Posted by: rogermitchell | June 15, 2011

the sword and the authority of love

As I made clear in the last post, when Paul says that there is no authority [exousia] except from God (Rom 13:1), it is an authority forever defined by Jesus in terms of life-laying down kenotic love, or what I call kenarchy. This means that everything else Paul says about submitting to authority needs to be measured in these terms. So from this perspective, when Paul introduces the vocabulary of the sword [machaira] and avenger [ekdikos] (Rom 13:4) our understanding and application of the meaning and role of these components must be submitted to the authority of love.

I am helped by Paul’s practicality here. For I am not an idealist and I don’t think Jesus was one either. The gospel testimony is specific about the existence of sin, and the reality of evil. So while the disciple takes up the cross daily and living under the ultimate authority of Jesus’ kenotic love “does not resist one who is evil” (Mtt 5:39), I also believe that there are times when we need a practical means of protecting the poor and the weak from the evil intent of others. That is to say we do need some temporary kind of law and physical prevention of evil which I take to be what Paul describes as the government’s use of sword and vengeance in this passage.

The big question is how to make sure that this sword and avenger is submitted to the ultimate authority of love. And this is no small matter. The difference between the authority of sovereign power and the authority of kenotic love is categorical. Sovereign power is at the expense of every other life save that of the highest power, which in imperial terms is preferably me. It leads to the commodification of life itself and the destruction of the planet. Kenotic love, on the other hand, is for the blessing of everybody, beginning with the poorest. This is available because of the inexhaustible gift of divine love embodied in Jesus’ life death and resurrection and received by me.

It is important to note that the translation of the word ekdikos as ‘avenger’ or ‘revenger’ has already imported the sense of the retribution of offended sovereignty. It is better translated as “carrier of justice” and in the original, literally means “without law.” This literal meaning is reminiscent of Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the state of exception which I have explored in previous posts, where the real authority is exposed to be the transcendent power which lies behind all government or rulership. He argues that this is manifested in the nuclear warheads and the torture of non-persons at Guantanamo Bay that sustain the Western order. To this I would add the UK government’s commitment to economic recovery at the expense of the poorest.

I agree with Agamben that this is the sovereign power that lies behind the authority  of the contemporary West. However I don’t believe that this is the nature of divine authority, which Jesus’ incarnation reveals, or is the authority which Paul is referring to here. The “without law” state of exception that exists behind the sword that Paul exhorts us to submit to is rather the self-giving love revealed in the cross. So the question is what does it mean for the sword to be submitted to this kind of love? Ultimately it must mean an end to the sword, and I believe it will. But this goes beyond what Paul is saying here. He is speaking of the role of loving authority in the in-between-time in which we work for the fulness of the kingdom which is coming.

Any use of the sword in preventative action against evil that is in line with God’s authority can only be protective. It cannot be retributive, or for punishment or for preventing peaceful demonstration and has to be as non-violent a sign with as limited application as possible. This makes sense of Jesus’ identification of a time when “he who has no sword should sell his coat and buy one” (Lk22:36) and yet his admonition to Peter “put your sword back into its place” (Mtt26:51-52). In terms of contemporary implementation a stick or truncheon is much preferable to a gun, which arguably has far more devastating effect than a sword. Possibly a sword is still best.

This all gives us a huge challenge as the ecclesia to reconfigure the whole role of law and its enforcement. My research convinces me that the partnership of church and empire has brought about a legal system based on sovereign power, not on love, and that this rendered the sword the violent and retributive imposition of law and justified its replacement by vastly more destructive implements. My re-interpretation of Paul is that now is the time to challenge and change it. When I talk of now being the time for kenarchic action I am seriously calling for a complete reappraisal and reconfiguration of the foundational politics of the Western world!



  1. Rog, these last three posts have been amazing… There is so much in them though, and the comments following them, that I am struggling to give language to my thoughts. I see the role of parents with children as helpful in understanding authority with love – where parental love is kenarchic and not an abuse of power. Parenting is hard (at least I find it so!) but when done well, there is a genuine life laid down loving of ones children, looking for the best for each of them, protecting or disciplining where appropriate. One would naturally intervene to protect them from harm by others (using the sword?), but only sufficient to the situation in hand and not going beyond that into retribution. In my family we see a microcosm of society, with protest and challenge of parental authority and questions of fairness, but also encouragment to look beyond ourselves to the needs of others.

    Where I begin to struggle is how to apply this to government, probably because of my long history of political involvement. I can’t really see an answer beyond a total subversion of the entire system to something completely other than what we now have.

    • Thanks for this Mike. I think the family context is helpful. On your last point I think you are right about total subversion in ideal terms, but as I say I don’t think that following Jesus is idealism. It starts where we are, which is why I think Paul (& Peter) are so useful on this question of the relationship between ecclesia and government. If I am right that being the ecclesia is to be a political people, then their, in my view, deliberately challenging admonitions are attempting a practical answer, or at least a conversation, on your question of how to apply God’s loving authority to our relationship with government. And it is this that I want to continue to clarify and apply to the basic political issues of today.

