I’ve been pondering the martyrdom side of the pacifism question. Many of us have been assuming that Christians are called only to non-violent resistance when confronted with possible martyrdom. Some would argue that a Christian may use necessary force for self-defense or the defense of others — but not when he is being physically assaulted for his faith in Jesus.
The question comes to the fore in the most recent post “If you don’t have a sword … buy one.” This passage creates a problem for that theory because Jesus certainly seems to be saying to his apostles: carry some swords so you don’t get killed when I’m found to be a criminal. I mean, that’s just what the passage seems to say. And if they were attacked because of their association with Jesus — being crucified for claiming to be king of the Jews — that would surely seem to qualify as martyrdom.
(Luke 22:35-38) Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”
“Nothing,” they answered.
36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”
38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That is enough,” he replied.
As I said in a comment yesterday, I don’t think the swords were for the purpose of setting up the saying —
(Mat 26:52) “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
First, Luke doesn’t record that saying. Rather, he writes,
(Luke 22:49-51) When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. 51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
Second, as Luke wouldn’t have recorded the command to obtain swords for no purpose, he was at least setting up this passage, to explain why the apostles had swords — which evidently was not how Jews normally conducted themselves in Jerusalem. It wasn’t the wild West. There were Roman soldiers about.
Third, and most importantly, it’s just not the reason Jesus gave. Jesus says they should carry swords because he was about to be counted as a criminal. I think we should take his word for it.
(Luke 22:37) It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”
“Transgressors” translates anomos, meaning “lawless.”
And he also told them to have cash on hand. That hardly fits the theory that it was to make a pacifistic point at his arrest.
But it remains true that Jesus did say, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” That certainly sounds like an anti-sword sentiment! How do we reconcile Matthew and Luke?
So here’s my hypothesis: The Bible does not teach that we may not use force to resist martyrdom. Now, as I’m typing this, I figure one of my many well-schooled readers will immediately prove me wrong. But let me offer a preliminary defense of the theory. (And it is just a theory at this point — not even an opinion.)
1. The case for willing submission without forceable resistance is built on the examples of Jesus, Stephen, and countless early Christians who submitted to martyrdom without a fight.
2. There are any number of passages that are arguably in support. Consider —
(Mark 8:35) For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
(Rev 2:10) Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.
(Rev 12:11) They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.
(Rev 13:10) If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.
So I need to expand a bit on my theory. It goes like this —
* The early Christians were part of the Roman Empire in Judea — an occupied state. Rome governed Judea — and the rest of the Empire — with an iron hand. They believed in the rule of law and had trials for those they condemned. But they always won. When the slaves rebelled under Spartacus in 73 BC, he raised an army of 100,000 slaves to fight for freedom — and they were all killed.
6,600 of Spartacus’s followers were crucified along the via Appia (or the Appian Way) from Brundisium to Rome. Crassus never gave orders for the bodies to be taken down, thus travelers were forced to see the bodies for years after the final battle.
Later, of course, the Jews rebelled. The Wikipedia summarizes the outcome according to Josephus —
Josephus claims that 1,100,000 people were killed during the siege, of which a majority were Jewish. 97,000 were captured and enslaved, including Simon Bar Giora and John of Gischala. Many fled to areas around the Mediterranean. Titus reportedly refused to accept a wreath of victory, as there is “no merit in vanquishing people forsaken by their own God”.
Such was the fate of rebels under Roman rule.
* Paul plainly prohibits rebellion.
(Rom 13:2) Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
Now, it’s entirely possible that Paul had the Jews’ rebellion against Rome, prophesied by Jesus, in mind. And certainly they suffered judgment — not just the judgment of Rome but the judgment of God.
* Therefore, when a Roman ruler commanded a Christian to worship Caesar, there was no chance of prevailing by the sword. The options were to flee (as many did) or suffer torture and death (as many did). Fighting back wasn’t a possibility.
* But what if a private citizen were to attack a Christian for his faith? That would have been illegal in Rome. Assault and murder were crimes then just as they are now — unless the local authorities had asked the citizenry to kill Christians. Rome maintained exclusive authority of life and death.
And so, in the case of non-governmental persecution, what would keep a Christian from defending himself — with only so much force as is necessary? This certainly seems consistent with what Jesus told the apostles just before his crucifixion.
This means we need to take a fresh look at the verses quoted earlier. The passages from the Revelation aren’t so much saying that we are to willingly submit to persecution as that persecution is an inevitability that must be accepted. Thus, “they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” in Rev 12:11 seems to say that they accepted death rather than give up their faith — not that they were unwilling to flee or that they sought death.
The passage in Mark, “whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it,” is true both metaphorically and literally. If we literally die for the gospel, Jesus will reward us at the Judgment, but if we lose our lives by giving our lives for Jesus, that will be rewarded, too. He’s not telling us to seek out martyrdom opportunities. However, we are to value our fidelity to Jesus more than our lives — which may well bring martyrdom.
As Paul wrote,
(Phil 1:21) For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
and yet Paul chose life, preferring to remain in this life to be of service to Jesus, delaying his enjoyment of Paradise.
Jesus’ saying, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” merit some further reflection, too, of course. It’s an allusion to —
(Gen 9:6) “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”
This is one of the so-called Noahide Laws (you’d think they’d have thought of a catchier name) that God decreed immediately after the Flood. But this command does not prohibit self-defense or military action. Rather, it prohibits murder. After all, it pretty plainly permits capital punishment, and would be self-contradictory if God meant to ban all forms of killing.
Therefore, Jesus’ point was, I think, that had the apostles killed the soldiers coming to arrest him, they’d have been guilty of murder. The soldiers were officers of the state, carrying out their duties. In fact, what they did wasn’t even wrong. Rather, the wickedness of Jesus’ trial occurred when he was convicted on patently false evidence and when Pilate allowed him to be killed for political rather than legal reasons — quite contrary to law or morality. (There were, I’m sure, other errors in the trial — enough to fill a book.) It was wrong for the Jewish leaders to ask for his arrest, but the soldiers were innocents and didn’t deserve death.
As Luke 22:35-38 suggests, Jesus didn’t mean that it’s wrong to defend yourself with a sword. It is, of course, wrong to murder by the sword.
And so, am I right?