Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Swords into Plowshares

World Sunday for Peace was this past Sunday, May 22. Did your church observe it? Neither did mine. But it wouldn’t have been a bad idea.
The World Sunday for Peace was part of the World Council of Churches' International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) which ends today, May 25, in Kingston, Jamaica. The IEPC marks the culmination of the WCC’s “Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation.”
Among other places, about a month ago the World Sunday for Peace was announced on “Swords into Plowshares,” the blog of the Peacemaking Program and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations of the General Assembly Mission Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
As is found on numerous other websites the Presbyterian blog gives this prayer that congregations, communities, and individuals were encouraged to use on the World Sunday for Peace. The first part of that prayer goes like this:
God of peace and possibility, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier: We approach you to ask once again for your mercy, forgiveness and a fresh start. We ask you to help us give peace a chance, in this world. We want to give peace a chance, yet we have already missed so many opportunities. We have sabotaged so many initiatives; instead of overcoming evil with good, we have stood by while good was overpowered. Forgive us, Lord. Dona nobis pacem: Give us peace, we pray.
The words “swords into plowshares” come from the Old Testament, as most of you know well. They are found both in Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3.
You also likely know about the “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares” statue on the east side of the U.N. Headquarters in New York City. That remarkable sculpture was done in 1957 by Evgeniy Vuchetich (1908-74), a Soviet sculptor.
Just recently I saw another remarkable work of art portraying the same idea. This is the “Plowshare Sculpture” done by Arlie J. Regier (b. 1931) and presented to Clay County (MO) in 1990. Even though I have lived in Liberty for several years now, I just happened to see this sculpture (pictured below) for the first time last month, and was quite impressed by it.
Of course, modern battles are not fought with spears, and not many people now even know what a plowshare is. Still the message should be clear to all: weapons of war badly need to be converted into purveyors of peace. That was what lay behind the slogan “atoms for peace,” and it was not a bad idea. But it is a very difficult idea to implement, as the damaged nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan, so sadly remind us.
There are a number of peace activist groups who use plowshares (or ploughshares) in their name. One such group is “Project Ploughshares,” which was established in 1976 as an agency of The Canadian Council of Churches “to give practical expression to the fulfilment of God’s call to bear witness to peace, reconciliation, and non-violence and to contribute to the building of a national and international order that will serve the goals of peace with justice, freedom, and security for all.”
That sounds like a good “mandate” to me, and I pray that it increasingly becomes the conscious goal of each of us as individuals, of our communities of faith, and even of the countries in which we life.


  1. Thanks for the reminder, Leroy. This is one realm of human affairs I studied rather extensively while in college. As an intense, Bible-studying evangelical, I determined that followers of Christ had to be pacifists. I was even able to acquire Conscientious Objector (noncombatant) status as a potential draftee, although I wasn't a member of a peace church. It became moot because I wasn't drafted. I wouldn't be so legalistic today about pacifism, but I still believe that every act of war/violence needs to be strongly on the defensive vis-a-vis Christian faith.

    Having studied the gospels and the issue extensively, I find Christianity's historical comfort with war (at least since about 300 CE) one of the most bizarre accommodations Christianity made with the world.

  2. Art can communicate amazingly.
    The second, however piece appears a rendering of the word of the LORD to Joel son of Pethuel Ch 3 (4 in the Orthodox Bible). Orthodox interpretation has this book as a metaphor of Christ and the Church as used by St. Peter.

    The whole concept is difficult to grasp and understand. Christ never condemned the Roman warriors, and brought them into the Church early on. And St. Paul used them as a valuable resource. Yet he also speaks of the struggle within, doing that which we know to be wrong. The Prince of Peace, himself twice a violent judge in his own time, states that his kingdom is not of this world.

    I have known and met some amazing peacemakers in my time, I have also known and met the men of God who are warriors who despise evil despots. Both sets are servants of the LORD seeking to do his will in righteousness and justice. I am thankful for both.

  3. The third chapter of Ecclesiastes begins with the famous line "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." Then it follows with a series of "time" statements, ending in verse 8 with "a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time for peace." I do not see any way to hide from this sweeping observation. What we can do as Christians is to use all our being to make these lines full of grace, not horror.

    We often observe that the Lord is slow to anger, and quick to forgive. However, if we follow the saying back to the source, we are at Exodus 34:6-7, which begins generously, but ends with "visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children to the third and the fourth generation." Later prophets railed against the misuse of this verse, such as in Ezekiel 18:2 and Jeremiah 31:29, where the prophets criticize the saying "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." Yet we know it still is in some ways true. From Northern Ireland, to Israel, to Kashmir, to the former Yugoslavia, to the United States, we know it is true. We cannot avoid our history, even as each generation is still responsible for its decisions.

