There’s a somewhat famous scene in the movie The Sixth Sense in which the troubled young boy Cole, is lying on his bed, talking with his friend and psychologist, Bruce Willis’ character, Malcolm. As Cole is getting ready to go to sleep, he tells Malcolm that he has a secret to tell. Malcolm agrees to hear it and not tell anyone else, and Cole reveals, “I see dead people.” Malcolm asks him, “In your dreams?” Cole shakes his head no. Malcolm asks, “While you’re awake?” Cole nods his head yes. Malcolm asks, “How often do you see them?” Cole answers in a fearful, soft voice, “All the time, they’re everywhere.” Malcolm at first believes Cole is delusional, like other patients he has seen, but after a while counsels Cole that perhaps he can use his gift, his sixth sense, his ability to see things that others do not, as a way of helping the living and the dead resolve unfinished work. As the film goes on, Cole learns to do this in a way that eventually leads to Malcolm also resolving his own unfinished work.
The Hebrew prophets are those individuals who were haunted by visions of things unseen by their contemporaries. They saw things imperceptible, and often times unbelievable to kings and peoples and others claiming to be prophets. They were troubled souls, sensitive to the movement of God and the currents of history that they saw and heard around them.
The prophet Jeremiah said, “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste.” (4:19-20). Before anyone could hear it, Jeremiah hears the terrors of war on his people.
Daniel sees the rising and falling of empires that appear to him in the form of different beasts who devour what is around them. The text says, “As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me.” (7:15).
But the prophets were also haunted with visions of astounding beauty and impossible peace, getting glimpses into a future as yet unimagined.
“The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains…all the nations shall stream to it…The Lord will 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 any more.”
It’s a grand vision with a very simple idea. This is the idea that caused a number of us to choose it as one of the scriptures we hold most dear. Swords into plowshares. Refashioning a material that has been used for harm, destructive purposes, to be used for good.
This is a plowshare, or a type of plowshare. It came from Keith Lehman’s dad’s farm. These have changed in form over the years, but their basic function is to go into the ground and, as they get pulled along by draft animal or tractor, to overturn the earth. Put the organic matter on top back into the soil and loosen up the ground for good aeration in preparation for planting. It is an instrument of agriculture which produces food for life. It’s a good way of using steel.
Swords have also changed in form over the years. Now they appear as guns, fighter jets, tanks, and armored humvees. An updated version of Isaiah’s vision could be something like “they shall turn their drones into wind turbines. They will grind up their guns and turn them into greenhouses.” It’s the same idea. God’s dream of shalom looks like one big recycling program. Rumpke has to build new plants and hire a slew of new workers as all the instruments or war are collected and sorted to be melted down and formed into instruments of peace-time abundance.
It must have been a thought that pierced the consciousness of the people of Israel. The vision is repeated in almost the exact same form in the book of Micah, another prophet. After speaking of the swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, Micah adds, “but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken” (4:4). When everyone has possession of land and the food security of a vine and a fig tree, then no one can make them afraid, and there’s no need for swords.
If enough people become deluded with such peaceful visions, then perhaps it starts to become more of a reality.
The swords into plowshares meme does persist. One of the statues outside the United Nations headquarters in New York portrays a muscular man holding a hammer above his head, getting ready to bring it down on a sword that is already starting to look like a plowshare. It was a gift from the Soviets back in 1959.
World peace is a lofty and worthy goal, but I’m also interested in the smaller ways that swords into plowshares works itself out. Anywhere, anytime, on any scale; within the human heart or on the societal level, where something harmful and destructive gets converted into something constructive and redemptive. These things happen all the time. So what I’d like to do is just tell a few stories of places where I see this happening. Some of these may not seem all that spiritual, perhaps as spiritual as a sweaty blacksmith pounding on a piece of hot iron; but I think they qualify as swords into plowshares, and they help make visible that vision that Isaiah and Micah and others saw so long ago.
