That’s a question with a long history in the Church. Many of the Early Church Fathers directed Christians not to take up arms, but their argument often revolved around the particular problems of service in the forces of Rome. In the Roman military, worship of the Emperor, i.e., idolatry, was in many cases a required practice; thus, nobody with allegiance to the One True Living God could conscientiously participate.
Some of the Early Fathers, though, were very clear that no follower of Christ should deliberately take the life of a fellow human being, since Christ died for all, even our enemies. Since, as long as a person breathes, there is a chance for his conversion, we may not cut that life short. And yet, among the canonized saints of the Church, there are warriors and military leaders along with pacifists.
On the one hand, we see St. Francis of Assisi, who was, after his conversion, the very paragon of pacifism, going unarmed to the Muslim Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, to attempt to convert him to Christ. Francis did not succeed in persuading the Sultan to follow Christ, but the Sultan was so impressed with Francis’ holiness and purity of heart that he let him depart with his head still attached to his body. This probably would not have been the case had Francis come armed.
On the other hand, St. Ferdinand III, king of León and Castile, is also a revered saint — and he was a military leader who spent his career leading forces in numerous battles against the Muslims occupying southern Spain at the time, as well as personally slaying many Muslims himself. Other warrior saints include St. Louis IX and St. Joan of Arc.
What are we to make of all this? Some say that only those such as monks who have taken vows need renounce all violence, while the rest of us live with the Just War doctrine first formulated by St. Augustine, and further developed in later centuries. (A very good nutshell summation of it can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2309)
Others, such as Mennonites and Quakers, believe that pacifism — a refusal to ever do violence to another person, even under direct mortal threat to oneself and/or one’s family — is incumbent upon anyone calling himself or herself a Christian.
I used to be a pacifist, and a Mennonite. I now believe that that stance is yet one more example of how heresy always tends toward oversimplification. Heresy has often been described in terms such as these:
A heresy is not the total rejection of the Christian faith but a distortion of it. One essential truth is denied or exaggerated at the expense of another essential truth.
In the case of pacifism, one part of the Gospel — the default stance of nonviolence — has perhaps been exaggerated at the expense of other parts of the Gospel — such as the duty to defend the innocent and defenseless. Truth in its wholeness tends — at least, on this side of heaven — to seem paradoxical, holding seemingly opposite things in tension. I think of what my (Catholic) pastor once said — that when you come into the Church that Jesus founded, you will know that you are home — but that does not mean you will be comfortable. Since we are fallen creatures, and limited in certain ways during our mortal existence, when we come into the presence of Truth Himself there’s always a certain tension.
The question of when violence is justified, and when it is not, should be one that no Christian takes lightly. We do believe that each and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and is infinitely loved by Him. We also know that this earthly life is not all there is — we are each made for all eternity — and yet what we do here on earth has eternal consequences.
The great Ann Barnhardt has written a very important, brilliant (as usual) piece on this question. I guarantee she will make you think of some things you hadn’t thought of before! While I don’t agree with every particular of her argument, her essay is substantive and well worth reading.
Let’s go to Luke 22 – the Last Supper. Christ has just instituted the Eucharist and the Mass. By doing this in anticipation of His death on the Cross the next day, He has made Calvary the centerpoint of time. He has drawn the Old Testament forward to the Cross, and He has pulled the time after Calvary backward. Every moment in time will now pass through and be reconciled to Calvary. (“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to Myself.” John 12:32) What I want you to appreciate is the enormousness of the occasion. This is one of the most important things that has ever or will ever happen. This isn’t just a farewell meal. The entire world and everyone in it is utterly pivoting on what is happening in this room.
Let’s go to verse 35 through 38. Jesus has just told Peter that he will deny Him three times.
“When I sent you without purse and scrip and shoes, did you want anything? But they said: Nothing. Then said He unto them: But now he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a scrip: and he that hath not, let him sell his coat and buy a sword. For I say to you that this that is written must yet be fulfilled in Me. And with the wicked was he reckoned. For the things concerning Me have an end. But they said: Lord, behold, here are two swords. And He said to them: It is enough.”
