Put Away the Sword: Tragedy and Eschatology

This last Sunday in our adult Bible class at church I was teaching through John 18-19. I spent a lot of time on Jesus' arrest, this passage in particular:
John 18.10-11
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
I went on to use this text--"put your sword away"--to contrast the non-violence of Jesus' kingdom with the violence he faces from the kingdoms of the world.

After the class my good friend Mike asked about what we are to do with "put your sword away" in a world where groups like ISIS exist. Are we, or is a nation like the US, to put the sword away when people are being beheaded, woman raped and girls taken as sex slaves?

Of course, I don't have the answers to these questions. But what follows is a bit of my answer to Mike.

First, I said, we are creatures that live within history and we have to appreciate the tragic nature of history.

If, for example, we bomb ISIS that's not something to cheer about. It's horribly tragic. Plus, that bombing will simply create more violence as those affected by the bombing will most likely become radicalized and come to hate the US. Bombing, even if you think it's "the right thing to do," is tragic and just leads to the next round of violence within history.

And if we don't bomb and ISIS goes into a village, beheading and raping, that's also tragic.

It's tragic all the way around. Use the sword and it's tragic. Put your sword away, especially in a world of violent and evil men, and that is also tragic.

All that to say, I shared with Mike, no matter how we as Christians might feel about the use of violence to restrain evil in the world, Jesus' command "put your sword away" forces us to accept all violence as tragic. We must lament violence, even violence we feel is "justified."

That's what upsets me about crowds cheering and thrilling to calls to bomb ISIS, so-called "Christians" who are viewing violence triumphalistically rather than tragically.

Because Jesus said "put your sword away" Christians can never cheer violence. We must only grieve it.

And what if we take Jesus' command seriously and decide to "put the sword away," what if we renounce violence and embrace pacifism? How are we to view the pacifist?

The pacifist, I said to Mike, is living an eschatological existence within history. The pacifist--as sign, sacrament and foretaste of the coming kingdom--is putting the sword away within history, in a world still full of evil and violent men.

Living an eschatological existence within history creates a radical rupture and break with the world. In the face of evil the non-violence of the kingdom appears naive, immoral and irresponsible. Within history the pacifist is outrageous. The pacifist only makes sense from an eschatological perspective.

But this isn't an indictment of the pacifist or the kingdom of God. Our outrage at the pacifist isn't an indictment of the pacifist. It's an indictment of history. The pacifist is sane. It's the world that has gone mad.

We've misplaced our anger when we rage at the pacifist. We shouldn't be outraged at the kingdom but at the world.

Living as an eschatological person within history the pacifist deepens the contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men. In this the pacifist is a prophetic witness, an indictment. But rather than repenting of our violence we throw the stones at the pacifist, accusing him or her of madness, naivete and irresponsibility.

I understand, I said to Mike, that it seems insane and irresponsible to put the sword away within history, but that's not an indictment of the kingdom, that's an indictment of history.

To conclude, I ended with Mike, while Christians debate the ethics of using the sword within history I think we all have to agree with this. When Jesus said "put your sword away" he excluded the sword from the kingdom. That is, we can never, ever, identify the sword with the kingdom.

You might argue that violence is necessary--many do make that argument for good and valid reasons--but violence can never be good or righteous. Or cheered.

You can never say violence is Christian. If the sword is out the kingdom is not there.

Violence is only ever a failure, a loss, a lesser evil, an eclipse of the kingdom.

A tragedy.

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