Plowshares into Swords?

Monday, November 21, 2011 — Week of Proper 29, Year One

William Byrd, John Merbecke, and Thomas Tallis, Muscians, 1623, 1585, 1585

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 992)

Psalms 106:1-18 (morning) 106:19-48 (evening)

Joel 3:1-2, 9-17

1 Peter 1:1-12

Matthew 19:1-12

[Note: I’ll be going on vacation starting tomorrow. A trip to Taiwan to see my son and to meet my first grandchild. Will return to “Speaking to the Soul” on December 12. Lowell]

The prophet Joel takes a treasured image from both Isaiah and Micah and reverses it. From the eighth century BCE Isaiah 2:4 speaks of God’s restoration of Jerusalem as a city that will lead and inspire international peace: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Also from the eighth century, Micah looks forward to the day when God will judge among nations: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” (4:3b-4a) These two visions have been deeply loved for centuries. They speak of the hope that the instruments of war might be turned to peaceful purposes for the welfare and benefit of people.

Joel turns that vision on its ear: “Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare war, stir up the warriors. Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, ‘I am a warrior.'” Writing probably after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of 586 BCE, Joel imagines holy war, God leading a people bent upon vengeance and restoration. Some other biblical writers have elaborated on Joel’s image of a “valley of decision” where God’s judgment will be executed.

There is a fascinating history of conversation among Biblical writers. What is written in one place by one Biblical author will find interpretation, comment and criticism in another place from another Biblical author. Some tensions run throughout the tradition. One of those tensions is the question of whether God’s people should take up arms and use violence to enforce justice and judgment or whether God’s people should be non-violent and trust God alone for final justice and judgment. You can find writers on both sides of the argument.

For Christians, Jesus is the standard for our reading and interpreting these traditions. His life and his response was pretty clear. At his arrest, one disciple sought to defend Jesus and struck a threatening officer with his sword. Using firm language, Jesus told him to put away his sword: “No more of this.” And Jesus healed the injured enemy. At one point he said that he could call on legions of angels to defend him with force, but he chose not to.

Some Christians have accepted this tradition from Jesus as a commandment for complete pacificism and a total commitment to non-violence, preferring to be victims of violence like Jesus rather than perpetrators of violence. Other Christians have argued for the possibility of armed struggle under very limited and circumscribed conditions. And, in truth, there are many Christians who seem to overlook the standard of Jesus and who look to other places, like Joel, to justify a more militant strategy for solving problems, meeting threats, and even administering vengeance. Christian history is littered with holy wars and even genocide in the name of God.

The Bible is such a vast record of human response that you can find nearly anything you want if you are looking for a verse to justify your opinion. But the person of Jesus is different. When we look at scripture through the lens of Jesus we are required to read it from the perspective of his character and teaching. What we see in Jesus is love and compassion, healing and reaching out to the outcast, sinner and broken — the little, the leprous, and the lost. We see in Jesus deep trust in the divine presence.

When we give Jesus’ voice predominance in the ancient Biblical conversations, we must give precedence to Isaiah and Micah over Joel. The God that Jesus points us to is not a God who is bound to spill blood and desolation toward the oppressors, but the God who seeks to turn their hearts, most powerfully through suffering. That is a hard and challenging standard. But it appears to be Jesus’ way.

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