FYI: “scrip” means money. What He is telling them is that they are about to encounter evil, and in preparation for this they need to do whatever they need to do in order to prepare. He is saying that they need to reallocate their assets and “buy a sword”. In Latin, “emat gladium”.
Emat = buy, purchase, acquire, procure.
Gladium = sword.
Wow. I can hear the hippies screaming from here. “He didn’t really mean it! He wasn’t speaking literally! He was speaking figuratively!”
He was speaking, as God Almighty almost always does, on multiple levels, INCLUDING THE LITERAL. Oh, yes. I’ll concede that we should take from this scripture His call to reject materialism and gird ourselves for spiritual battle. No doubt. But if we delude ourselves into thinking that this is the ONLY sense in which He is speaking, we are missing something huge. Look at the last verse:
“But they said: Lord, behold, here are two swords. And He said to them: It is enough.”
Okay. Stop, stop, stop. Hold the phone. Put out the cat. First of all, this proves that He was speaking in the literal sense in addition to the figurative sense. But more importantly, do you realize what this means? At least two of the apostles arrived at the Upper Room wearing side arms, which they then took off so they could sit on the floor around the low table that was used in those days. What this also means is that there were side arms present, in the room, at the Last Supper.
Now here is where all of the hippies are going to absolutely lose it. What is the contemporary, technological equivalent of a sword? What is considered a “side arm” today? That’s right. A gun. Now you can scream and spit and stomp and rage and retch all you want, but you know I’m right. The apostles report that they have two swords, and Jesus says, “It is enough.” I saw in my research that some scholars try to paint Jesus as snapping at the apostles, trying to translate “Satis est (It is enough)” as “Oh, enough already!” I don’t hear that at all. I hear Him simply saying that two swords will be enough.
…[T]here were side arms IN THE ROOM at the Last Supper. What, are you going to argue that Jesus didn’t KNOW that there were swords in the room? Who is Jesus? He’s God Almighty. He knows EVERYTHING. Further, if this was just a horrible mistake or coincidence, why would Jesus make specific reference to swords and arming one’s self, thus leading the apostles to inventory the weapons arsenal in the room? FURTHER, why would the Holy Spirit, through Luke, put all of this down in writing? Why are we all sitting in front of our respective computer screens, poring through our Bibles, reading and discussing this 1978 years after the fact? Dude. It is not sufficient at this point to simply declare me a bloodthirsty, gun-toting war monger and then walk away. You have to refute and rebut the logical progression I just laid out. Good luck with that.
Now, let’s go to verse 49. They’re in the Garden, and Jesus has gone through His agony. Now Judas, with the Jewish guards, approaches. Judas kisses Jesus to show the guards which man they should arrest. The apostles see this and ask, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” Dude, they’re STILL ARMED. If Jesus was disgusted with the swords back in the Upper Room, why are the apostles wearing SWORDS in the Garden? Don’t you think that hippie, pacifist Jesus would have told them to LEAVE THE SWORDS BEHIND? And then scolded them? He didn’t do that. They put on their swords and walked to the Garden. You know why? Because Jesus is neither a hippie nor a pacifist. Lord, I want to be like Jesus. In my heart. In my heart. Lord, I want to be like Jesus, in my heart. Next, Peter (and we know it was Peter from John 18) struck one of the guards and cut off his ear.
“And they that were about Him, seeing what would follow, said to Him: Lord, shall we strike with the sword? And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear.”
So just to make certain that we are all appreciating this, Peter, the prince of the apostles, is carrying a side arm and knows what to do with it. Now this next verse is the one that really surprised me:
“But Jesus answering, said: Suffer ye thus far. And when He had touched his ear, He healed him.”
Huh? What does “Suffer ye thus far” mean? … In order to figure this out, let’s go to the Latin. “Sinite usque huc.”
Sinite: second person plural active imperative of “sino” Sino: let, permit
Okay, so sinite means “you all let” or “you all permit” in the imperative case, which means a command. (That makes sense! Like “suffer the little children to come unto Me” means “permit the little children . . . “)
Usque: adverb meaning “all the way”
Huc: adverb meaning here, hence, to this place, to this point
You all permit + all the way + here.
