Μὴ νομίσητε ὅτι ἦλθον βαλεῖν εἰρήνην ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν· οὐκ ἦλθον βαλεῖν εἰρήνην ἀλλὰ μάχαιραν.
And in the NRSV:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
This scripture is used over and over again, by Reza Aslan types who want to prove that the New Testament and Christianity is just as potentially violent as the Koran, the Old Testament, or any other religious text, or to show that Christianity is entirely open to any and every potential interpretation. The argument goes something like this usually, the first person says “Such and Such religious text is problematic because of what it teaches,” and the Reza Aslan type responds with “well, the new Testament says I came not to bring peace but a sword” and Christians choose to ignore than, or interpret it away, so we can do the same with other religious texts. I is not legitimate to simply isolate a text in any religious tradition that may be violent and think that this in and of itself shows anything, for Christianity or any other tradition, you need to do exegesis and theology, and think the whole tradition through. So can this scripture be legitimately used to defend violence? Well let’s examine it.
First thing to notice is that this is part of the “Q” sayings that are common to both Luke and Matthew, so let’s compare the different accounts in a larger context, in Matthew 10:
32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
And in Luke 12:
49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
In Matthew’s account, the purpose of the saying is clear; one is to put Christ above all over allegiances, even above household allegiances. Given that this is the “go to verse” for pointing out violence in the New Testament, this should clear up the issue quite easily; obviously, the “sword” here is about the potential break up of traditional allegiances once one dedicates one’s self to Christ. It’s obviously not talking about a call to arms or violence, and cannot plausibly be interpreted that way (and as far as I know never was, at least not by anyone serious).
Luke’s account is a little bit harder to interpret since no explanation is given. The larger context is that Jesus is speaking about the eschaton and the troubles it will bring his followers, so earlier in Chapter 12 he says:
11 When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”
Predicting that there will be conflict in the eschaton. Given the whole context, as well as given the entire theme of Luke of a reversal of the social order, I think the best explanation is that allegiance to Christ will divide people and break up all traditional allegiances, even the family, even to the point of conflict. Given that the message in Luke is that of a radical, overturning of the social order one would expect this.
But how about how these texts were interpreted in the early Church? Well we have some commentary on it from Chapter 10 and 11 of Tertullian’s Scorpiace:
Here I endure the entire course (in question), the Lord Himself not appointing a different quarter of the world for any doing so. For what does He add after finishing with confession and denial? “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth, but a sword,”–undoubtedly on the earth. “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” For so is it brought to pass, that the brother delivers up the brother to death, and the father the son: and the children rise up against the parents, and cause them to die. And he who endureth to the end let that man be saved. So that this whole course of procedure characteristic of the Lord’s sword, which has been sent not to heaven, but to earth, makes confession also to be there, which by enduring to the end is to issue in the suffering of death.
In the same manner, therefore, we maintain that the other announcements too refer to the condition of martyrdom. “He,” says Jesus, “who will value his own life also more than me, is not worthy of me,”–that is, he who will rather live by denying, than die by confessing, me; and “he who findeth his life shall lose it; but he who loseth it for my sake shall find it.” Therefore indeed he finds it, who, in winning life, denies; but he who thinks that he wins it by denying, will lose it in hell.
Here Tertullian interprets the sword of Christ as being the suffering a Christian must go through in his course, all the way to martyrdom. The passage was also interpreted by Irenaeus in his work “Against Heresies”:
It was now evident in what sense “the Prince of peace” had pronounced His mission, “not peace, but a sword.” In short, it became a conspicuous fact, that the Church here on earth is “militant; “while, at the same time, there was seen to be a profound philosophy in the apostolic comment, “There must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest.”
Irenaeus interprets this scripture, not as external persecution, like Tertullian, but rather as internal division and Heresy within the Church. There are other interpretations, more esoteric, such as Origen’s interpreting the passage as a battle between Flesh and Soul, but nowhere will you read the verse being interpreted as justifying a call to arms, or a defence of violence.
Even in Saint Augustine’s Contra Faustum where in chapter 22 he attempts to lay out a Just war Theory, not once does he cite the “Not peace but a Sword” sayings. He does cite some sayings of Christ, such as the “Return your sword to its place,” in that case to try to get around it, to try to justify war despite what Jesus says. In fact, the idea that Christianity requires a theologian like Augustine to come up with a “Just War” theory should cause one pause.
Christianity at the time of Augustine was in an awkward position. A previously persecuted minority religion, and a generally pacifist religion, found itself as the state religion of an Empire born of and maintained with the sword. What is a theologian to do? Well he could stick to the Christian Pacifism that the early Church maintained, or he could accommodate the new Power within his theology. Augustine attempted the latter. Can we even imagine, for example, the Norse pagan religion coming up with a “just war theory,” it wouldn’t have been necessary, neither would it have been necessary in Judaism, or Islam. This problem, which would push some to try to come up with a “just war theory” is not universal; it comes from the anti-violence, anti-war theme found in the New Testament.
Now generally the next verse brought up is the admonition to sell one’s cloak and buy a sword found in Luke, now for this, really all one has to do is keep reading to find out what the point of having a sword available was. Perhaps I’ll deal with that verse in a later post. But for the purpose of this post, I think it’s clear that the citation of the “not peace but a sword” as being somehow analogous to any other religious scripture’s call to violence is ridiculous and displays a complete ignorance of how one is to do theology.