Living by the Sword

(As we are in the U.K. I hope you enjoy these perspectives from The True Light, a bi-monthly paper published during our work with the Old St. congregation in London from 1990-1994).

BANG.  An Irish Catholic dies.  BANG:  An Irish Protestant dies.  BOOM.  An IRA bomb kills another child.  Examples abound throughout the world of those who try to attain their ends through violence, from the Sicilian Mafia to the Colombian drug lords to the American inner-city gangs.  Historically, even some religious groups have resorted to murder and mayhem to further their agenda (e.g., the Inquisition).  These examples consistently demonstrate the maxim of Jesus:  “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52).

Violence is such a powerful negative force that it subordinates any issue which it is employed to advance.  Violence becomes the issue.  This is what the IRA either cannot or will not see.  The issue of independence for Northern Ireland has been relegated to the background on both sides:  the British government cannot acquiesce to terrorism on principle, and the loyalists and unionists are mired in retributive killings.

Further, instead of softening the heart as a precursor to change, violence hardens resolve.  True convictions will not be abandoned in the face of threat or fear.  The violent, too, become more committed to violence, for to abandon it would be to admit that the policy of horror and grief was meaningless and needless.  Such implacability produces a stalemate; negotiations become a frustrating formality and constructive dialog fruitless.

But in a different context the sword is something necessary to civilized society:  “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil … for he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom 13:3-4).  The term “sword” here stands for the enforcement of the law and the punishment for violating the law, including execution.  In this capacity, civil government does not merely have God’s approval but vicariously implements His justice.

Finally, Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword … and ‘a man’s foes will be those of his own household’” (Mt 10:34, 36).  This sword is not wielded by the Christian, for he is to do all within his power to “live peaceably with all men” (Rom 12:18).  Rather, it is alienation and punishment inflicted by those who do not share his convictions and feel threatened by them.  Because of the antagonism between good and evil, Christians must accept the fact that they live in a world of swords.  We must not take up the sword of violence, as did Peter, but the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17).