Swords Into Plowshares
Pastor Julie Reuning-Scherer
I had known Doug three years when he invited me into his basement.
He had shared with me deeply about his service in Vietnam,
About the buddies he had lost in combat
About PTSD and trying to return to his family and civilian life
About the ‘rap group’ with other vets that offered support
And how they eventually grew ill and died- he was the only one left.
I knew that Doug had learned the art of Indian beading as part of the healing process following his service. Before those conversations with Doug, he never came to church.
He had felt the judgment of the nation when he returned from war
And church was really no different The one place that did welcome Vietnam vets was the Native American powwow. At that time, the Indians invited veterans to sweat lodge and traditional healing ceremonies. Doug learned the chants and studied the intricate beading of the tribes.
Doug was still beading when I met him, and his basement was his studio.
I had seen his Indian jewelry, but I was unprepared for what I saw.
Doug had been a munitions officer in Vietnam, and his shelves were full of the tools of the trade Bullet casings, decommissioned hand granades, and various knives and hardware
But each article of war had been turned into something new—
Beaded onto a talking stick, set into jewelry, or decorated with Indian feathers and leather.
Doug’s transformation of munitions into works of art reminds me of the words of Isaiah in our OT lesson today. “[The Lord] shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; 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 anymore.”
The people of Israel had a history checkered with violence.
From the earliest days, it was a recurring theme:
the children of Israel came out of Egypt and wiped out the people they found living in the promised land. David mustered armies and expanded the bounds of the kingdom, putting his enemies to the sword. The kings of Israel were often at war, either defending their territory or enlarging it. Israel grew as a state, but prophets spoke out against their tactics.
By the time we get to Isaiah, some 250 years after King David, the people of Israel were at a crossroads. Bigger empires had been threatening their borders.
The leaders wanted to make alliances with other nations to fend off attack.
The country was gearing up for war. And on the homefront, the things that made Israel a great nation were languishing: care for the widow and the orphan was replaced by cheating the poor. Righteousness and honesty were replaced with bribing officials and seeking political gain. Would Israel resort to violence again?
Into this political and social context, God speaks a new vision.
The sword becomes a plow, which turns the earth in preparation for planting.
The spear becomes a pruning hook, which cuts dead wood away so trees can be more fruitful. The instruments of destruction are transformed into implements of life.
It is a vision of a world where weapons and war are obsolete.
It seems like a beautiful but idealistic vision. Anyone following the news in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq or Afghanistan knows how intractable war can be.
Wars are more often fought today with internal enemies than invading armies from another country. But the carnage is still real, and innocent people continue to be caught in the crossfire. We see it routinely in the media. It can be easy to get cynical, to acclimate to the world as it is.
It can be easy to dismiss the prophetic voice of Isaiah and his vision of peace.
That’s what the people of Isaiah’s day did- they dismissed the vision.
They did not believe things could really change. They didn’t trust in the Lord to guide their collective lives or heed God’s instruction. It wasn’t until they were conquered and had lived in exile 50 years that they began to change. They learned not to take their land or their lives for granted They began the transformative work of practicing justice, forgiveness, peacemaking. Can we be a part of such transformation?
Can we be like Doug and turn weapons into something beautiful?
Can we cultivate Isaiah’s vision of a world where no one needs to learn war anymore?
Would it make any difference if we did—or would it simply add up to hopeless idealism?
One of the highlights of my study seminar in Germany was being in Berlin
on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. What I learned about this historic and peaceful revolution was that it was rooted in prayer. Back in 1982, the Church of St Nicolas in Leipzig, East Germany started holding Peace Prayer services every Monday. They opened their doors to the community for conversation and prayer, as churches were one of the few places where people could speak freely in socialist Germany. The peace prayer movement began to spread throughout E Germany And a conversation grew about staying and changing East Germany, rather than escaping to the West as had been the strategy for two decades.
By 1989, the East Germany government could tell there was power in the growing opposition. They tried to barricade St Nicolas church from the crowds, they arrested people outside the church—But the people kept coming. On October 9, 1989, 70,000 people came to Leipzig pray and protest.The police and military were prepared for more arrests and to quell violence by any means necessary—But that is not what happened.
The protestors all held candles in their hands, and they prayed. The perplexed military police hadn’t expected that. There was no repression, no violence, and the tanks simply rolled away that night.
In an interview with the pastor of St Nicolaus Church, he was asked about his confidence in urging demonstrators to remain peaceful and not to be daunted by the tanks. The pastor replied: We were not in the least confident. We were afraid day and night, but we had the courage of our convictions. The Bible had taught us the power of peaceful protest and this was the only weapon we had. Resorting to violence makes us no better than our enemies, and then we are no longer blessed. This is what I told the young people at the peace prayers and, incredibly, it was a message they understood, and they rejected violence. It still moves me today to recall that in a secular country, the masses condensed the Beatitudes in the Lord's Sermon on the Mount into two words: No violence! And then they practiced what they preached.
The Peace Prayer movement set the stage for the fall of the Wall a month later on November 9, 1989 ‘No violence’ continued to be their slogan. The tools of prayer and scripture transformed the lives and politics of millions of German citizens. If prayer and scripture changed German reality If it turned candles into shields and walls into an opening to a new world Then perhaps this vision of Isaiah isn’t a pipe dream Perhaps it is exactly the kind of imagination that we need to have about the violence in our time Not just on the battlefield of war, but also in the battlefield of our hearts and minds.
Isaiah prophesied: “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hoods; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Advent is a time to foster holy longings.
It is a time when we see the world for what it is, and how far we have to go.
It is a time when we feel anew our need for a Savior.
Isaiah helps us imagine a new world.
A world where children grow up in safety
A place where forgiveness is practiced, and all people have a fair shake at life, liberty and happiness Where no one needs to be sent into combat where all people can walk in light.
Come, let us live in that vision.
Let it ignite our desire for change.
Let it fuel our work to transform our swords into plowshares and our lives into pathways to peace.