The last chapter dealt with what it meant for “every soul to be subject to governing authorities“.
Chapter 10 Samuel Wells deals with a puzzling statement made by Jesus. Now we ask, “Didn’t Jesus say he came not to bring peace, but a sword?”
Matt. 10:34-39 is the central text in this chapter. Jesus did in fact say these words: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
The irony Wells points out is that nearly every Christian will tell you Jesus didn’t “come to bring the sword”, and yet so many Christians act as if he did, whereas he said he did “come to bring the sword”, and yet his life and the lives of his followers after his ascension show the opposite. So something’s strange here, right?
After all, isn’t Jesus the Prince of Peace? So what’s going on here? In short, says Wells, Jesus “indicatively describes his mission and its effects.” What Jesus brought, and what he asks of us, can be found in passages like Luke 4:18-19; John 13:1-15; and Matt. 25:31-46. Jesus came to reconcile the world to God. So did his mission succeed? I mean, look at all the violence in the world.
Jesus did succeed, because he a) inaugurated his kingdom of peace, which his still in effect today, and b) predicted that a sword would follow with his way. That is, as a result of his presence and our affirmation of it in our lives, a sword would come upon the world. Specifically, what does this mean?
It means that Jesus came to do what he did. He didn’t come to just set up a commune of people that didn’t bother anyone and weren’t bothered, a secret monastery where people keep busy with meditations away from the earth. He stirred stuff up. He didn’t bring a violent revolution of followers. But he brought scourging and a cross upon himself.
It means we’ll suffer. It means violence and division are inevitable. It also means beauty arises from this, just as it did with Christ. Yoder explains:
“The believer’s cross must be like his Lord’s, the price of his social noncomformity[…]it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost[…]it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come.”
So our “cross to bear” isn’t just our personal struggles and burdens. In fact, I would call those our “thorns in the side to bear”, or perhaps even our “wilderness to bear.” Our cross to bear represents what Jesus went through on the cross: Public, innocent suffering for publicly exercising a faith publicly that threatened the way everyone in the world saw the world. Will every Christian be executed for Jesus? No. Even Simon of Cyrene carried the cross with Christ and was not killed. But he had to suffer walking through the crowd of shame with him. That was his cross to bear.
Wells makes the distinction that whenever Jesus said he came to bring something, he is speaking either in performative or in revelatory terms. Since it is shown elsewhere he did not come to wield a sword in his ministry, he is speaking of what his ministry reveals. In fact, it is because of the peacefulness of his ministry that he needed to clarify that following him would be no bed of roses. Rather, we are the bed of roses, and no bed is made without clipping stems.
This sword is both a sword of persecution and division. In contrast with some of the typical “family first” junk out there, Jesus said that families will be torn apart by his ministry. He meant to startle us with this so we would not be surprised by it. According to Ulrich Luz, Jesus is “at odds with familial and societal ties. It is the disciples’ greeting of peace that causes the split[…]The message of ultimate peace, the reversal of secular rule, and the love of God for the underprivileged has a political dimension and evokes the resistance of all those who defend power and privileges. To them, the disciples whose life corresponds to this message and who abandon the structures of the world are not pleasant figures.”
Christians are very much a threat to the world, not because we seek violence or harm (at least not when we are obedient to the call), but because the world has ordered itself in a certain way and our faith shakes it up, divides people, makes the world angry enough to kill us overt it. Unfortunately, even Christians have bought into the world and killed one another over heresy and money and power. Wells says Jesus essentially told us “Don’t think I came to bring a simple, passive, harmless peace. This gospel is going to mean a turbulent life for you, and it’s going to cause profound tensions between you and even those who are closest to you.”
Jesus did come to bring peace, then, but in the context of that utterance he meant that the kind of peace he came to bring was not the one people often think of, where nobody is fighting or dividing and everybody is circling round a camp fire and singing Kum-Bah-Yah. Oh, he says, that will happen, and when it does among his followers, it’s beautiful, is it not? But he is the prince of peace because his disciples seek authentic peace, and those who don’t want authentic peace will make them suffer for bringing it. Jesus came to bring freedom, but with it, friction.
The last chapter criticized Bush’s warmongering foreign policies as un-Christian, and I agreed with that assessment. To be fair, we must examine our current president’s policies, and that is exactly how this chapter ends. However, as with the critique of Bush in the previous chapter, this is a case study, not a propaganda piece. We must spend more time looking at this peace because it is more deceptive than that of the past administration’s.
Part of Obama’s promise of hope and change was a message of peace, of change in the Middle-East, of a more unified America. And he presents himself as a very compensatory person. But the kind of peace he presents his administration as bringing is exactly that false kind. The right wing peace was a peace “here” made possible by war “there”, and that’s not fair. It’s a “see-no-evil” kind of safety. Obama’s peace is a masking of tension, and of pretending there is agreement when there is division, yet another form of “see-no-evil” peace. And also continuing the past administration’s wars.
Wells explains how the grassroots peace Obama promised actually comes from the top down, and ends up being a “bland peace,” a Pax Americana. He uses a “nice guy pragmatism” to pretend that the nation is all united over his policies with the exception of a small number of crazy nuts. It’s as if he’s saying, “we’ve all agreed what we need to do, and dog-gone it, a few grumpy curmudgeons came out of nowhere.” In reality, the country’s polarization existed just as much throughout, and he pretends that everyone in Washington is friends except for a niche of little radical righties. Wells says this sucks the accountability away from leaders. Obama has tried to play the reconciliation card without truly bringing up the wrongs of said leaders (including himself). It is a cheap peace, a false peace.
But true peace has to be earned. Not through engaging in violence, but by enduring it, and by accepting that division will occur. Your father might tell you you’re a fool for believing in God. Your son may come home one day and say he’s Buddhist. Your boss, who is close to you, may fire you. Your best friend will stop returning your calls. Or you’ll be imprisoned. Tortured. Killed. These are our crosses to bear. And Peace is Christ on the cross forgiving those killing him, his believers united in his name despite what is happening to them, and peace is what we will ultimately find in its purest place in the end. That’s no easy peace. It cannot come without being faced with a sword.
[next chapter: What about the centurion?]