Not peace, but a sword

This is another of the ‘prompting’ papers for the Philosophy Café I used to run in Athens, Greece.

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” – King James Bible, Mathew 10:34

Wars have been fought about this one. But wars have also been fought about the word “quoque” and about commas. Most people would consider the religious Jesus someone in favour of peace. There are a few more doubts about the historical Jesus, but when you talk history, you imply analysis and analysis just does not apply to faith. The coward’s view (i.e., mine) is that I would like to believe that Jesus wanted peace. For the amusing mental gymnastics Christians resort to in order to explain away this remark, check the web.

I searched an on-line Bible to find the quote. I entered the word “sword” thinking I would find what I was looking for quite fairly quickly. I was staggered to discover that there were nearly half a thousand entries in the Bible containing the word “sword”, which got me thinking: the sword was the weapon understood and prized in the biblical world until the mid-16th century CE. If the Bible had been written in the 20th century, wouldn’t we be repelled to find the “word of God” peppered with references to M16s, anti-personnel mines and smart bombs…?

Here’s a 21st century translation: “I came not to send peace, but a weapon of mass destruction”.

I accept that peace does not mean the absence of weapons. (If anyone tries the old NRA argument that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people”, try the following experiment: go up to somebody; point your finger at them and shout “bang!”. If you manage to kill someone, I’ll visit you in gaol.) It has also been argued, convincingly or not, that weapons are needed to preserve peace. Some may not find the “deterrent” argument convincing, but we must accept that the longest period of overall peace in the 20th century has been when the threat of nuclear obliteration has been dangling over our heads like a Damocles… sword.

Incidentally, the Bible is the most published book in history. The second most published book in history is Euclid’s Elements, the “bible” of geometry and mathematics. I did another on-line search in Euclid for “sword”. There are no instances.

The Koran has one instance of the word “sword” (Sura: 54.29 – it’s not actually written but inferred by context).

A simple, man-is-just-an-intelligent-animal, anthropological explanation is that the human species has an amazing talent for killing its members but otherwise is just like other warm and cold-blooded creatures. Lucy, the 3.5 million year-old hominid, almost certainly had males fighting for her attentions. Male peacocks have those beautiful fantails but they also have killing spurs designed to blind and maim.

But can we, advanced humans who like opera, live without war? Laboratory experiments have been conducted in which aggression was eliminated from rodents by eliminating other things they possessed. Aside from the obvious reproductive issue, the animals had shorter life spans. Call me a dirty rat, but I might add that two of the greatest generals in history, a Byzantine functionary and a Chinese admiral, were both eunuchs.

War must still be a male thing, right? Wrong. Amazons may not have existed, but the crack troops of the most powerful African empire in the Middle Ages were women. Israeli women have been conscripted and the US armed forces today take pride in the number of women serving in front-line situations. However, at least one of the convicted Abu Ghraib torturers was a woman.

On a historical note, the idea that war is wrong, or at least should be avoided, is quite recent. Some of the oldest writings in the world praise war and what is coyly referred to as “collateral damage”. Unfortunately, we all understand what that means but we still cling, despite superior knowledge, to the idea that war is a thing fought by soldiers, not civilians. Washingtonian socialites would spend pleasant afternoons riding out to view battles in the American civil war. The “smart” bombs of the 1991 Gulf war still make people think war can be limited and clean – or in the parlance, “surgical”. The 30,000 year-old cave paintings in Lascaux depict people fighting with spears. It was only after the American civil war that people began to realise that mass production made killing enormously destructive and that alternatives should be sought. After more than 30,000 years of recorded conflict the Russians were the first to organise an international peace conference – just before the First World War.

War is often claimed to be an innate human function to rid the rest of surplus individuals. Consider the story of Melanesian cricket. In 1929, an Australian “discovered” a vast unknown valley with a large human population in Papua New Guinea. Resources being finite in the valley, a very basic form of warfare prevailed to keep the population down: line up your guys with spears, we’ll line up ours opposite and the side with the most survivors wins. For some bizarre reason, cricket was introduced as a way of pacifying the murderous savages (although I for one am ready to kill to avoid cricket). The game was slightly modified; iron nails were added to the ball, which was thrown at, not to, the batter who was armed with… well, a multi-function battle bat. It took a stone-age civilisation less than five years to improve on what is a mindlessly tedious game anyway.

If anyone thinks these people were “primitive”, the Americans dropped two atom bombs. Ten years later.

Most of us are revolted by the idea that we are hardwired to kill each other. We should be: we have the resources to feed and nurture many times the total human population. The total education budget for the entire planet is less than 1% of what is spent on arms. Perhaps Jesus was just a realist. Maybe he had a sense of foreboding of all the bloodshed that would be spilt in his name. If only he had come to send a blanket.

Not peace, but a sword


Joined July 2010

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biblical weapons of mass destruction, Euclid, the Koran and Melanesian cricket

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