This article is one of the best defenses for Christian pacifism I have read, written by Pentecostal pastor Eric Gabourel. It was originally posted on the website of his church, Live Oaks Community Church in New Orleans.
At the last Passover Seder Jesus told His disciples that if they didn’t have a sword to sell their cloaks and buy one (Luke 22:36). This statement is often abused by Christian just war theorist to advocate Christian participation in war. Those who take the position that Jesus was telling His disciples to be prepared for battle or for self-defense only emphasize this phrase from the passage. To have an appropriate assessment of this statement one must treat the entire text of Luke 22:7-53.
Before Jesus tells His disciples to buy swords He calls them to recollect the instance when He told them to go out and preach the Gospel without carrying purse, bag, or sandals (Luke 22:35; Luke 10:4). He then asks them what they lacked when they were sent out to live by faith. Naturally they said “nothing” because of God’s sustaining power that responds to human faith in a lifestyle of radical simplicity and abandonment. Jesus’ teachings on worry and anxiety (Luke 12:24-34) states that we should not be concerned about human necessities: food, shelter, clothing, because these are the things that pagans run after. Moreover, He tells His followers to, “Sell their possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33). Therefore, Jesus in telling his disciples to now carry a purse and a bag was not telling them to expunge what He initially taught them. Jesus was telling them to do these things as a symbol of the impending crisis that was to ensue.
Jesus telling His disciples to carry possessions wasn’t a contradiction just as His prayer on the Mount of Olives wasn’t. In this prayer we also witness the tension of the crossroads that Jesus was standing at. He asked the Father, “if you are willing, take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). This prayer does not imply that Jesus was trying to avoid His salvific mission to bear the sins of the world. His prayer stresses the overwhelming burden that He was about to bear. He knew and understood His task. That’s why He continued to pray, “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). The tension was so intense that Luke states that Jesus’ sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (22:44).
At the Passover Seder this intense state of stress provoked Jesus to tell His disciples to sell their cloaks and to buy swords. This statement should not be read as a contradiction to His previous teachings of nonviolence in as much as His telling His disciples to carry possessions wasn’t a contradiction. Christian just war theorist quote the first part of Jesus’ statement. They rarely quote Jesus’ statement in its entirety. He goes on to say in the same breath, “so that I can be numbered with the transgressors” (Luke 22:37). This quote from Isaiah 53:12 is usually remembered to be fulfilled in Mark 15:28 when Jesus was crucified between two criminals—and surely it was. In Luke’s gospel account the quote is coming straight from the lips of Jesus rather then the authors Spirit inspired recognition. Most importantly Jesus is singling the transgressors out as His own disciples. For the act of living by instincts of self preservation are disobedient to Jesus’ teachings on worry (Luke 12:24-34), His sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7), and His sermon on the plain (Luke 6:17-49). In these teachings Jesus states that His followers should be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), He puts anger toward another human being on the same level as murder (Matthew 5:21-22), He teaches not to live by an eye for an eye philosophy but to resist evil people using creative nonviolent tactics (Matthew 5:38-42; Luke 6:29-31), to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-28), to practice forgiveness (Matthew 6:14-15) and to be agents of reconciliation (Matthew 5:23-24).
After reading Jesus’ statement in this context it can only be concluded that purchasing a sword or even having one for self-defense or militancy is in itself a transgression. Using a sword for self-defense or militancy is just as pagan as having more then what is necessary to survive as a human being.
Secondly, it is also difficult to argue for an interpretation of this text that insinuates that Jesus was urging His disciples to defend themselves because of His response when one of them does. When told to buy swords the disciples responded that they had two swords. Jesus hastily responds, “That is enough” (Luke 22:38). After reflecting on this brief dialogue reason would ask, “How can two swords defend twelve men against what John witnessed to be a band of soldiers (John 18:3)?” A reasonable response would have to be that two swords could not defend twelve people against a band of soldiers armed with torches, swords and clubs (Matthew 26:47; Mark 14:43; John 18:3).
