This post begins an occasional series on religion. Many Canadians think they have to be pacifist to be good Christians. This isn’t so and they should understand why.
The above image from the church in Gacé, Lower-Normandy, shows St. Peter sheathing his sword after defending the Lord on the night he was arrested on Gethsemane. It’s an odd grip he has on it, his thumb should be against the hilt, but no matter.
The more interesting fact is that St. Peter is wearing it from a belt or baldric over his shoulder. This isn’t surprising since an early Roman short sword, an xiphos, copied from the Greeks, was between 18 and 22-inches long, weighed about three pounds and was too heavy to clip onto a waistband.
In other words, it wasn’t a concealed weapon. Everyone who knew him, everyone he met, knew he was armed with the ancient equivalent of a handgun. That would include Christ.
Indeed, we know from the Last Supper where Jesus is wrestling with his conscience over accepting, or resisting, his destiny on the cross his Disciples had at least two swords. Christ says, “he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one” (Luke 22:36). Remember the Supper is taking place in a room none of them had been to before.
“And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, ‘it is enough.’ (Luke 22:38).
Did this include St. Peter’s? Probably not; Christ would certainly know someone as close as Peter was armed. The number doesn’t matter. The point is that some of the Apostles were armed and Jesus thought that was just fine. In this regard at least, Jesus was just like Prime Minister Trudeau or President Trump.
Let’s go forward a few hours in time.
The next reference to swords is when Jesus and his disciples are attacked by a crowd of men armed with staves and swords sent by the Elders and Chief Priests. As they do so, Peter draws his sword and strikes one of the attackers and cuts off his ear. Here’s how John puts it.
“Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus” (John 18:10).
Jesus tells him to put away his sword and gives three reasons for him to do so.
In John 18:11 he says, “Then said Jesus unto Peter, put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” In other words, his fate requires him to be arrested.
The second reason he gives is that if he’d wanted to resist, he would have called in a legion of Angels. “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53)
The third reason is the most interesting and the one that causes all the confusion. Here’s the quote from the previous verse: “Then said Jesus unto him, put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
Most scholars think Jesus is referring to Peter when he says “all they that take the sword” but it’s more likely he actually means the mob that attacked them, the followers of the Chief Priest and Elders. Peter was responding to an attack, not attacking. All “they who that take the sword” means those who start a fight, who take up a sword, will end up at the other end of one.
We know that’s what he means because Jesus, like a good Jew, would have been familiar with Exodus 22:2 which says, “if a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no blood guilt for him.” This is the basis of all self-defense laws, and Peter’s action would certainly have been covered by it.
OK, let’s summarize.
Jesus spent his ministry with disciples some of whom were armed. At no time does he tell them to disarm themselves. Only on the final night, when he is about to be arrested to fulfill his destiny does he tell his closest adviser to put away his sword because, as we would say today, I have to do this.
Like a lot of politicians since, Jesus talked up pacifism, but did so with armed guards. At any time, he was well aware he could count on God sending him “more than 12 legions of angels,” should he need them.
Let’s conclude by reflecting on that sentence. An early Roman Legion could have 5,000 members. So what Jesus is saying about God is that he has more than 60,000 Angels armed with fiery swords on call. That’s a lot of air power.
The point is not that he didn’t ask for them; it’s that they were there if he wanted them; God’s troops.
Somehow, Christianity doesn’t sound quite so pacifist when you look into it: Jesus with his sword-carrying Apostles; God with his sword-carrying Angels. When we as Christians, or post-Christians, are attacked today, picking up a sword or a pistol should be as natural as going to Church.
Yes, you too can be armed, just like St. Peter.