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A Disembodied Head? Part 8: Violence

What does the Bible say about violence and the sword?

52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place! For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword. 53 Or do you think that I cannot call on my Father, and that he would send me more than twelve legions of angels right now? (Matthew 26.52-53)

The story here might easily be tossed aside as a lonely example, pertinent only because of Christ’s call to die for our sins, rather than a general principle. However, a careful view of Christ’s teaching show this to be totally consistent with the whole of his thought. In the beatitudes Christ lists the peacemakers among those who are blessed. He then goes on in both the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, & 7, esp. 5.38-48), and in the somewhat parallel Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6.17-49, esp. 6.27-36), to talk about the proper reaction to persecutors and enemies.

It is crucial to note that violence is specifically excluded. We are to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, etc. There are specific actions mentioned that exclude violence. If you are turning the other cheek, the precludes the revenge of striking back. If you are to go the second mile, you must go the first. Hence, violent revolt against the unjust command is impossible if we are to respond as Christ instructs.

If you are like me, your mind now runs to Romans 13 and other passages that discuss the state and the power of the sword. What of these? If the state is authorized to use violence (the sword), when I’ve already argued that the state is imperfect. If the imperfect State is allowed the use of violence, then why can’t we as Christians use it? The simple answer is, because Christ commanded us not to use violence to advance His kingdom. My view of what Romans 13 is really saying is coming tomorrow. (Hint: it involves a careful reading of Romans 12.)

Before I leave the discussion of Christ’s teaching, I do want to point out something that is glaring by its absence, if you think about it. There is only one event in which Christ can be accused of anything neighboring on violence. That is the clearing of the Temple money-changers and offering-sellers. In the New English Translation (NET) which has lots of footnotes about translation decisions, only mentions a whip only in John, though the story is in all four Gospels. (Matthew 21.12-13; Mark 11.15-17; Luke 19.45-46; John 2.14-17) Clearly there is some level of violence here, but I have several reactions to this passage as it pertains to our justification of violence:

  • The text suggests the whip of cords is made, but we don’t know for sure how it is used. Saying that Christ threatened people with it is just as speculative as saying that Christ made it but never used it. We simply are not told what Christ does with it. He could have driven out the people violently with it, He could have driven the animals with it and this chased the people out among the stampede, or He might have done nothing with it.
  • Christ does not follow any of the passages with instructions to His disciples that they should look at this behavior as a model. The passages in Matthew and Luke above clearly contain instructions that we are to follow these teachings, while the clearing incident does not. To use this passage to trump the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain is poor exegesis.
  • Christ is fully divine and fully human. In short, the Temple was His house. His zeal in this case may reasonably be explained as His divine zeal for His house being expressed through action. Surely, we have the Spirit inside of us, but this does not give us the right to act as if we are allowed to use this divine mandate for justice through violence ourselves. (See the previous point.) That is, for Christ as God to use limited violence (if that is what happened) is not to imply that we have authorization to do so. Christ was using His rightful power. Violence is always about power. I’ve discussed power previously in this series here.

Tomorrow, I plan to come back with a look at Romans 12 and 13 and what this implies about the view of violence in the New Testament Church.

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6 comments on “A Disembodied Head? Part 8: Violence

  1. The other passage that is trotted out is Jesus telling his disciples to pack a bag and include a sword and the disciples saying, “see, we have one”…that’s a tougher one…but in the larger context of Jesus teachings, you can almost hear the hyperbole fall into place and then Jesus exasperation, “dudes, really? That’s enough about swords, Ok? Are you REALLY that thick?”

    As for the whip in the temple…allow a farmer to give some insight…if you want to get a sheep to move, just yelling at it doesn’t always work…goats are even worse… cows? Yeah…good luck… You get a stick and give ’em a whack…THEN they move…if Jesus was clearing out the critters, a whip is part of the tool kit….

  2. I think the translations of Jn. 2:15 by the ASV, GNT, NIV, and NRSV give the best sense of the Greek text. Those translations say basically Jesus made a whip and drove them all out, both the sheep and cattle (or oxen), and …

    Thus the “all” is identified as the animals, the sheep and oxen, not the people.

  3. […] first blush, this passage seems to run counter to yesterday’s post about the exclusion of violence. I’ve often heard this passage used as a counter to the […]

  4. […] It is crucial to note that violence is specifically excluded. We are to turn the other cheek, to go the second mile, …read more […]

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