When the band of soldiers arrived to arrest Jesus the disciples in an understandably confused state asked “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” (Luke 22:49) Before they got a response from Jesus, Peter had struck Malchus the servant of the high priest with one of the swords and cut off his ear (John 18:10). Jesus immediately says, “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51), “Put your sword away!” (John 18:11), “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). If Jesus meant for them to use the swords He wouldn’t have stopped them from using the mere two they had. Jesus goes on to assure them that He could, “Call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels” (Matthew 26:53). Jesus then embodies his teachings by demonstrating love for His enemies. He accomplishes this by miraculously restoring Malchus’ severed ear to his head. This act of enemy love was so compelling that the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) used this account as a proof text in their 1917 statement against their members going to war. (1917 Declaration of Faith article 29. Against members going to war.—Ex. 20:13; 1 Chron. 28:3; Psalm 120:7; Math. 5:38-48; 6:14-15; 26:50-56; Luke 22:44-52; John 18:10-11,36; Rom. 12:19).
Finally, At this point one could argue that in this case Jesus told them to put away the swords, not because He was against the use of arms in all ethical scenarios, but that the Scriptures may be fulfilled concerning Jesus’ sacrificial death (Matthew 26:54; John 18:11b). So that Jesus’ rebuke was only in the context of this one scenario and that the use of a sword by His disciples was permissible in another context of self-defense or some other offensive justification. It should first be noted that Jesus’ crucifixion was prophesied to be the redemption of humanity through His shed blood. But Jesus wasn’t randomly picked out of a crowd and killed. He was crucified because He was an agitator. He proclaimed that He was the Messiah and that His reign was the Kingdom of God—a kingdom of justice, nonviolence, peace, and reconciliation to God, other human beings, and creation. This message got Him into a lot of trouble.
Jesus stresses the ethos of His nonviolent Kingdom before Pontus Pilate. While being interrogated by Pilate Jesus stated that, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). Ultimately, the disciples of Jesus did not and cannot fight with violence because the Kingdom of Messiah is a spiritual kingdom that’s in stark contrast to the principles of the present world order. The kingdom way of resolving conflict and of effecting social change is by using the weapons of love and transformational nonviolent initiatives. Ones citizenship in this Kingdom hinges on more then just confessing Jesus as King and Savior; one is a citizen of this Kingdom by living out the stipulations of the Kingdom. Jesus stated that, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21) and by our Spirit empowered actions we usher in manifestations of the Kingdom.
To further finalize the point, during the last Passover Seder Jesus made a statement right before He told His disciples to buy a sword. The dichotomy between the Kingdom of God and the present world order was contrasted by Jesus when He told them not to be like the oppressive, racist, militaristic Roman Empire. He stated that, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:25-26). To elaborate, Jesus did not call His disciples to command army’s and spread the kingdom through military might; He did not call them to promote neoliberalism , unjust free trade agreements, or any system that further privileges the rich and oppresses the poor. Rather, He calls His disciples to be the servants of all. His Kingdom is a colony of servants looking out only for the well being of humanity through an other-centered, self-sacrificing, nonviolent love. This is the Kingdom that Jesus reigns over. He has given us the sacred task to further the agenda of His Kingdom for He also stated at the last Passover Seder that, “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me” (Luke 22:29).
In conclusion, it would be advantageous for believers to know that this is an interpretation that was more adhered to during the early centuries of Christianity. That Jesus’ teachings were for nonviolence and in opposition to participation in the military were clearly articulated during the patristic era. This point was so clear and absolute to the early church that the 3rd century ante-nicene church father Tertullian (c. A.D. 155-c. 215) was able to say that, “Christ, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier” (De Idololatria 19).
Eric Gabourel is an ordained bishop in the Church of God (Cleveland TN) and is a part of the Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice network. You can follow his blog here.