Jesus isn’t scolding them. Jesus isn’t saying “no more of this” and barking at them to stop. Jesus is giving them the command to hold and stand down. “You all permit all the way here.” This is a HUGE distinction. If a military commander gives his men the order to hold fire and stand down, is he criticizing them? Is he attacking and rebuking their use of weaponry? Is he communicating that they should be pacifists? Is he rejecting their vocations as soldiers? No. He is simply telling them to hold their fire and stand down because there is, at the moment, a tactical reason to do so. That is EXACTLY what is going on here. Jesus isn’t rebuking the apostles because they are doing exactly what they should do – they are defending their Beloved Friend. If your spouse, or your child, or your best friend, or whoever you love most in this world was being physically attacked and seized, what would you do? What would every fiber of your being be screaming out for you to do? Come to their defense and aid. This is called the Natural Law. God MADE us this way. God made us with the instinctual drive to physically fight to defend those we love. Failure to do so is the sin of cowardice. Cowardice is a violation of both of the Great Commandments: to love God above all else, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Cowardice places the self above both neighbor and God. And in the case of the apostles, they were engaging both commandments directly in the person of Jesus.
This is why Jesus had to give the order to hold and stand down. He had to specifically release them from the Great Commandments in that moment. Why? Two reasons: First, obviously it was the will of the Trinity that Jesus be arrested and crucified. These things had to happen. The apostles couldn’t be expected to understand this at the time, so there was no expectation for them to quietly sit and watch as Jesus was arrested.
Second, remember who Jesus is. Jesus is God. He knows everything and everyone. Jesus knew every one of the men who came to arrest Him. Not only did He know them, He loved them all infinitely. He MADE every one of them. He wove them together in their mothers’ wombs. He knew every detail of their lives, every thought, every deed. And He loved them. Every single one of them. He also had a plan for every one of them. Like, oh I dunno, CONVERSION? Can you imagine the amount of grace those guards were exposed to? They got to TOUCH Him. They got to look right at Him, and speak to Him. He probably locked eyes with every one of them at some point. Don’t discount that. Even though they were absolutely horrible to Him, they were primed for conversion. We know that Malchus, the guy who got his ear cut off, and then was healed by Jesus, converted. We don’t know about the other guards, but we do know that thousands and thousands of Jews were converted in the first years after the Resurrection.
We also know who the first Gentile convert was. It was the Roman Centurion Longinus. Longinus was the Roman soldier who drove the spear into Jesus’ side to make certain He was dead, instead of breaking His legs. When the spear went in, it bursted the cardiac edema, or the water sac that had built up around Jesus’ Sacred Heart as He died of heart failure. Longinus, standing beside and below Jesus, was sprayed with that water. Baptism. When the water had all come out, Jesus’ Precious Blood sprayed out. Eucharist. The first Gentile convert was a man who had just spent the past nine hours participating in the torture and execution of Jesus. Grace. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of the Jewish guards in the garden were converted too. So we can see an additional reason, beyond the obvious, why Jesus told the apostles to stand down. It was His will that some or all of the guards survive and convert, not die in battle in that moment. Finally, some might reference Jesus’ words in Matthew’s gospel:
“Then Jesus saith to him: Put up again thy sword into its place: for all that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”
Do you know what I think Jesus is doing here? I think this may be a veiled prophecy about islam. Islam teaches that the way to convert people is to put a sword to their neck and give them a choice: convert or die. This is referred to as “the Sword of islam”. This is how all other evil, satanic political systems operate as well. Marxism leaps to mind. In Marxist tyranny, people are arrested and imprisoned, given the choice to “learn the new system” or die. In addition to a veiled prophecy, Jesus is telling Peter that Christianity does not and will not convert with the sword. It converts only with love. AND, He is telling Peter and us that Christians do not and will not punish apostates (people who leave the faith – like Judas) with the sword. Both islam and Marxism execute apostates. But the second phrase, “shall perish with the sword” is very telling. Jesus is saying that those who “take the sword” and try to convert people to, and hold people in their evil systems by force will in the end be killed WITH THE SWORD. Who will be wielding that sword? Christ will be victorious, so doesn’t it stand to reason that the Army of Christ will be the one wielding the sword, in justice and charity, in the second phrase? Boy, this sure sounds like a ratification of self-defense and just war, doesn’t it?