The Cross and the Sword

The Cross and the Sword - Biblical Investigation - Graham Ford

Throughout the last 2,000 years of history, Christians have faced the problem of whether it is ever justified to use violence.  This is a uniquely Christian problem, given the overwhelmingly peaceful teachings and example of Christ.  Hindus, animists, pagans (worshippers of many gods), Jews, and then Moslems and more latterly atheists do not seem to struggle as much with this question – all of them either justify the use of violence or have left us ample historical examples of their use of violence.

On the other hand, so-called Christian nations have been willing to use war as an instrument of policy, just like other nations, as well as armed force to enforce laws or even deal with internal groups not to their liking.  In this sense, despite their ‘Christian’ allegiance, for the sake of national survival or power, war and violence have been used.  In fact, it is the Christian nations, as well as the Muslim empire or nations, that created the ‘large sword’ (Revelation 6:4), a prophecy fulfilled in the development of firearms and ultimately nuclear weapons. 

From the point of view of Christian witness, none of this is heartening.  This military power culminated in the two world wars.  Anyone arguing that Just War Theory is sufficient justification for the use of arms needs to reflect that in the First World War, all of the European powers involved, who identified as Christian, thought they were fighting a defensive war.  The level of barbarism was as extreme as anything in the pre-Christian world, only now the war was fought with high explosive shells and machine guns.  All the powers involved believed they had no choice but to fight the war for their own national survival, and in the beginning the local populations of all the nations involved broadly supported the effort.

After the war, the peoples and nations of Europe wanted this to be the end of war.  Of course, that was not to be, the Second World War broke out, effectively a continuation of the first.  Both wars exhausted Europe and destroyed its wealth.  Since that time Europe has had fiat currencies, a period of chronically high inflation and, despite its GDP, remains economically weak.

So, the question has to be asked: what is the lesson to learn from all this?  If we believe we should take a passivist approach, I am afraid the lesson of history is no less comfortable.  Time and again passivist populations, or at least those peoples who do not have the means to defend themselves, have been partially or wholly exterminated, leaving the ‘evil’ aggressor triumphant, at least for a time.  In the twentieth century, the Armenians and the Jews suffered great genocides.  Eight hundred thousand Armenians were killed or starved, while six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, among others.

In the wars of Europe that erupted during the reformation, the groups of Christians who stood resolutely against the use of violence, such as the Moravians and the Anabaptists, were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants alike.  It has been calculated that the average life expectancy of an Anabaptist convert in Europe at that time was a few months after conversion.  Yet, they kept on gaining followers, despite the horrendous bloodshed. A small minority survived. Most emigrated to the New World.

The early Christians living in the Roman Empire were almost entirely non-violent and were heavily persecuted.  All of the Apostles bar one died at the hands of violent men, although all were peaceful men.  The Apostle Paul, after his conversion, was never again violent, having previously violently persecuted the Church.  James, the Lord’s brother and widely recognised in Jerusalem as a good man (he was known as James the Just) was murdered.

For three hundred years, the Christians in the Roman Empire suffered waves of persecution, and still they were non-violent, often showing extraordinary courage in the face of sword or lion.  Their witness was a testimony to the Romans, and many came to Christ because of their example.

However, if some criminal had broken into their home in the middle of the night to kill their children or rape their daughters, would they not have defended their families, as they were legally permitted to do?  I believe they would.  If they were set upon by brigands as they were travelling along empty roads, would they have attempted to defend their lives and the lives of their fellow travellers?  I believe they would.

My justification for this is Jesus’ teaching in Luke 22:35-37:

‘“And he said to them, When I sent you forth without money-bag and knapsack and shoes, you did not lack anything, did you?”

And they said, “Nothing.”

Therefore, he said to them, “But now, he who has a money-bag, let him take it and likewise a knapsack, and he who has no sword, he will sell his garment and buy one. For I say to you, that it is essential for this to still be accomplished in me, which has been written, ‘And he was counted with the lawless; for the things concerning me must have an end.”’ [MLV]

The phrase ‘counted with the lawless’ come from Isaiah 53:12. Note that there is nothing in that prophetic passage from Isaiah to do with swords. 

Jesus teaching here has been explained by some as being in some sense a parable, but the language Jesus uses renders that argument void.  He has the disciples recall an earlier experience of ministry training, in which he sent them out two by two into the villages to preach the Gospel and had them depend on the kindness of the local people for the board and lodging. 

