Letter Sheath Your Sword
Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way? (Matthew 26:52-55)
Jesus invokes God and God's nonviolent armies (the thousands of angels) who would answer if called, but he keeps his eye on the Scriptures. He will not become a murderous, imperial messiah; he is the nonviolent Suffering Servant of Isaiah. He is a peacemaking, sacrificial God.
Put your sword back! These are the last words - a definitive rebuke - the disciples hear from Jesus before they run away. If ever there was a moment in God's eyes when violence would be justifiable, this is it! But Jesus is clear: Put your sword back! His followers are not allowed to respond with violence. They are not allowed to kill. They are not allowed to harm others. They are not allowed to threaten others. They are not permitted to "deter" violent crime with the use of violence.
Why? Because all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Violence begets violence. Killing begets killing. Nukes beget more nukes. Death begets death. Jesus, the incarnation of the God of nonviolence, stands for life. He will not succumb to the way of violence. Although he knows that he will perish under the cross's violence, he places his hope in the God of Life and awaits that third day.
Put your sword back! The command stands as the ultimate reproof of violence. From Christ's perspective - the perspective of one who is under arrest and in trouble with the authorities - our violence reveals that we have sided with the empire, that we are no different from the oppressive authorities. But Jesus, wanting us to break free from the cycle of violence, outlaws violent retaliation. Earlier, he surpasses Isaiah's vision of "beating swords into plowshares" by calling his followers to love their enemies. Now, when the authorities seize him, his command remains urgent but more modest: "Put back your sword." He will not permit violence under any circumstances. Luke's translation makes an equally all-encompassing, blanket condemnation of violence: "Stop, no more of this!" (Luke 22:51)
Those of us who would follow Jesus are precluded from drawing the sword. We are people who love our enemies; who prefer to undergo violence rather than inflict it upon others; who reject every form of violence, from nuclear weapons to chemical weapons to Trident submarines to handguns. We oppose the Stealth Bomber, the B52, the F22, the MX, the cruise missile, the latest nuclear technology, Livermore Laboratories, the S.A.C. Base, the marines, the CIA, the FBI, the army, the navy, and all perpetrators of violence and their arsenals. We renounce war and violent self-defense, tear up the just-war theory, and embrace gospel nonviolence. We not only put back any swords we have, but we beat them into plowshares. The unarmed Christ disarms us. Christ's community, the Church, is a community of nonviolence.
Does this mean that Christians cannot be employed by the Pentagon, the police, or the nuclear-weapons manufacturers? The question goes to the heart of Jesus' message. If we will obey the last words of Jesus, then we will not, like Judas, side with the imperial authorities - and we will not employ their means of violence. We will refuse to carry weapons, even for the noblest reason, and we will not work for any institution that inflicts violence. We prepare, instead, to undergo what Christ undergoes.
Jesus issues this final command - and his disciples turn and run away. They run not only from the imperial authorities who threaten the entire discipleship community; they run from the unarmed, nonviolent Christ who will not defend himself against personal harm. They know that an unarmed response to the imperial authorities will lead to disappearance, torture, and execution - and who can stomach such craziness? The Evangelists do not cover up the rejection Jesus undergoes: All the disciples left him and fled. Jesus is left alone once again, for the last time. He is led away to be slaughtered.
John Dear, "Sheath Your Sword," from Jesus the Rebel, copyright © 2000 John Dear. Reprinted by permission of Sheed and Ward, an Apostolate of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, 7373 S. Lovers Lane Rd., Franklin WI 53132.