This text is one which means a lot to me: it inspired the title of one of the first books which introduced me to active non-violence and inspired the name of the group with whom I have pursued a path of creative peacemaking.
Together with its parallels in the other gospels, it is a text I find both immensely challenging and deeply beautiful because I think it deals with one of the biggest questions we face as people told we are “blessed” when we take up our role as “peacemakers”: the question to which every aspiring pacifist has to have an answer ready to roll off the tongue. The question that asks: peace is all very well in theory, but what does one do, in practice, in the face of great evil? How does one respond to Hitler, al-Assad, to Kim Jong Un? To terrorism or white supremecism or the oppression of empire?
What does one do in the face of the slaughter of the innocents?
For me it is this text which holds the key, the answer of how Jesus calls us to respond to our anger, our fear, and our pain.
When the betrayer comes to condemn innocence to death, Jesus greets him as “Friend”. This is loving your enemies in action. And make no mistake, these were the enemy. They are either a rather unsavoury vigilante mob, or they are the soldiers of an oppressive, militaristic occupying regime, or most probably a combination of both. Let’s not pretend this was somehow easier than the enemies we face today and therefore doesn’t really count.
So Jesus responds by greeting his betrayer as a friend. And his followers ... hmm, not so much. One of them, unnamed here, but according to John’s gospel it is Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, draws his sword in defense of the innocent. This is ‘just war theory’ in action, which the majority of the church as well as the majority of society subscribes to. A theory that would have said yes, on this occasion, violence is justified to protect the innocent. Tonight, in the garden, force can be used. This is the culturally comfortable answer.
But it is not Jesus’ answer. The final commandment Jesus offers to his disciples before the passion is “Put down your sword.”
There is never, Jesus says, a just reason to use violence. This is never, he says, the right answer.
And it seems that this is the moment when his followers realise just how serious he is about this whole love your enemies thing: serious to a point where he’s going to get them all killed. And they run away. They run away because guess what, peace is not the easy way out, the soft option. There is a big difference between being passive, and choosing pacifism: and the latter can be a pretty scary place to tread.
Fortunately though, although this is Jesus final commandment to his disciples before his death, it is not by any means the end of the story. Jesus does offer an alternative to violence. He does offer another way out.
He offers the way of resurrection.
Jesus final act of non-violent resistance is to rise from the dead: to tell the empire powers of violence, darkness and death that they will not have the last word and to invite us to be part of a different story instead. The way of resurrection is to offer forgiveness instead of seeking retaliation, to peacefully resist the aggression of the status quo, to dare to love those we are advised to fear or to hate.
The poet Edna St Vincent Millay wrote “I shall die, but that is all I shall do for death”. Peace is not some big out there thing beyond our control: it is every thought we nurture, word we speak, decision we make, every prayer we pray. Life and death choices are the bread and butter of our everyday decisions as those who try to follow Jesus. They are our personal pledges to do something, however small, in our own lives and in our interaction with the life of the world, that say we will try, today to put down our swords and to live as people of the resurrection.