He is saying that it would be different now, and the reason it would be different is that He would now be regarded as a lawless man, even though that was an unfair description, of course.  Since Jesus was crucified as a criminal, the ‘official’ view of Jesus from then on was that He was a criminal, rightly condemned to death.

The sword that Jesus refers to was a short sword such as travellers would commonly wear to protect themselves from brigands.  While the Roman empire was powerful, outside the cities in the open country, the authority of the empire was theoretical rather than real, and so travellers could not count upon nearby legionaries for help.  Indeed, when Paul is taken from Jerusalem to Caesarea after his initial trial before Festus, his escort is two hundred mounted cavalry, a significant force indeed, necessary to keep the prisoner safe from any attempt to assassinate him.  The roads were clearly not always safe.

And this, I think, allows us to understand better what Jesus is saying here.  Where a population is in broad support of the Christian message, or at least is content to give it a fair hearing and is at peace, then those who bring the Gospel message can trust themselves to the local people for shelter and safety, living ‘in peace with all men’, as St Paul put it. 

But, once Christianity is opposed, just as Jesus was opposed, because He and His message threatened the political status quo, then disciples could not rely on the local population for shelter or safety, then they had to look to themselves for finance, supplies and self-defence against criminal acts.  Similarly, if they were in an area where there were criminals and bandits and the reach of the arm of the law did not extend there, like any other traveller, they needed to do the same.  This is lawful and what one would expect of anyone who is being sensible.  This is why St Paul qualified his statement: ‘Live in peace with all men, so far as it depends on you.’  That is an important qualification. 

Is it possible to extend the Luke 22:36 verse to argue that therefore groups of Christians who are under threat should then take up arms to defend themselves?  Do unravel this we need to consider other passages of Scripture.

Jesus once said, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.’  St Paul similarly argued that Christians should be subject to the authorities:

‘Let every soul be subject to the authorities which are superior to him; for there is no authority if not from God, and the authorities which are, have been appointed by God. 

So then, he who is resisting the authority is standing against the commandment of God, and those who are standing against it will receive judgment for themselves.  

For rulers are not a terror to the good works, but to the evil works.

And you do not wish to be afraid of the authority, do you?

Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for he is a servant of God to you for good.

But if you practice evil, be afraid; for he is not wearing the sword vainly; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who is practicing evil. 

Hence, it is a necessity to be subject to him, not only because of the wrath, but also because of conscience. 

For you are also paying taxes because of this; for they are ministers of God, persevering for this same thing.  Therefore, give to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute; tax to whom tax; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.’

[Romans 13:1-7]

St Paul argued that it is necessary to be subject to authorities, not only because of their power but also because it is the right thing to do – for they are a restraint against evil.

Paul is also careful to define what an authority is: 

  • An authority serves the people for their good,
  • They are authorised to use violence against those who practice evil – i.e. they enforce just law,
  • They do not make people afraid of doing good, rather they praise the good people,
  • They do make people afraid of doing evil, and this implies the authority can tell the difference between good and evil,
  • They are rightly paid taxes, dues, tribute, fear and honour.

So, when is an authority not an authority:

  • When they do not serve the people for their good,
  • When they are too weak or reluctant to use violence against those who practice evil, or use violence in support of those who do evil,
  • When they do not make those who do evil afraid,
  • When they make those who do good afraid,
  • When they cannot rightly distinguish between good and evil,
  • When they do not use the taxes to serve the good of the people.

When an ‘authority’ is not an authority, a nation or people is then in crisis.  At that point, there needs to be a change in the approach to government. 

If the government is weak and evil is not restrained, the situation of the Christian is equivalent to that of the traveller in a wild land.  Appealing to Luke 22, he is authorised to use self or community defence, because there is no effective authority to appeal to.  So, he must enforce the law himself – he must be the restraint against evil.

When a government is strong, but bad, this is the most difficult situation of all, and of course, there are degrees of bad authority.

This situation is, in fact, the normal condition of government, but varying only in degree.  Historically, the role of the Church has in some nations encouraged the development of a political system in which power can pass from the bad to the hopefully better in a non-violent way, and the best way to accomplish that is democratically.  As Winston Churchill once remarked:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

 What democracy offers is the hope that the next lot may be better than this lot, and it also offers the people the chance to choose which lot gets to govern.  This reminds those in power just for whose benefit they exercise authority.