    Even when we move to the life of Jesus, he may be the lamb of God, but he is also the prophet who takes a whip and clears the temple. The parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13 contains the advice to let the crop and the weeds both grow, for attempting to destroy the weeds would also destroy the crop. The sorting will be done at harvest. Indeed, the imagery of the harvest grows to a rider on a white horse in Revelation, who by chapter 19 has a robe dipped in blood.

    All this is a mystery and a paradox. Theologians have struggled to define a "just war." I believe the wobbly result is not due to any failure of intention, but rather is a reflection of the necessary limits of our fallen world. War is neither inherently glorious, nor inherently evil. Perhaps we could think of it as being like thalidomide, the drug which created a generation of birth defects when given to pregnant women for nausea, but which has recently shown promise as a treatment for certain cancers.

    We must treat the beating of swords into plowshares as a science to be learned, not just as a dream to be imagined. This is one beating we must learn, and we must learn it through observation, experiment and reflection.

  4. This reminds me: happy belated birthday to Daniel Berrigan, who turned 90 earlier this month.

  5. I hate to be combative about combat :) , but I would suggest it's a stretch to use a variety of scriptures to get past Jesus' clear statements regarding loving enemies and turning the other cheek, as well as Paul's sentiments which seemed to suggest one should do no harm, and that vengeance belongs to the Lord--not to mention the overall spirit of their teachings and their lives. Ecclesiastes is my favorite book of the Bible, but it expresses a variety of sentiments inconsistent with later beliefs of early Christianity. And there is a universe of difference between Jesus' driving entrepreneurs out of the temple and the practices of water boarding, snipers, smart bombs, and carpet bombing.

    If Roland Bainton was right ("Christian Attitudes Toward War"), the first several generations of Christians understood the spirit of Christ to be unequivocally pacific. I think we Christians (including me) who justify war must come clean that we have compromised one of the most fundamental aspects of the spirit of Christ. We've gone down the path of Reinhold Niebuhr and compromised with a fallen world for, I would grant, rationally defensible reasons. (I'm quite Niebuhrian in my views.) However, they cannot be squared with the Jesus of the canonical gospels. In other words, we might be followers of Christ, but we're not willing to go that far with him. In still other words, we don't really agree with Jesus that we should always turn the other cheek or that we should always love our enemies.

    And surely the U.S.'s tendency to glamorize war and warriorhood is even farther away from the spirit of Christ in this matter. I had a pastor who used to say, "You can have war or you can have Christ, but you can't have both." I have a another pastor friend who has said that any participation in or support of war we do as Christians must be done confessionally [i.e., regretfully and sorrowfully], never triumphally. Those two positions seem to me the only defensible positions for Christians.

    I'm not happy about these conclusions. Sometimes I want to beat my patriotic chest, wave the flag, and say, "Yeah, Go, America!" in its war efforts. And I've been known to do that. But it seems to me that intellectual honesty requires the recognition that such warrior fervor is not consistent with the spirit of Christ as manifested in the gospels or the epistles of the New Testament.

  6. As the one who brought Ecclesiastes into the discussion, let me say that I mostly agree with Antonkjacobs. I have no respect for the jingoistic imperial logic of the military-industrial complex. The bizarre launch of the current war in Iraq is a classic example of the species.

    However, I cannot accept the full opposite of complete pacifism, either. Jesus told us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's. I can accept a lot of ambiguity in that. I can accept a tremendous mystery and challenge, too.

    As 1 sojourner pointed out, Jesus never condemned any of the many Roman soldiers he encountered. For example, consider the exchange in Matthew 8:5-13, where Jesus not only speaks kindly to a centurion, but even holds him up as an example. He used some strikingly military metaphors at times. In Luke 14:31-32 Jesus contemplates a king deciding whether he has the forces to fight a war. By the time the gospel reaches Revelation, the military metaphors become even more pronounced.

    Jesus is far more explicit about the way of peace than about the way of war. Clearly, we are to do all we can to be instruments of peace. We must bear witness against the excesses of the nations, including our own. However, at the end of the day, we cannot escape that we live in fallen world, and sometimes it is indeed time for war.

  7. Hear, hear.
    Both well stated.

    Robert Gates has indicated the defense budget could be cut very significantly, except neither Democrats nor Republicans want contracts or bases cut in their districts and states.

    Also, although we are citizens of this land, Christians need to be taught that our primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God - and that should alter our practical living, not just our religious expression.

  8. Arlie Regier passed away in 2014.