This saying is, notoriously, one of the most difficult of all Jesus’ utterances. What are we to make of it? One answer is provided in Slavoj Žižek in the first of his essays in God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse (a collection of essays by Žižek and Lutheran theologian Boris Gunjević).
Žižek is summarising Jean-Pierre Dupuy‘s account of the role of sacrifice in religion, in particular its role in both containing, and providing an outlet for, murderous desires:
The sacred sacrifice to the gods is the same as an act of murder–what makes it sacred is that it limits/contains violence, including murder, in everyday life. (p.62)
If we lose the concept of sacred sacrifice, this creates a problem: what can now place a limit on our violence? Žižek identifies this as “the ethical dilemma Christianity tries to resolve” – and guess who turns up providing the answer to this:
Following René Girard, Dupuy demonstrates how Christianity stages the same sacrificial process, but with a crucially different cognitive spin: the story is not told by the collective which stages the sacrifice, but by the victim, from the standpoint of the victim whose full innocence is thereby asserted. (The first step towards this reversal can be discerned already in the book of Job, where the story is told from the standpoint of the innocent victim of divine wrath.)
This, however, destroys the whole sacrificial system, which relies on scapegoating a victim who must be regarded as guilty by those who lynch him/her (or at least, the scapegoat’s death must be seen as justifiable):
Once the innocence of the sacrificial victim is known, the efficiency of the entire sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating is undermined: sacrifices (even of the magnitude of a holocaust) become hypocritical, inoperative, fake…
Which is all well and good, except “we also lose the containment of violence enacted by the sacrifice”. Is this is a good or a bad thing? Žižek quotes Dupuy:
Concerning Christianity, it is not a morality but an epistemology: it says the truth about the sacred, and thereby deprives it of its creative power, for better or for worse.
Whether it is better or worse is then left to humans to decide by their subsequent behaviour. And as Žižek continues:
Therein resides the world-historical rupture introduced by Christianity: now we know, and can no longer pretend that we don’t. And, as we have already seen, the impact of this knowledge is not only liberating, but deeply ambiguous: it also deprives society of the stabilizing role of scapegoating and thus opens up the space for violence not contained by any mythic limit.
And this, Dupuy suggests (“in a truly perspicuous insight”) is how we are to read those words of Jesus with which I began this post:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
This means, though, that certain well-meaning attempts to establish peace could be counterproductive. Take (please…) John Lennon’s song Imagine: “Imagine there’s no countries, / it isn’t hard to do, / nothing to kill or die for, / and no religion too. / Imagine all the people living life in peace…”
While Žižek doesn’t mention this specific example, he gives short shrift to the general sentiment it expresses:
[F]ar from making violent conflicts impossible, the abolishment of sovereign states and the establishment of a single world state or power would open up the field for new forms of violence within such a “world empire,” with no sovereign state to set a limit to it.
As Dupuy puts it:
Far from guaranteeing eternal peace, the cosmopolitic ideal would rather be the favorable condition for a limitless violence.