As an aside, those who argue that it is only under Sharia Law that we have perfect government, I would like to point out that those nations whose political systems aim to be the closest to Sharia, such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, are not exactly bright shining paragons of hope and happiness.

However, when a government becomes so bad that it simply cannot pass St Paul’s test for what is a government, then there will be movements to foment revolution.   This is incredibly dangerous and seems never to go well, often replacing one sort of tyranny with another, apart, perhaps, from the United States, which was much more a war of secession than a revolution.  However, wars of secession are not much less dangerous, as Biafra found to its cost in the 1970’s.

On the other hand, dissent, that is the use of words, to persuade people to make changes that benefit the people, is a Christian approach.  It often offends, often results in personal suffering but which can ultimately bring benefits to many.

Having said all that, once obeying an authority “because of conscience” becomes an impossibility because of the evil being perpetrated by that authority, then it seems that this situation is indistinguishable from that of travelling on the road and being attacked by brigands: there is no authority, and therefore the responsibility for authority passes for a while into the hands of the ‘travellers’, until they are able to establish an authority worthy of the name.  That would seem to be a valid Christian response.

Such a situation is prophesied for the whole world, when in Revelation 13 some kind of global authority will require everyone to be marked in such a way that they are unable to buy or sell without that mark.  It lies outside this article to explain exactly why such a law cannot be obeyed by Christians, but the Bible is absolutely clear: it cannot be obeyed by anyone who wants to avoid hell:

‘‘‘If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” 

This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”’ [Revelation 14:9-13]

From the moment that the governmental system passes this law, it will from that point no longer be an authority as St Paul defined it, and so in all good conscience Christians will not be able to obey it, whatever the consequences.

Wise Christian communities will have prepared themselves by ‘coming out of Babylon’ and disengaging from the world economic system and instead have local means of support and passive defence, such as agroforestry, high pasture, underground housing and shelter and cover deep within forests and mountains.  References to all of these can be found in the Old Testament prophecies. 

Since I am convinced from Scripture that we are within a generation of these things taking place, I think it worth everyone look into these issues.

In this circumstance, the situation of the Christian will be, as I have outlined, equivalent to the one Jesus describes in Luke 22, the traveller in bandit country, and therefore we should be obedient and be armed, for the sake of our families and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Nevertheless, this is not a recipe for some idealised back-to-nature happiness, nor is it a recipe for military success.  The Book of Revelation then prophecies that the earth shall be ‘reaped’, in other words every Christian than can be found will be attacked and killed.  Likewise, once the Jews convert, as is foretold in Zechariah 13, then the armies of the world will kill two thirds of them:

‘In the whole land, declares the Lord, two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it.  This third I will put into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.  They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, “They are my people,” and they will say, “The Lord is our God.”’ [Zechariah 13:8-9]

Interestingly, the word for land and earth is the same in Hebrew – eretz – so it is not unreasonable to expect that the reaping of the whole earth in Revelation 14 and the slaughter of two thirds of the Jews foretold in Zechariah 13 will have the same cause, as well as similar impacts on the two populations.

In case you think you would be better off being on the militarily stronger side, the next thing that happens is that Christ returns, and all that global army is killed, at His command.  They all go to hell.

At the Lord’s coming, this is the what the end of the age will include, as well as a great earthquake that will be devastating globally and the earth shrouded in darkness for a time.  None of this makes for comfortable reading for any of us, of course.  However, to foreknow is to permit one to be forearmed.

In conclusion then, it seems that the restraint on evil through violence is a necessary requirement that authorities must undertake.  When they do not, either because they cannot or because they have lost sight of what good and evil are, then at some point and in some circumstances the Christian is permitted to use violence to defend self, family and community.

However, at no point is this a justification for spreading Christianity by force of arms and, in any case, it does not work.  Just because a national church has been imposed on a people does not make them in any way Christian – only faith in Christ makes one a Christian.   That can only come about by people freely accepting His message.  Let us never forget that His is the Prince of Peace and offers all humans of all races and all cultures peace with God and live everlasting.

Thank you for bearing with me as I have wrestled with these issues. God bless you all.

Graham Ford

President – Jesus Christ for Muslims