Then Jesus said to him, `Put your sword back into its place: for all those
who take the sword will perish by the sword.'
In recent weeks, I have been doing research into the life and thought of
Charles Bonney, the Swedenborgian lawyer who was the originator and guiding
spirit of the 1893 Parliament of the World's Religions. It is striking how
much things have changed since then, not just in terms of technology, but
in terms of our thought-world. Bonney was well aware of serious social
evils and very active in efforts to combat them, and yet he could honestly
believe that a new era of world peace and prosperity was within reach.
When he addressed a Jewish gathering, he was able to call himself "as ultra
and ardent a Christian as the world contains," and to say that "The supreme
significance of this Congress and the others is that they herald the death
of persecution throughout the world, and proclaim the coming reign of civil
and religious liberty."
On reflection, and in the light of several articles he wrote, it seems as
though the strength and the weakness of his outlook were closely allied.
By comparison with present views, he saw his world in black-and-white
terms. He was able to talk about "vices," and about "the better classes."
He saw as a primary purpose of the Parliament "to unite all religion
against all irreligion." In an earlier address calling for the reform of
the politically corrupt jury system, he said, "It is an encouraging sign
that a meeting for such a purpose is held in a church. When the churches
become centres of practical reform, as well as of worship and praise, the
dangerous classes will find themselves confronted by a power that will
overmatch them in organization, skill, and available means. The very soul
of religion is the reform of evils of life; and hence the church is engaged
in its legitimate work when it gives its aid to the enforcement of the laws
for the repression of vice, and the removal of obstacles in the way of a
pure administration of justice."
Since his time, it seems that we have discovered that the problems go
deeper than he realized. Thanks to people like Bonney, many of the most
obvious societal evils have been addressed, but the result has not been
"the pure administration of justice" or "the death of persecution and the .
. . reign of civil and religious liberty." We have discovered instead that
"the dangerous classes" include just about everyone. We have discovered
that technological advances do not result in the elimination of poverty.
It is certainly arguable that we have gone too far. Bonney may have
oversimplified things with his apparently sharp distinction between the
better classes and the dangerous classes, but his zeal and his
effectiveness rested in large measure in his conviction "That the moral law
should be obeyed as necessary to human happiness, and because such is the
will of the Creator." In this he was simply being faithful to his
Swedenborgian theology, which insisted that a moral life was the necessary
foundation of a civil life, and that these two provided the only foundation
for a spiritual life.
The argument against Bonney's stance is simply that, so to speak, it ran
out of effectiveness. It worked against some obvious social evils, but even
within his own community, it did not bring about the just society that
seemed to be within reach. If we look for the reason, we may find it in
another familiar theological principle, one which Bonney quotes in the
usual translation. Unfortunately, the "usual translation" leaves something
to be desired.
As one of the themes for the Religious Parliament, Bonney proposed, "That
evils of life are to be shunned as sins against God." This is one of the
most familiar of Swedenborg's statements, and what is generally overlooked
is that the word translated "shunned" would more precisely be rendered
"fled." The word does not mean simply to turn one's back on, but to run
away from. It certainly has nothing to do with fighting against.
Now, if we look to Scripture for images of our encounters with evils, we
find a great many images of combat. The Old Testament especially is full of
wars. In our first reading, we did have an example of running away, when
the Israelites attacking Ai fled in order to lure their enemies into an
ambush. Clearly, though, this was only a ruse. Normally, the army that
flees is fleeing in defeat.
When we turn to the Gospels, though, the picture is different. The only
time Jesus approached violence was in his cleansing of the temple, and
this strikes the reader as uncharacteristic. More in keeping with his
character and his teaching is his rebuke of Peter at the time of the
betrayal. "Those who take the sword will perish by the sword." This is,
after all, the Jesus who taught that we should agree with our adversaries,
love our enemies, bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us,
and pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us.
The general message seems to be that we must begin with a militant stance,
but that we are to grow into a more peaceable one. If we recognize that as
we grow older, we discover deeper and subtler enemies within ourselves,
then it appears that the more obvious problems can and should be dealt with
by direct opposition. Where there is a clear issue of moral versus immoral
behavior involved, we are to haul up our socks and, in Swedenborg's phrase,
When we get to the subtler issues, though, this does not work. Take, for
instance, our tendency to evaluate ourselves by comparison with others, or
to evaluate others by comparison with ourselves. This can be too slippery
for us to get hold of. If we try to combat it directly, we find ourselves
enmeshed in thoughts about our own worth or lack of it, proud of our
humility and ashamed of our pride. We know from experience that the only
way out of this mire is to become absorbed in something else, usually
because the phone rings or because some person or some task comes into our
The issue turns out to be a fairly obvious one. When the "enemy" is our
trust in our own moral or spiritual strength, we cannot defeat it by the
exercise of moral or spiritual strength. We do not overcome
self-righteousness by forcing ourselves to be more righteous. We do not
overcome it by becoming less righteous, either. In fact, we do not overcome
it at all. It is overcome for us.
Perhaps the most radical way of describing how it is overcome is to turn to
the image of "fleeing" or "running away," and to say that
self-righteousness is overcome for us only when we run away from a
particular form of responsibility--the form of responsibility that involves
accepting credit or blame. It means learning to say "I have done well"
without a trace of the thought, "I am a good person," and to say "I have
done badly" without a trace of the thought, "I am a bad person." I am
accountable for what I do and say, yes, but that has nothing to do with my
worth as an individual. It simply means that I should try to build on
whatever good I have accomplished and should try to remedy any harm I have
done. There is no way to face the issue of my worth. I can only "shun" it,
can only run away from it.
This is no light matter, no optional feature for the specially gifted. Our
theology tells us that this taking credit and blame, under the title of
proprium, is at the heart of all our evils. As long as anxiety about our
self-image persists, out moral efforts will be flawed. The moral life will
be experienced as a life of privation rather than as a life of happiness.
We will not be able to give our attention to others, because we will be to
worried about their opinions of us. We will not be able to forgive those
who have trespassed against us, because we will be so preoccupied with our
own hurt feelings that we cannot even begin to see the world through their
"Those who take the sword will perish by the sword." The first "sword" in
Scripture is the flaming sword placed with the cherubim at the entrance to
Eden after Adam and Eve were driven out. Swedenborg takes it as a symbol of
"our `own' love (and "own" here is basically the same word as proprium)
with its insane cravings and the misbeliefs that result from them." This is
the evil we cannot take arms against, the evil we cannot accept
responsibility for. This is the sword that will kill us if we take it in
hand, whether it is the sword of our self-esteem or the sword of our
self-abasement. In another image, these are the possessions we must sell if
we are to enter the kingdom--everything good or evil that we claim as our
In a sense, then, the message is very simple: "Don't worry about it." When
we get caught up in the pride/shame treadmill, about all we can do is
remember that if we are faithful in the decisions we can make, the Lord
will eventually deliver us from this enemy that we cannot fight. For as our
theology assures us, as we tend to our temporal issues as best we can, the
Lord tend to the eternal ones that are beyond our ken.
. Charles C. Bonney, "The Genesis of the World's Religious Congresses of
1893," The New Church Review (Jan. 1894), p. 93
. ibid., p. 82
. ____________, Jury reform: the corruption of the jury system, and the
remedy, A speech delivered in behalf of the Citizens' league of Chicago, by
C. C. Bonney (Chicago: Cowles and Dunkley, printers, 1882), p. 11.
. Genesis, p. 82.