So many of us have milk and beef in our diet, which come from cows, which produce a lot of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than CO2. A large dairy in Northwest Ohio, called Bridgewater Dairy is getting attention for its creative use of this methane and cow manure. The Columbus Dispatch did a write up on the farm a couple years ago and writes: “Bridgewater is the second-largest user of electricity in a five-county area, but it also produces more electricity than it can use. Three times a day, large vacuums suck up the more than 100 pounds of manure produced daily by each cow. The manure is pumped into an anaerobic digester, a huge concrete underground vault, where methane rises to the top and is piped out to power two 1,000-horsepower engines. Those engines supply enough power for Bridgestone’s needs and extra electricity that the farm sells to the local power company.” It also just so happens that Leon Weaver, who heads the farm, is a 1968 graduate of Goshen College.
And they shall turn their methane into energy, their cow manure into horse power.
Abbie and I recently watched the documentary “Waste Land” which tells the story of a project of the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. After a lot of success being based in New York, he decided that he wanted to return to his native Brazil for a new project. He wanted to work with garbage in some way and feature the people who worked among it in one of the world’s largest landfills, outside Rio de Janeiro. He goes to the Jardim Gramacho dump and meets the catadores, the pickers, who forage the dump for recyclables which they sell to make their living. As he starts to get to know some of them and their stories, he decides that his project is going to be taking photographs of different pickers, then projecting the picture onto the large concrete floor of a warehouse, and then having the pickers help recreate the photograph on that large scale using garbage to fill in the spaces and create the lines and shades, such that each catador is literally composed of the garbage that they wade in each day. He then took a large photograph of each of those trash portraits for the gallery. Over the course of the film you get to know the stories of these pickers as they help create their images, and you see how their lives are transformed when their stories are told to the public through this display and they earn the money from the sales of the images. In Rio de Janeiro this exhibit drew the second largest attendance in history. The only one that drew more happened a few years earlier and that artist was a guy by the name of Picasso. It’s a beautiful story, a beautiful film and has won all kinds of awards. It’s called Waste Land.
“And they shall turn their trash into portraits, and the beauty of the workers will be revealed.”
Staying on the theme of art, moving much closer to home. A small act. As you may know, one of the banes of the natural world in Hamilton County and our surrounding region is honeysuckle. It has a balanced relationship with its environment back in Europe and Asia, but here it takes over hillsides and forests and chokes out other trees that would otherwise be growing up to replace the older ones that will someday fall. It’s a sword, and it’s winning the war in many places. But this past April Enright Village and Imago Earth Center in the Price Hill neighborhood hosted an event they called honeysuckle art. I gave a call this week to Eileen Shenk who is a founding member of Imago and Enright and she talked about how the 37 acres of forest that they own there is inundated with honeysuckle. During this honeysuckle art event they invited the public to come help them make objects like baskets and picture frames and sculptures out of the honeysuckle branches. This coming Spring they plan to host a “Pest Fest” which has the same idea in mind, although Eileen said that she personally doesn’t like the name, so it might get changed.
“And they shall weave their honeysuckle into baskets.”
I don’t have a particular story with this one, but I’m always amazed when people are able to make a swords into plowshares kind of transformation within their own lives. In some way, they have had a sword used against them, carry some kind of wound from that, and, through the grace of God, they allow that sword to be transformed into something that gives life. We might think of our souls as places where that kind of great transformation is possible, the blacksmith shop, where those experiences of pain and injustice and loss in our lives provide the raw materials for forging something else. In his teachings Richard Rohr often repeats those lines, “If you don’t transform it, you will transmit it.” These things can get passed on in their destructive form or in a new form. To undergo that slow inner transformation is an act of peacemaking each of us engage in daily.
“And they shall form their wounds into kindness; their pain into compassion.”
I hope there are stories you can think of that you encounter in your work or friendships or that you read about that qualify as swords being turned into plowshares. Maybe someone could compile all the swords into plowshares stories that we hold among us and that we have witnessed.
One of the central signs of Christian faith also does this, although in a unique way. The cross has become a symbol of peace, a symbol of reconciliation with God and humanity, but it was originally a sword of the deadliest variety. An instrument of Roman capital punishment. A deterrent against acting out of line within the empire. It’s fairly remarkable that such a violet instrument could come to represent anything resembling peace. Instead of the sword being beat into a plowshare, it remains a sword, the cross is still a cross; but it has become stripped of all its power, and infused with a new power. This is what Jesus was all about. This is what God is all about. This is what we are to be all about. The divinely initiated grand recycling program. Making peace visible not just to the few visionary prophets, but for all of creation to see.