  2. I have a really practical question in terms of international development policy! We talk about lives laid down and kenarchic love. In the case of the chaps who headed up the LRA in Uganda and literally stole thousands of children from their homes and brain washed them to the extent that they became killing machines…………how is the use of the sword protective, without being retributive or punitive? (The UK’s lack of intervention in cases like this, whilst being more concerned with oil in the middle east has been devestating). I recognise the history of Europe in Africa and the legacy we laid down and the appalling and hipocritical nature of the arms trade in all of this. But, where there seems to be little poitical interest, how do we act in an intercessory way that is kenarchic in nature?

  3. So Roger . . . I’m fascinated though somewhat lost in this one. I need to put aside my own thesis writing (the dreary counting of actions around 17th canals) and think. But what comes to mind first (and always for me) is that rather than use the sword (natural or supernatural) to engage Pilate, Jesus went to the cross. So sword use is definitely limited, very limited, with Jesus. Back to counting canals. c.

  4. Andy, my experience tells me that we need to engage with politicians when there are things going on that we disagree with. Where there is little political interest in an issue, we need to create one. Gordon Brown was quite clear with the drop the debt campaigners that he wanted them to keep on pressurising him as it gave him extra clout in Whitehall that policy needed changing and there was public demand for it. Drawing public attention to the ways in which our policies affect others helps to bring about reform. Yes, we need to intercede too, but also engage where we can with agencies and others who are similarly minded.

    Rowan Williams recent foray into commentary on the current Govt’s policies is a case in point (although not specifically about Int Dev) he was drawing attention to the plight of the poor and he took a considerable bashing over it. Surely part of our role is to be a voice for the voiceless or the ignored…

  5. I agree Mike, but that is not my point! I definitely think part of our role is to continually speak up for those who have no voice. My point is, I believe in non-violence, in Shalom, in life laid down love. Practically speaking, how does this get applied in the case of a man or group of men committing vial acts against children and ravishing a generation in Northern Uganda, without the use of the sword? If our appeal is to government for intervention, then that will surely lead to a violent intervention, most times. So what are we actually wanting to see when we call for engagement? If the sword isn’t the answer, because I’m not sure how it can be protective without being puitive or reditributive in such a case, then what does it practically mean to lay down our lives in such a situation? And how does the ekklesia get involved in such situations without falling back on violent military means?

    • I am aware that there are so many examples and issues like this where we need to engage with government and which are heart rending and urgent. Nevertheless we need to dig into the issues before we can act and I believe that this is what many of us have been doing as we have immersed ourselves in mindset change. For me the change has particularly been about the nature of God and his rule. If God’s authority really is kenotic love, then we can begin to see what this might mean in practical political terms. When I talk about a time for action I am meaning that now is the time when we have to understand what the application of and submission to the authority of love means and then get the timing right and do whatever emerges!

  6. I come at the question of intervention from a perspective that justice and ethics are discoverable in the situation. Not in an ‘ends justify the means’ kind of way or the application of a juridical (law-based) code of engagement. This leads me ultimately to say that the state (with its juridical approach) will almost certainly do what I may not consider to be the most ethical or just thing.

    In the case of Rwanda or Darfur, I wish that our state had intervened, even with ‘the sword’. This would have been a measure of justice, more than was achieved. The ultimate measure of justice, though, might have been us all flying out there and placing ourselves in front of machetes, calling for people to stop, calling for reconciliation.

    So these are difficult choices, but then injustice always requires a choice at the personal and collective levels. Our world is caught in such a choice continually. It seems that firstly there must be awakening to the choice at hand and then real politics in which the undecidable is worked out (following Kierkegaard & Derrida, I think Abraham’s deliberation over whether to slay Isaac is key here).

    Slight tangent perhaps.

    • I don’t think it is that much of a tangent Stephen. Perhaps in that situation placing ourselves inbetween the violent and the victim was the right thing. There are stories of this kind of action from people in Japanese POW camps during the second world war, where men literally gave their lives for their friends in order to prevent their friends being unjustly treated.

      It doesn’t always have to be like that though – when Jesus confronted the mob who were going to stone the adulterous woman (notice the man is missing from this story!) he stands in between them and her and issues a challenge, which is enough to turn the situation around. It could have gone horribly wrong for Jesus and they might have turned on him too (it wasn’t the first time people had tried to stone him), but he was willing to put himself on the line for her.

      However, those examples are very different from our government send troups into, say, Afghanistan and asking then to lay their lives down for empire and nation state.

  7. It is interesting to read the comments. Here in Latvia the President announced a referendum to dissolve the Parliament. Those in Parliament basically would not allow the fraud and corruption bureau to investigate one of their own and the President said “enough is enough” and called the referendum a few days before the Parliament voted on whether to re-elect him or not. He basically laid down his position so that the Latvian people can tell the politicians what they think of their actions. He didn’t get re-elected, the Parliament elected an ex-banker instead. The referendum still stands though and many people have backed the Presidents actions. That kind of selfless action is inspiring and my prayer is for a new kind of politics to arise out of Latvia.

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