Swords and Ploughshares – Again

A sermon for Wine Before Breakfast on Isaiah 2.1-5

by Amy Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, a short piece ran in Macleans under the title, “Turning swords into ploughshares.” It told the story of a police chief in the one of most crime-ridden states in India, who had made what seemed to be a revolutionary decision: to meltdown more that 60,000 confiscated weapons and fashion everyday tools from the repurposed metal. “We don’t keep the dead bodies of criminals,” he reasoned, “why should we keep their guns?”

That seemed logical enough. So logical, in fact, you wonder why it’s even news: why shouldn’t something awful be redeemed? Why shouldn’t something not just useless but dangerous be reassigned some practical use?

But when I asked my brother, a policeman in Kingston, what happens to the weapons confiscated in that city, he laughed at the silliness of my question: obviously they get destroyed. But how, I pressed to know. And the answer seemed to me more laughable than the question: the weapons – guns and whatever metal implement a criminal might see fit to use or a police officer see fit to confiscate – is sent to a local cement company.

It turns out that guns, when burned to ash, have enough mineral value to replace other raw materials in the production of clinker, the mixture of ground and cooked rocks which eventually becomes cement.

This is laughable. Because it’s literally the opposite of what Isaiah on about: instead of weapons refashioned into farming tools, these days and around here, weapons become something we use to seal up the earth so it can never be farmed again!

This is how far we’ve come.

We’re not just fighting wars instead of planting gardens
We’re fighting wars and building skyscrapers instead of planting gardens.

The perfect irony of this makes me think that Isaiah’s image of swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks is just a pretty figure of speech – it’s easy enough to read it just as some sort of organic metaphor – peace is like a flower, beautiful and delicate; it needs to be cultivated and tended to and helped to grow. That’s almost disgustingly quaint.

What if this is more than a metaphor for the difference between destruction and flourishing, between God’s way and the way of the world, between life and death. What if this is more than images. What if Isaiah foresaw a time when gardening would literally be the antidote to war?

It’s easy to misunderstand the prophets when you grew up an evangelical! It’s easy enough to take the spiritual gifts test when you’re young, to look at the list of possibilities and decide that prophecy sounds the coolest! Because it seems like you get to see the future, and that God is going to whisper in your ear, give you all the answers and tell you what’s coming!

No matter what, whenever I get assigned some well-travelled passage for a Wine Before Breakfast sermon, I inevitably come up against one of these ill-begotten lessons from my youth: In this case it’s that the prophet is probably not best understood as an oracle, looking through a glass ball and relaying what she finds there. Instead I imagine the prophet as both theologian and anthropologist. And an expert in both fields. The prophet has heard God and understood humanity so well that he can put two and two together and get four.

This isn’t so much magic as a deep sense of how things will play out because the prophet knows the players involved, knows us and God so well.

In keeping with this idea that the prophet is more scholar than fortune-teller, I still wonder if Isaiah looked down through the ages and saw a time when war would be so wrapped up in the business of making money and moving it around, that farming, a return to the self-sustaining practices of the land, would literally be it’s opposite.

Isaiah is undoubtedly bent toward the coming of the Kingdom of God. But in speaking from a certain time and place about a future time and place still unknown to us now, thousands of years removed, a great space opens up. Conceivably it’s not so simple as war and then peace. And as the in-between-time stretches out, ever longer, Isaiah must have suspected that the time of war would change colour and dimension, taking on different shapes and significances over time.

Just as peace isn’t something pithy and beautiful, war isn’t uniformly ugly – if history is any indication, it seems to gets uglier by degrees.

For a while now, we’ve been living in a time when the self-same machine that powers war also fuels global capitalism. Couched in terms like “freedom” and “democracy,” for decades now, war has really been about things like purchasing power, the free flow of goods across borders, easy access to oil.

Isn’t it woefully ironic that modern war and modern industry are similarly bent toward the kind of technological innovation and expansion that disfigures and diminishes the capacity of both human beings and the earth?

It started off simply enough – people who worked in factories built things needed in the war, everything from vehicles to radios to uniforms. Mill workers made blankets and parachutes. And soon every farmer, cook and carpenter was implicated in the war effort: whatever you did, whatever job you had, kept the wheels of industrial capitalism moving and industrial capitalism kept the wheels moving on war orders. You might even buy or sell war bonds.

And before long, a president would suggest the way to recover from a terrorist attack was for everyone to go shopping! “America is still open for business.”

Companies would take on the same dangerous qualities as countries: fighting to be bigger, richer, stronger, faster, newer, or just simply right.

Isaiah seems to think that the answer to this – the remedy, the revolution of the last days will be to get low, to stay put, to let God arbitrate between the gathered nations, and while God’s doing that, to get your hands dirty.

