welcoming the outcast, and even dying for the sake of others when it is necessary. We do so knowing that we will create division with those who cannot handle such a message, and we continue to offer those blessings to everyone anyway. That’s the sword Jesus brings to the world.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.