Nonviolence 101 – Other Key Passages that Deal With Violence [White Horses, New Testament Soldiers, & Swords] (part 6)

Nonviolence 101 – Other Key Passages that Deal With Violence [White Horses, New Testament Soldiers, & Swords] (part 6) February 15, 2011

The following is part of a fairly long series on the theology and practice of nonviolence.  If you would like to read all of the posts, you can do so here.


Now that we have looked at the two key texts in the New Testament that address the issue of nonviolence, there are other relevant texts and theological themes that should briefly be mentioned.  Each of the following could take up several pages of investigation and reflection, but for our purposes I will highlight them with brevity.

  • John 18.36 – “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’”  Here we have an indication that the kingdom of God is distinct from the empires of this world.  In God’s kingdom, disciples do not resort to violence.
  • Luke 6.27-36 – This passage is a parallel to the section of the Sermon on the Mount we dealt with in great detail, with various nuances.  It has a strong emphasis on love of enemies.
  • Luke 22.35-38 – Jesus tells his disciples that if they do not have a sword to “sell their cloak and buy one.”  The disciples then grab two swords, only to hear Christ respond: “That’s enough!”  This is not Jesus’ warning that when he gets taken that they will need to fight the authorities, but rather (as most commentators agree) the sword serves as a metaphor for the coming strife that they will face.  Jesus responds to them out of frustration because they are too dense to understand.  Imagine him raising his voice to say the equivalent of “enough of this!”[1] For a more detailed look, go here.
  • 1 Peter 2.19-24 – Here, Christians are encouraged to “bear up under the pain of unjust suffering;” to “suffer for doing good;” to endure after the patter of Christ’s suffering as “an example… [to] follow in his steps.”  Following Jesus in this way remembers how when he was insulted “he did not retaliate” or make “threats.”  “Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”  This passage is a call to radical non-retaliation.
  • Soldiers in the New Testament – It is commonly held that there are Roman soldiers that are commended for their faith.  Some argue that it then follows that military service is acceptable for Christians for it is not condemned in these instances.  On this, Richard B. Hays is quite insightful: “…precisely as Roman soldiers, they serve to dramatize the power of the Word of God to reach even the unlikeliest people.”[2] God reaches to unlikely places and peoples to reveal his grace, which serves to illuminate that military participation is similar to tax collectors and other sinners.  It would be an argument from silence to claim that the rest of the NT texts about peacemaking are relativized simply because soldiers are not specifically told (in the text) to quit their jobs.
  • Ephesians 6.10-18 & 2 Corinthians 10:3-4 – “For our battle is not against flesh and blood…”  “…we do not wage war as the world does.  The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”  Clearly, both texts utilize military language and intentionally subvert it.  The empire fights against flesh and blood enemies, but kingdom of God people use God’s spiritual armor against demonic powers.
  • Revelation – This book, which is widely misunderstood, is about hope in the midst of a first century persecution.  The victory of the slaughtered Lamb is the victory of the people of God.  Evil is defeated “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (12.11).  This is not accomplished through human violence, but suffering.  And even the controversial rider on the white horse, Jesus, need not be cause for dismissing the NT peace witness.  Michael Gorman helps us to understand that the Lamb “comes on the white horse of victory bearing his own blood, reminding us that he will defeat the powers of evil as the Lamb, not with a sword in his hand but with a sword in his mouth.  Just as it was the speech-act of faithful resistance to evil incarnate—the cross—that began the process of destroying evil, so also will the Word of God, the eternal gospel, kill death and de-create evil when the same Christ returns…  It is this modus operandi of faithful, nonviolent action and speech, rooted in the life and witness of the Lamb, that is the way offered to, and ultimately required of, the Lamb’s followers.”[3]
  • And briefly, Jesus with the whip in the temple.  He clears it out quite forcefully, but there is NO INDICATION THAT HE HITS ANYONE!  Enough said 🙂

Tomorrow we will get “practical” on this issues.  I encourage you to review the previous posts so that you have a handle on the biblical argument, so that the practical application makes sense.

[1]. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997), 774-775.

[2]. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 335.

[3]. Michael J. Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness – Following the Lamb Into the New Creation (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 183-84.

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  • Lawrence Garcia

    Looking forward to the next portion of this blog.

  • Sorry. Still don't really buy the sword theory. I tend to agree with the second comment on that original post that to have a sword showed they were amongst the transgressors. It was to fulfill prophecy.

    However, having a sword, and USING a sword, are two completely different things.

  • Great post Kurt. I especially am fond of the bit about the White Rider in Revelation. It amazes me that nobody realizes that the blood is on the robes BEFORE Jesus supposedly cuts anybody to pieces.

