Last night I watched the movie The Birth of a Nation, the story about how the black preacher Nat Turner led a slave rebellion in August 1831 that killed upwards of 65 white slave owners.
My gut reaction: if I were a black preacher living as a slave in the pre-Civil War American South, I promise you historians would have written for the next 5,000 years about the massacre I would have led against my white slave owners.
I encourage you to watch the movie and see if you feel otherwise.
Resistance Against Oppressors
I would have gone to the scriptures to look for justification to lead an armed resistance movement against my oppressors, and would have found it.
There is justification for armed resistance in Jesus’ teachings.
Don’t believe me?
The night before Jesus’ crucifixion, as a throng of Jewish men were on their way to arrest him with swords and spears in hand, Jesus told Peter,
“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)
“Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:33-34)
Virtually every Christian knows this story. It’s the one about Peter’s persistent refusal to believe that he would ever deny Jesus. Most Christians know the story about the rooster crowing three times, etc. This is that story.
What most Christian do not know is the Gospel of Luke’s version of how Jesus responds to Peter. It’s significantly different than the one you might remember from the other three,
“Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”
“Nothing,” they answered.
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. 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.”
The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That’s enough!” he replied. (Luke 22:33-38)
The Common Interpretation
The common interpretation scholars have offered of this story is to say that Jesus wasn’t telling his followers to literally arm themselves. These scholars believe Jesus was speaking metaphorically, as in “arm yourselves for the spiritual battle ahead.”
I’ll leave that for you to decide for yourself as you read the rest of the story:
“When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.” (Luke 22:49-50)
Here’s the problem with the common interpretation: metaphorical swords do not cut off ears.
Applying Jesus’ Words Today
We know that this was a real event, his words weren’t made up, and they were meant to be taken literally, just as his disciples did.
How, then, are we to understand Jesus’ words in the 21st century?
More specifically, what would Jesus think if we faced a situation today, like one the black preacher Nat Turner faced when he led a slave rebellion that killed upwards of 65 white slave owners?
What would Jesus have expected of his followers as 10.7 million people were ripped from their homes during the Atlantic Slave Trade and taken to North America (to cities you and I live in today) to be debased in the most humiliating forms of human oppression imaginable?
What would Jesus say if that happened today?
We know what Jesus would say.
Because he already said it before.
Sometimes the only response left to followers of Jesus, after they’ve turned the other cheek for so long, and after they’ve humbly obeyed, is to pick up their swords.
Exactly as he commanded.