The Nonviolent Sword?

July 03, 2016
Jeremiah 8:18-22; Matthew 10:34-39



When I look at this icon, I do not see nonviolence. What I see is a sword, a sword piercing through the very middle of this icon, spilling blood all over the rest of the image. I see violence, and it frightens me.

Violence takes many forms, and it plagued much of June this year. Here at HMC, we hosted the T-Shirt Memorial to Victims of Gun Violence in the greater D.C. area and were reminded that over 200 people lost their lives in 2015 because of guns. Just a week later, as we celebrated 30 years of being welcoming to LGBTQIA people, that community, which many of us here belong to, was targeted in the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida; it also targeted the Latinx community, which many of us also have ties to. Less than 2 weeks after that, a heated vote called Brexit rocked the United Kingdom and the European Union as the U.K. narrowly voted to leave the E.U.; since then, the many divisions of society have become very apparent, and violence against those seen as not-British quickly rose. And less than a week after that, a horrible attack on the Istanbul airport occurred, in a country already under the strain of refugees as Turkey’s neighbors engage in civil wars to the southeast, while borders close in the northeast to those fleeing the violence of those civil wars.

The attack in Orlando hit me hard, and it took me a couple of days to consciously realize why: as a bisexual man with many friends in the Latinx community, if this shooting had happened in D.C. instead of Orlando, I may not be standing in front of you today. It is a scary realization to know you and/or your friends could’ve died horrible deaths. And then came along the Brexit vote; having spent a semester in Northern Ireland (and my not so subtle love for the Queen), I have many connections to the U.K. My friends in the U.K. are scared of what is going to happen, and they are angry. My friends in the E.U. are scared of what will happen on the Continent.

We heard the cries from the prophet Jeremiah, which could very well be the cries of God thyself, saying, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick . . . [f]or the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken ahold of me.” These could be the cries of our societies and peoples today, lamenting as people continue to be gunned down, profiled, abused, and targeted in many ways and for many reasons. In Jeremiah, whether it is God or the prophet, the speaker is in much despair for they have seen the foolishness of the people who believed God was always with them despite all the sins they committed, and that there is no healing for the sick and dying. There is no balm in Gilead, and thus so it seems the same today.

Indeed, a sword seems to piercing through the very middle of our world, spilling blood everywhere.

As Mennonite Christians, we have long practiced nonviolence, which has also come in many forms. In the past, it was often called nonresistance, which often meant Mennonites conscientiously objected to and opposed war. But often nonresistance was also violent in more subtle ways, especially in the 19th Century when Mennonites migrated to the U.S. and moved onto land that had recently been forcibly vacated by Native Americans, in the many splits and schisms and excommunications that occurred in the later 19th and early 20th Centuries, and in the refusal of many Mennonites to join the nonviolence of the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s. Even today we can still see violence happening in the ways minorities, especially LGBTQIA people, are being treated in the church. But there are changes happening, and nowadays many in the church are becoming what J. Denny Weaver recently called “recovering nonresistant Mennonite[s]”. Ervin Stutzman’s 2011 history of 20th Century Mennonite pacifism was even titled From Nonresistance to Justice, which also recognized the evolution Mennonites made in the ways they do peacemaking and nonviolence.

Many of us in this congregation would say we are working for peace and justice in the world, wanting to make it a better place and heal the pain and suffering, like that mentioned before. But then here comes Matthew 10:34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Insert your own swear words at Jesus here.

This verse has been thrown at me many times to justify the use of weapons, violence, and war in our world. In verses 35-36, Jesus continues: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” These verses have been perverted to justify the actions of cults and others trying to separate people for their own purposes. Taking the Bible out of context has real, violent consequences, and these verses demonstrate that.

But is Jesus really bringing a sword? If we look at the verses preceding verse 34, we find Jesus sending His disciples out into the world, warning them of coming persecutions, but to not fear them, and only fear God: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (verse 28). If we look at the verses following 36, we find Jesus saying, “[W]hoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Many commentators agree Jesus is a fan of the figurative, and the sword He claims to be bringing is not a literal sword, but rather the cross. Jesus’ violent death on the cross and nonviolent resurrection from the grave will divide families, friends, communities, and generations. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in his book Discipleship on this passage that “[t]he peace of Jesus Christ is the cross. The cross is God’s sword on this earth. It creates division.”

As a people committed to reconciliation through peace and justice, divisions are scary and unwanted. Over the last few years, my life has been full of painful divisions, many of which I’m still trying to heal: coming out publicly as bisexual, a hurtful breakup with an emotionally abusive ex, family members who refuse to speak to me anymore, mass shootings continually on the rise, terrorist attacks in places once thought to be safe, a world constantly at war. So much pain, and Jesus still has the nerve to come along and say He has come to set friends and families against each other?

But Stanley Saunders, Associate Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, reminded me that Jesus called His disciples to be peacemakers, but that Jesus’ mission does not bring peace as long as people fear each other and do not fear God’s rule. Saunders said, “The very act of peacemaking, as Jesus’ ministry demonstrates, generates violence, for healing, restoration, and the conquest of death threaten the foundations of all human assertions of power in defiance of God.”

This really struck me. I’ve certainly encountered much resistance in my own personal ways to try to create peace and justice in the world, but I never really thought of the very idea and act of peacemaking as creating violence. But it does. Peace is not profitable for those who manufacture weapons. Peace is not good for those whose jobs are dependent upon war. But Jesus said just before his own death, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who live by the sword will perish by the sword.” And then his own death on the cross became the sword he prophesied about: it would divide the world.

So what are we to do?

As seen in the surrounding verses in Matthew 10, we are to remain faithful and not to fear those who want to destroy us, for the reward is greater than ourselves alone. Remaining faithful means going out into the world and bringing the reconciling love and shalom of God to those who need it. James 1:19-25 reminds us to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness . . . be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves . . . [for] those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”

Our nonviolence will be heard and done by all the nations one day, hopefully sooner rather than later, as predicted by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 2, verses 3-4: “Many peoples and nations shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. Thou shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Listen to the words: the peoples and nations of the earth voluntarily come to Zion to learn the will of God, and as a result of this education, the peoples and nations turn the weapons of war and violence into instruments of production and provision. God does not force this upon the nations; rather, they choose to turn to God and thy will, and in doing so they learn war no more. We saw a glimpse of this just over a week ago with the historic peace agreement in Colombia between the government and FARC. Something to truly celebrate in the midst of all the violence and division of recent weeks.

In the end, have we finished dealing with this icon? I’m still left wondering how this icon represents nonviolence. Perhaps my imagination is just not strong enough, but I don’t think I will ever get beyond the violence I see here. It scares me. But maybe that’s the point: Jesus said not to fear those who want to do us harm or kill us, so perhaps this icon is actually trying to give, as the hymn says, “peace beyond our fear, and hope beyond our sorrow.” Art is open to interpretation, so my time is done. It’s time for you to find the nonviolence here, and to work for it everywhere.

So say we all.