Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Sword of Faith

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34

At the end of an online sermon on Matthew 10 which treats everything up to verse 34 a reader posts the following comment: “Yet again, another complete avoidance of Matthew 10: 34-39. I guarantee you the folks sitting in the pews are very curious about your views on these particular verses.”

There are several ways to go with this challenge. Given the current geopolitical-theological climate which tends to represent Islam as a religion of violence and warfare one might start here to say something like, “See, Jesus advocates violence just as the Quran does.” Not that such an argument is needed. Christianity has been as violent a religion as any in its nearly 2000 year history: the persecution of early heresies, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition, the European Wars of Religion, complicity in the Atlantic slave trade, and complicity in the Holocaust to name just a few sad chapters of Christian history. This does not even take into consideration the ethical questions that remain after the only tactical use of nuclear weapons on a civilian population was ordered by President Harry Truman, a man otherwise described as a faithful Baptist.

Context is everything. Although it is true that the Quran has passages that discuss the rules of engagement in case the community of faith is attacked. These  revelations to Muhammad arrive in a historical period of intense tribal warfare in which the infant Muslim community in Mecca finds itself in the midst of daily persecution(the revelations are similar to Christian Just War theory – fighting only to defend, forbidding violence against women, children and non-combatants – a sign that groups like Al Queda, the Taliban, ISIS and others are not considered faithful or traditional Muslims if they are even Muslims at all).

Even after Muhammad and his followers flee Mecca for Yathrib (later Medina), the tribes of Mecca sought to wipe them out once and for all. Somehow the Muslims survive several years of attacks and eventually win a decisive battle. When they march into Mecca as conquerors the expectation is that the men of Mecca will be killed, the women and children enslaved. Muhammad surprises everyone – everyone is to be spared and allowed to continue life as they choose. Only the over 300 idols in the central worship space, the Kaba, are destroyed. Islam sets a new standard for peaceful resolution of tribal disputes. More to the point, as Islam expands and becomes the largest empire in world history, peoples from Spain in the west to the Indus River in the east are allowed to maintain not only their own religious traditions, but can maintain their governing practices as well. No one is required to convert to Islam. Whereas it would be Christianity that would baptize by the sword as it circumnavigates the world.

As for the context of Jesus in Matthew – it is sometime in the decade after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Roman Empire (70 ce). And it is some 40 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Not to mention a decade after the epistle called Hebrews wrote, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) Jesus’ use of the image of a sword precedes his description of what faith in him can and does precipitate: tribes and families divide. In the case of first century Israel, the family of faith did in fact divide and go two separate ways after the destruction of the Temple: one part of the family became rabbinic Judaism, the other part of the family became the emerging church. In the context of Matthew’s gospel, this division is well under way. Those going the way of the church began a long history of Christian Supercessionism and anti-Semitism which it has only begun to address in the years after the Holocaust.

As historic figures like Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others have shown – often to live one’s life out of the Word of God is to challenge the current dominant paradigm or world-view. This, says Jesus, has consequences. On the only recorded incident of one of his disciples using a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus ordered his disciples to put them away. Jesus himself chooses not to lead an army, not to fight back against Herod and Pilate, but rather to launch a revolution of faith and ethical behavior. He wrote no books, commanded no army, and yet, in less than 300 years the movement he began displaced the Imperial religion of Rome with the Emperor Constantine’s conversion and the edict of Milan. Considered a triumph of Christianity, it also shifts the young church from offering an alternative world-view to that of the empire’s to suddenly become the empire. Luther, Calvin and others would be on the leading edge of critiquing what a problem this became. Only in recent decades is the church as a whole beginning to see the downside of having been the empire and seek a way back to the kind of religious movement Jesus led in first century Israel.

What I hear Jesus saying in Matthew 10:34 is that we all need to allow the Word of God to judge the intentions and thoughts of our hearts so that we might turn our hearts and be the people Jesus calls us to be. Amen.

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