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Hayder al-Khoei and the sword of St Paul

[ by Charles Cameron — when is a sword just a metaphor, when does it spill blood, and what can be done about it when it does? ]

Hayder al-Khoei is presently in Rome for an interfaith conference on “Religions and Cultures in Dialogue” organised by the Community of Sant’Egidio, attended Mass this morning at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, and posted this fascinating comment on Twitter:


According to one of his recent bio notes, Hayder al-Khoei is “an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, a London-based think tank on international affairs. He holds a masters degree in international studies and diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.” He’s generally considered highly qualified to speak on issues relating to Shi’a Islam — he’s also the scion of an illustrious clerical family, son of Sayyid Abdul Majid Al-Khoei and the grandson of Grand Ayatollah Abdul-Qasim Al-Khoei.

I can’t tell whether it was just the sight of St Paul’s sword in this particular statue that gave al-Khoei this thought, or whether it’s an idea more generally found among Muslims — that the early Christians in general were a militant bunch, or St Paul in particular. But al-Khoei’s comment is worth reflecting on.

Here are two counter-factuals to consider — not as statements of belief or historical fact, but as historical fictions that may yet give us glimpses ointo tje parallelisms and divergences between the two religions.


What of Christianity if Christ had not been crucified?

What would Christianity have looked like at 100 CE — or look like today, perhaps — if Christ hadn’t died on the cross (Muslims believe he didn’t), but had lived to see his followers persecuted and killed and the Jerusalem Temple destroyed by the Romans ikn 70 CE? Might his instructions gto his disciples have moved from an emphasis on peace to instructions for insurrection andd self defence over that period of time? See Luke 22. 35-36:

And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.

In the Gospel narrative, this instruction lasts for only a short while — Luke 22 continues:

And he said unto them, When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye any thing? And they said, Nothing. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end. mAnd they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.

and then, after the episode called agony in the garden, in verse s 47-51 of the same chapter:

And while he yet spake, behold a multitude, and he that was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them, and drew near unto Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said unto him, Judas, betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss? When they which were about him saw what would follow, they said unto him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword? And one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear. And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him.


And what of Islam, if Muhammad had not been persecuted in Mecca?

And what might Islam have looked like in 710 CE — or look like today, maybe — if the persecution of the Prophet and his disciples had not driven him from Mecca to Medina, and his teachings had continued to be peaceable as they were in his earlier Meccan suras of the Qur’an?


To my mind, each of these stories of what never happened opens a possibility for mutual understanding between the two faith narratives: I offer them for this purpose.

Swords have been drawn, and blood spilled, in matters of conflict between religions. It is my hope and prayer, and that of those at the conference al-Khoei is attending, that the time will not be long in coming when the swords are sheathed and healings performed…

11 Responses to “Hayder al-Khoei and the sword of St Paul”

  1. Grurray Says:

    Good work as usual Charles.
    How about Matthew 10:34?
    “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

  2. Timothy Furnish Says:

    Except that the rest of that verse (Matthew 10:34ff), Luke 12:51ff) makes it clear that the “sword” is belief in Jesus as the Christ, which will divide even families. There is not hint whatsoever that an actual sword is meant. 

  3. Grurray Says:

    True. I actually don’t generally subscribe to a literal interpretation of the bible, and have no doubt of the absolute peaceful and loving motives and missions of Christ. I suspect the part about the sword may have been thrown in there for embellishment, emphasize the social upheaval of the Christian message, or to make some connection with the current events happening when it was written down years after Jesus died.
    As opposed to Jesus, Images of St. Paul with the sword make more sense because he was probably familiar with it’s use, which he admitted as much:
    “beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it”


  4. Timothy Furnish Says:

    Thanks, Charles. Yes, St. Paul was intimately familiar with swords–especially the one the Romans used to behead him. 

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    That last comment was from Grurray, Tim — but I agree, my Biblical reading is not a literal one.  
    As to St Paul’s sword in the sculpture, Peter and Paul are generally considered the “founding” apostles and thus portrayed together — Peter is frequently holding the upside-down cross on which he was martyred, and it wouldn’t be any surprise if Paul was similarly shown holding the sword which was used in his case, as Tim mentions. There is also the (explicitly metaphorical) “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” in Ephesians 6.17.
    The Prophet’s swords, by contrast, can be found in various museums — see this Index from the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

  6. carl Says:

    If Jesus hadn’t been crucified, there would have been no need for him to have been. That was the prime purpose of his being.