  • Barry Anglin

    On the contrary, I think the "sword theory" is an interesting reading. I'd never heard of it before. But I must say, Kurt, you're giving pretty short shrift to the temple incident.

    • Kurt

      Barry, That's because the temple incident is an enacted parable of judgment and not a violent incident. It points to the coming destruction of corrupt Jerusalem. The text says-

      So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. John 2

      The whip is clearly about driving out animals. It is actually, if we think about it, saving the animals from their own slaughter. No person got whipped…. -kurt

      Sent from my iPhone

      • I have been struck by the apparent dichotomy between Jesus' assertive clearing of the temple and the rather immediate presence of the ill and children around him in Matthew's account. Would an angry, violent outburst leave children feeling safe enough to approach? There must be something profound for us to learn about how to confront abusive systems and authorities in this "enacted parable".

        • Kurt

          That is an interesting thought…

  • Kurt, I had hoped with your teaser on the last comment that you were going to address the obvious laughability of Jesus' assessment…since when are two swords enough to defend thirteen guys? Sheesh, that's a bit under-gunned don't you think?

    The other point, as @Tasiyagnunpa stated above, is that verse 37 explicitly states that the swords are needed to fulfill the prophecy that "he was numbered with the transgressors." The plain sense here is that carrying a sword = being a transgressor. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of self-defense IMHO…

    • Whether Jesus was being metaphorical or not about the swords, the objection that two swords among 11 disciples would be insufficient is just not valid.

      Two swords could easily be enough to defend a group of men against a small number of robbers or wild animals – the same thing has happened in the modern day with armed citizens stopping muggings and even shooting sprees.   

      Two swords would not be enough to prevent Jesus from being taken by the Sanhedrin, nor enough to overthrow Rome, but those interpretations are not argued by anybody, nonviolent or just war advocate.   discusses this, as does Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible:

      “Judea was at this time, as we have already noticed, much infested by
      robbers: while our Lord was with his disciples, they were perfectly
      safe, being shielded by his miraculous power. Shortly they must go into
      every part of the land, and will need weapons to defend themselves
      against wild beasts, and to intimidate wicked men, who, if they found
      them totally defenceless, would not hesitate to make them their prey, or
      take away their life. However the matter may be understood, we may rest
      satisfied that these swords were neither to be considered as offensive
      weapons, nor instruments to propagate the truth. ”

      I’d also note that the disciples already had two swords with them at the time.  It’s not like they were having that conversation in a blacksmith’s shop.  Those were swords that they were carrying around.

      • jonathanhakim

        Considering that the group was quite often split up into 2s or 4s, I have a hard time seeing how 2 swords were split effectively among 13 people. It appears far likely to be a disobedient thing that a couple of disciples were engaged in (one of the many, many ways in which the disciples pre-resurrection were not on the same page as Jesus yet), the absolute omission of swords in the Acts account, despite the disciples encountering every type of trouble imaginable and those events being noted, lends one to think that the error did not carry over post-resurrection.

    • Are you sure the carry of personal defense weapons was illegal in first century Judea  (swords, in those days, were either personal defense or backup weapons – spears and shields were primary military weapons)?  I’ve just spent the last hour digging through the Internet looking for confirmation, and most of what I’m seeing argues against it. 

      Secondly, Jesus was going to be numbered a transgressor already, because he was accused of blasphemy against God and treason against Rome (declaring himself king of the Jews).  His followers were guilty as accomplices.  Inciting them to a weapons violation (if, indeed, it was one) was utterly unnecessary.

      Also, inciting his disciples to break the laws of Rome doesn’t seem to be in line with “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” nor with Romans 12-13.

  • Aaron

    Good article. I think though “violence” can’t be narrowly defined as I think you are doing. Just because people don’t get hurt doesn’t mean there isn’t a violent act. I can bash a car’s windshield out with a baseball bat as an act of vandalism. That’s a violent act but no one need get hurt. You can commit a robbery without hurting anybody. But I would define robbery as a violent act. Now both acts I have described are criminal only to show that violence is not limited to hurting people. Jesus’ act of overturning tables and using a whip, was a violent act. You can’t be so trite to say, nobody got hurt so it wasn’t violent. What he did shook people up and I can guarantee no one who witnessed that act walked away like nothing happened. What Jesus did left a mark whether he hit somebody or not. 

    • Jasen

      Christian Pacifism is concerned primarily with physical violence against other human beings because, unlike animals, tables, or loose change, humans bare the image of God.

    • Jasen

      Christian Pacifism is concerned primarily with physical violence against other human beings because, unlike animals, tables, or loose change, humans bare the image of God.