10 February 2013

Nigeria: Jesus and the Sword

Sometime ago, I was thrilled by a caption in CNN that "he who angers you conquers you". No one thinks correctly in anger. Most actions executed in anger are regrettable at the dawn of calm. It is true that "action begets reaction" but what makes human beings different from other animals is their ability to moderate action and passion with reason.

It appears that some people are trying to proffer biblical arguments in favour of violence in the face of provocations. Somebody once told me that the Bible prescribed reprisal in the following New Testament passages: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law (Matthew 10, 32-34; Luke 12, 49-53) . Jesus said to the disciples, the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one." "The disciples said, see, Lord here are two swords." Jesus replied, it is enough" (Luke 23, 35-38).

Literal interpretation of the Bible can be very dangerous. Every passage in the bible should be interpreted within a context. Sometime ago, a man who claimed to have been "born again" and had received "anointing" from God to begin his own church read in Matthew 5, 30 that "if your right hand causes you to sin cut it off". The "man of God" cut off his "John Thomas".

When he was dying in the hospital, he said he only obeyed the Bible by cutting off the part of his body that was making him to commit adultery. Poor man, he forgot that the same passage said "if you look at a woman lustfully, you have committed adultery with her in your heart" (Matthew 5, 28). Anyway, the man died for his misinterpretation of the scriptures.

Since it is not everybody who has the privilege to study hermeneutics and biblical exegesis, there is need for humility to ask people who are properly trained in scriptures to explain some difficult passages of the Bible. This is why the church takes a long time to train priests who would be ministers of the Word and Sacraments. The sword in the gospel according to some scripture scholars is a metaphor in the context of ideological conflict and not a physical violence. Luke used the word sword to explain talks about division in the sense that not everybody will accept the gospel message.

From a historical context, Jesus sent his disciples on a mission to the "lost sheep of Israel". The disciples had to be well prepared before he would commission them to the gentile nations. Jesus could imagine the resistance the apostles and disciples would encounter on this mission where some people would not receive them. This prediction was confirmed when some of his disciples were flogged and killed as martyrs after the resurrection. Of all the apostles, only John died a natural death, the others were killed. The persecution of Christians led Tertullian to say that "the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christianity." In the early church martyrdom did not stop the church from proclaiming the gospel message to all parts of the world. Jesus did not instruct the disciples to kill those who would not accept the message of the gospel. Rather he told them to shake the dust off their feet, pray for them and flee to another city.

Jesus did not call for a holy war with a military force against his fellow Jews, Gentiles or those who would not believe and accept His word. The crusades were a misinterpretation of scriptures. Saint Francis of Assisi misunderstood the message to rebuild the church to mean the physical church until he got the spiritual meaning.

Jesus did not overlook the sensitivity of religion. He referred to Prophet Micah (Matthew 10, 36) that "a man's enemies will be the members of his own household" (Micah 7, 6). Even in this civilized age, many children have been killed or disowned by their parents for becoming Christians. However, Jesus demands total commitment from his followers: "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10, 37-39).

If Jesus proclaimed the message of violence, and vengeance, he should have resisted his persecutors. A critical study of the use of the word "sword" in the passion narrative is apt for our discussion. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, one of the disciples asked "Lord, should we strike with the sword (Luke 22, 49)? Before Jesus gave an answer, Peter acted in defence of Jesus by cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Jesus stopped him saying "put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels" (Matthew 26:52-53).

Jesus did not come to fight those who handed him over, and the soldiers who executed him. Instead, he laid down his life and died for the sins of the whole world. John reported Jesus mission in a very catching and precise statement: "I have come, so that they may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).

Jesus did not command us to defend him but to proclaim him as the word that gives life and not the sword that destroys life. Whenever Jesus is insulted in any way, a good Christian should use the occasion to teach the true meaning of "jihad," which for Muslims means "restraint from anger and violence." According to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, "we are fools for Christ's sake". This does not mean that Christians should stretch out there heads for slaughter, neither does it mean that Jesus did not know what to do to those who insulted his person. Jesus questioned those who assaulted him but did not defend himself with the sword. Jesus answered him, "If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me" (John 18, 23)? Jesus used Faith and reason to accomplish his mission of saving the world and restoring peace. Therefore, a Christian must be a peacemaker and not a sword swinger.

Father (Prof) Omonokhua is the Director of Mission and Dialogue of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja, and Consultor for the Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims (CRRM), Vatican City

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