In the Gospels, Jesus continually promotes nonviolence, loving our enemies, making peace, and turning the other cheek. But does He allow for self-defense?
Let me back up a moment and consider Matthew 10:34:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
A handful of Evangelical Christians have tried to convince me that this verse means Christians will need to take up arms to defend the faith. I haven’t found that borne out in any of Christ’s other teachings, nor do the various Biblical commentaries support that view. Matthew Henry’s Commentary says,
Our Lord warned his disciples to prepare for persecution. They were to avoid all things which gave advantage to their enemies, all meddling with worldly or political concerns, all appearance of evil or selfishness, and all underhand measures. Christ foretold troubles, not only that the troubles might not be a surprise, but that they might confirm their faith. He tells them what they should suffer, and from whom. Thus Christ has dealt fairly and faithfully with us, in telling us the worst we can meet with in his service; and he would have us deal so with ourselves, in sitting down and counting the cost.
But even this view is outnumbered. The majority of commentators suggest that “the sword” refers to the influence of evil over men, who will then argue about the true message of Jesus’s teachings in the short term, while peace will indeed be the eventual result of Jesus’s reign.
In any case, the seems little support for the idea that this verse prepares us to take up arms. Rather, it seems to be warning that, despite Jesus’s teaching, people will take up arms.
On the subject of self defense, we have Luke 22:36:
He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one…”
This Jesus says at the Last Supper, as He prepared to send the Apostles out into the world without Him. On the surface, He does seem to be warning them that they will need a weapon suitable for self-defense.
However, this truck me as inconsistent with Jesus’s words as he is arrested. One of the Disciples strikes the chief priest with a sword and cuts off his ear. (Luke 22:50 doesn’t say which one, but John 18:10 says it was Simon Peter.) Jesus rebukes the disciple and heals the priest’s ear. The he rebukes the priests for coming armed, clearly implying that Jesus would have gone with them without being forced and that weapons were unnecessary.
Earlier, Jesus told the Disciples,
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
The inconsistency between this instruction and the arrest on the one hand, with the instruction at the Last Supper on the other, bothered me. There doesn’t seem to be much room for an argument in favor of self-defense.
Then it occured to me: “The one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag,” and if he has no sword he must sell his cloak and buy one. But Jesus explicitly instructed his Disciples.
[T]o take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts… (and Luke adds, “no extra shirt.” Mark 6:8, Luke 9:3)
So a man with a purse would need all those things, but the Disciples had no purses and therefore did not need these things.
It’s also clear that Jesus had no intention of using violence to avoid arrest or violence or even death. And He called his followers to do as He did. “Follow Me” is the second most common instruction in the Gospels, after “Love.” Or, as Paul puts it, “Imitate Him.”
Many commentators argue that the word “sword” in the passage is symbolic, and means the same as its use in Matthew 10:34, meaning that dangerous times are coming and the Disciples should spiritually prepare themselves. That’s possible. But to me, it seems that Jesus is reminding His disciples that if they had possessions, they would need luggage and protection, but they are specifically instructed not to have possessions.
As John would later write,
Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.
With that as a mission, who needs self defense?