Not peace, but a sword

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34)

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.


7 thoughts on “Not peace, but a sword”

  1. Hello John,

    thank you for this – & it’s good to be commenting on a blog of yours again 🙂

    Just a thing or two: first, and predictably from me, can I point anyone who’s interested towards this talk of James Alison’s JA notes the oddity of Jesus saying both, “My peace I give to you…” and yet also “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” and explores “wrath”.

    Secondly, a question: does Zizek, or Dupuy, mention forgiveness in this context at all?

    in friendship, Blair

    1. Hi Blair, good to hear from you again. Sorry for the delay in replying. 🙂

      I looked at the essay, and couldn’t see any reference to forgiveness in it, or in any of Žižek’s other contributions to the book. Hmm.

      Thanks also for the reminder about James Alison’s discussion of this saying. Will go back over that one.

    1. Revolutionary violence is more his style. :-/

      Seriously, I don’t think he is calling for a “strong sovereign” so much as pointing out the naivety of the liberalism that assumes a “world without borders” would ipso facto be a world of peace.

  2. Jesus draws the line! The veil of the myth is torn assunder! No longer can the inhabitants of the abyss of human darkness depend upon their sacrificial victim mechanism to establish a pseudo-peace such as the world gives, a pseudo-peace always dependent upon the foundation of a scapegoat.

    No longer can we afford to pattern our lives upon the mimetic contagions of worldly models. In our times, right now, the call, “Come, Follow Me” is the only path leading us away from a world builded upon competitiveness and the Laws of the Survival of the Fittest. As Leonard Cohen put it in a song, “Love is the only engine of survival”.

    But here’s the trick! We can no longer afford to see “Come, Follow Me” through the lenses of worldly mimetic contagions….all that leads to are more denominations!

  3. Zizek dealing with Girard’s ideas is most interesting.

    Concerning the “not peace, but a sword” I think a slightly different interpretation is possible, while remaining faithful to the above mentioned approach.

    “Not peace, but a sword” means that Jesus is in favor of a certain type of “conflict”, and opposed against a certain type of “peace”. Note that Jesus is talking about bringing a “sword” in a “household”. Often peace in a household, a family, clan or “tribe” is kept at the expense of sacrifices: there is peace as long as every member obeys a hierarchical structure dominated by a “patriarch” (or, in some cultures, a “matriarch”). Those who question the authority of this structure substantially (e.g. by questioning its traditions), are easily removed or expelled as “traitors”.

    It’s clear that this kind of peace is essentially “violent” (i.e. based on the violence of sacrifices). To be truly “at home” with one another means that the difference between yourself and others is not based on a difference in hierarchy (to keep the peace), but on an encounter between human beings who are able to reveal their personality – not fearing that the difference between themselves and others will be violently “erased”. It is natural that tensions and conflicts arise between human beings with different personalities, sensitivities etc. The challenge is to make these tensions and conflicts a source of creativity.

    Further on in Matthew’s gospel Jesus clearly opposes violence (“put away your sword”).

    In short, Jesus opposes “peace by means of violence (i.e. physical and/or mental sacrifices)”, and advocates the creative possibilities of “conflict” resulting from an authentic encounter between “man and his fellow man”.

    [But there’s more… see:

    It’s very common to empathize with a friend or a clique and to imitate their hostility towards an enemy. But this kind of loyalty is not necessarily just or righteous. It’s the blind loyalty of the mafia or the mob. What if your friends or your clan is wrong? The big challenge, as put forward among others by Christ, is to include the ones that are considered “enemies” as “members of the community” – as “neighbors”, fellow human beings.]


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