He seems to be saying: there will be a day when you won’t win things, you’ll grow things.

The relationship between swords and ploughshares, between spears and pruning hooks isn’t cute and quaint. It’s profoundly significant.

Those most devoted to disarmament in the 1960s knew that you couldn’t just dismantle the arms program and get rid of all the weapons: you’d create a vacuum of energy and resources. You had to replace it with something else. You had to repurpose all of that technology and material into something else. Something that would keep the peace.

Isaiah knew this too. In fact, for his time, he shows a rather advanced understanding of sustainability. Well before it was cool to be green, or before scientists would formally understand ecological systems, Isaiah seemed to know intuitively that the earth was a closed system to matter and that once you’d dug something up out of the earth, or cut if out of the side of a mountain, you couldn’t so easily put it back again. You might as well find another good use for it. He had no conception of junk yards or scrap heaps or leaving garbage out at the curb so that is can be thrown to this mystical place called “away.” For Isaiah there really was no such thing as away. The tools of terror quite necessarily had to be refashioned into something useful in the tight economy of his day.

For the sake of argument, maybe it could have been any number of things newly made from stone – but let’s say that it wasn’t arbitrary. Let’s just suppose that farming implements are, in fact, the point.

And at the risk of pushing this too far, (and this won’t be the first or last time I’ve been accused of over-thinking) let’s suppose that not just any farming implements would fit just as well in Isaiah’s prophecy.

Maybe ploughshares and pruning hooks in particular have something to teach us.

Its obvious the prophet is most concerned with what will be. Perhaps he’s too disheartened by what he sees around him to speak only about what is. And it hadn’t even gotten as bad as it could get. But even though the language of the passage literally leans forward, pointing the way to the coming kingdom of God, there’s something about the images themselves that won’t let us off the hook – won’t let us twiddle our thumbs until God gets back here.

I can’t say I know much about farming – I’m as deeply implicated in the Isaiah’s rebuke as anyone. But I get this idea that ploughshares and pruning hooks are tools of preparation – for preparing the soil to be seeded, for preparing the branches to give birth to new life.

These days, we’re living in between prophecy and its fulfilment.

And living as we do in the throes of an expansive capitalist system which, much like war itself, gobbles everything in its sight, there are precious few of us who are not living in some sort of compromise – between what is and what we wish would be,
between now and not yet
between war and peace.

But in the meantime, in this state of hopeful limbo, we’re not meant to be sitting around.

War descends from a history of war. Each war evokes terrible memories of the wars that came before it, and fear of other wars that may descend from it. I think this is what it means to learn war. This cyclical, ongoing, self-perpetuating pattern.

Preparedness for war inevitably leads to more war.

But war itself isn’t inevitable. We have not yet done all we can to prevent it. What if we prepared instead for peace?

Perhaps elsewhere, but here in our passage, the prophet doesn’t say much about what will happen when the seeds go in the ground and the plants begin to grow and the fields begin to yield a harvest and everyone has enough food to eat and is getting along splendidly. Even though that’s the ultimate hope implied, it’s possible – and again I could be making something out of nothing – but it’s possible that Isaiah stops short of the ultimate vision on purpose. That these images of preparation – ploughshares tilling the earth, pruning hooks cutting away the dead branches – are meant to make the reader sit up in her seat a little, to lean forward, or feel a tingle in her feet, an itchiness in her hands to get to work.

Someday you won’t win things, you’ll grow things.
Someday you won’t grow your country bigger, you’ll just grow food.
Someday you won’t feel the need to spread yourself out, you’ll take care of the spot you’re planted on.
Someday you won’t buy and sell and trade and grow rich, you’ll study to learn eternal the ways of God and God’s good earth.

In the mean time, you might as well get ready, preparing for peace.

Christ is coming to make all things new.
But first we have to get through another Christmas.

Christmas, that great idol to consumer capitalism. When the market seems to be trying out all of its muscles.
That time of year when every emotion is heightened, everything feels heavier, scarier, sadder, or more invigorating.
Christmas which, not unlike times of war, occupies our collective consciousness and consumes more than it cultivates.

So what if preparedness for Christmas and preparedness for the coming kingdom of God have something in common – they both require a preparedness, a readiness to establish what really would be a New World Order:

Growing food.
Putting down roots.
Being hospitable.
Taking care of the wounded.
Walking the less-trodden paths to meet God at the top of the mountain.
Learning peace.

Note: It’s important to acknowledge my deep indebtedness to the ideas of Dorothy Day and Wendell Berry in the work of gathering new words to speak about old truths.

Amy Fisher

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