Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
The soldiers and the authorities lay hands on Jesus and arrest him. At that moment of confrontation, according to Luke, all the disciples ask, “Lord, shall we strike with a sword?” (Luke 22:49) Then Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s unnamed disciple attempts to defend Jesus by using the same means as the arresting authorities. John’s Gospel, however, goes further by naming the sword-wielding disciple as none other than Peter himself. Shortly thereafter, this Peter, who is willing to kill to protect Jesus, will deny three times that he even knows Jesus. Perhaps Peter, like the disciples and the rest of us, resorts to violence because he is more interested in protecting himself than in protecting Jesus.
The disciples are unable to comprehend Jesus’ way of nonviolence. Over and over, Jesus instructs them to love their enemies and to lay down their lives for one another, thus preparing them for confrontation with the ruling authorities and the inevitable outcome. But the disciples never understand Jesus. They hear his Sermon on the Mount, and they celebrate the Passover meal with him. But they keep asking, “Lord, shall we strike with a sword?”
I have to go easy on the disciples, though, because I know how slow I am in my own heart to accept Jesus’ way of the cross. Today, priests, bishops, theologians, cardinals, popes, monks, religious, and Christians of every stripe still ask, “Lord, shall we strike with a sword?” When wars heat up, revolutions foment, and violence threatens, we call out, “Lord, shall we strike with a sword?” – and rarely does anyone wait for an answer. To the patriotic mind, there can be only one answer: “Yes.” The swords and guns and bombs come out, and people are stabbed, shot, napalmed, electrocuted, gassed, obliterated, decimated. We strike with a sword – and so much more. We cut off an ear – and so much more. We destroy entire countries and incinerate hundreds of thousands of people in a flash. In fact, we are willing to risk the destruction of the entire planet, if necessary, to defend ourselves. Again and again, we strike back with violence to protect ourselves. We carry on, thanks to the ever-present, ever-trusty, ever-faithful, sword.
At this climactic point in the story of Jesus, as the soldiers put their hands on him, arrest him, and take him away, Jesus turns to the disciples for the final time. As he is dragged away by the authorities, he tells his community once again to reject violence:
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.