Malchus’s Ear

Not long ago I heard a sincere Seventh Day Adventist quoting the New Testament to prove that Christ always worshipped on the Sabbath; that he told his followers without qualification to worship on the Sabbath; and that the massive Christian tradition of worshipping on Sunday is a grave disobedience. Christian believers of many stripes find passages in the New Testament (or the Old) to support — incontrovertibly they usually feel — practices that other Christian believers reject.

The Bible is mystifying and contradictory. Yet where else can followers of Christ go to learn how he wants us to live? We can seldom get more than clues. We have the Commandments and the Beatitudes, but they are so terse and general as to be often ambiguous when we try to apply them to the complexities of modern life. Take the question of nuclear armaments, which is agitating people everywhere. Theologians debate the morality of nuclear armaments and arrive at disagreements. So do bishops. So do individuals. All of them search the words and deeds of Christ for clues and the clues lead them in different ways.

My own search always comes back to the story of Christ’s arrest in the Garden of Olives. His disciples tried by drawing their swords to prevent him being arrested. Peter whipped his sword out and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave whose name, St. John says, was Malchus.

Christ rebuked him. “No more of this,” he said, and told them all to put their swords away. In St. Luke’s account, he then restored the ear of the man who had been maimed. Christ seemed not only to forbid his followers the future use of violence, but to cancel the past use. This incident is so striking to me because the disciples were acting in the most justifiable cause I can imagine: defending the life of Christ.

Can this admonition of Christ: “Put up your swords,” really be taken to mean, in the violent twentieth century, “Do away with your bombs”? Does he really tell us not to use violence or threaten violence, even for the sake of preserving Christian civilization, human freedom, or our own lives? His words in the Garden of Olives as in so many other places can call for drastic, dangerous, extreme, radical, foolhardy behavior. They answer my doubts, though.

Those learned in biblical scholarship may chide me for my simplicity, and pragmatists may scoff. They may even persuade me — momentarily. But I always come back for my conscience’s rest to the mysterious restoration of Malchus’s ear.


  • Elizabeth Christman

    Elizabeth Christman is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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