    Interesting thought though.

  7. zen Says:

    If Jesus hadn’t been crucified, there would have been no need for him to have been. That was the prime purpose of his being.
    Among the apocryphal, gnostic, masonic and British Israelism legends was the story of Jesus who survived his crucifixion and escaped with the help of Joseph of Arimathea to Roman Britain, where he married Mary Magdalene and lived out his life. in other stories Jesus learned the mystical secrets of the remaining Celtic druids and passed these on to his “true” followers. Usually this involved various mummery about Anglo-Saxons being descended from the tribe of Dan or the lost tribes of Israel generally. Or Christ having traveled to India prior to his rise at age 30 as a threat to Roman rule in Galilee and the order of  Pharisees.
    The American ideological descendants of British Israelism, or it’s more virulent mutation, are the Christian Identity and Aryan nations movements who sometimes preach, at times secretly, the doctrine of the
    Phineas Priesthood of which Charles has written. 
    Myths contain dangerous power 

  8. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    This post and discussion reminded me of Hebrews 4:12:
    For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. 

  9. Grurray Says:

    Different Arians, but after the empire crumbled there was a period of Christian civil wars between the two main strains, Arianism and Nicenianism.
    The Franks lead by Clovis, a convert to Roman Catholicism, fought the Arian Christian Goths in southern Gaul.
    The Vandals were also Arians who overran North Africa and persecuted Nicenes. They probably caused St. Augustine’s death with a siege on Hippo. They were eventually defeated by the Byzantines in another Christian on Christian struggle.
    Crusades and crusaders are a fixture of the popular lexicon (even Obama the other day lamented the ideological “crusade” of the govt shutdown), but what has shaped the Catholic Church more over the years has been internal strife.
    From the criminalization of heresies to the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation to the Tridentines, Catholicism is still dealing with the implications of apostates, and, as that passage from the Catechism shows, it informs critical doctrines and dogma. Obedience to the hierarchy is still of supreme importance.
    Early Christianity was indeed forged in the crucible of suppression and persecution. The sword is definitely a symbol of Paul’s martyrdom and fidelity to Christ.
    The impact of the raw warlike image, however, is undeniable. It says this is an institution with power and with unquestionable authority.
    In hoc signo vinces

  10. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    In Alfred Edersheim’s classic, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, he provides a graphic description of Christ cleansing the temple—and He had a weapon, but not a sword:
    “Scarce had He entered the Temple-porch, and trod the Court of the Gentiles, than He drove thence what profanely defiled it. There was not a hand lifted, not a word spoken to arrest Him, as He made the scourage of small cords (even this not without significance) and with it drove out of the Temple both the sheep and the oxen; not a word said, nor a hand raised, as He poured into their receptacles the changers’ money, and overthrew their tables. His Presence awed them, His words awakened even their consciences; they knew, only too well, how true His denunciations were. And behind Him was gathered the wondering multitude, that could not but sympathise with such bold, right royal, and Messianic vindication of Temple sanctity from the nefarious traffic of a hated, corrupt, and avaricious Priesthood. It was a scene worth witnessing by any true Israelite, a protest and an act which, even among a less emotional people, would have gained Him respect, approbation, and admiration, and which, at any rate, secured his safety.” (Page 383 of the ebook linked above, page 373 of the original)
    In addition, when Jesus was apprehended in the garden, Peter loped off the ear of one Malchus—a servant of the high priest using his sword:
    “Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus.” John 18:10
    I heard an old Baptist preacher once observe that when Peter took the ear, he was “aiming for brains…” 
    Those days were much more violent and brutish than our modern era, so not even Christ’s Peter was unarmed. And I believe the power of the image of the Word as a sword is exemplified no better than the first 18 verses of John’s Gospel, where the Word in the Christian context is defined:
    And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John 1:14
    As an aside Charles, I do like it when your posts drive to my theology books. 

  11. Charles Cameron Says:

    I enjoy that too, Scott!  Thanks!

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