Swords Into Plowshares: The Strenuous Task of Building Peace

by Jeff Fisher, Union Worship Band Lead

Tree of Life (Kester), British Museum

Tree of Life (Kester), British Museum

In the British Museum there is a metal sculpture called the Tree of Life, which depicts a scene of a tree surrounded by a few animals roaming around its base. Created by four artists from Mozambique, the most remarkable thing about this sculpture is the medium: the metal used in creating it was salvaged from decommissioned firearms and other weapons used in the civil war that raged in the artists’ country for over 15 years and claimed over a million lives. I first learned about this sculpture years ago in a class during seminary, but I think of it often every time we are once again faced with the horror of events like those that took place at Santa Fe High School this past week. The Tree of Life is a testament to hope, that a place that has been wracked by violence for so long can look forward to peace and reconciliation, despite the odds and the weight of history stacked against them.

Living in the divisive times that we do when vitriol and rhetoric prevail over patience and reason, the outlook on our future can often appear bleak. Will there ever be an end to violence in schools? Will we ever live in a time where we can discuss solutions to problems like these without villainizing each other? Questions like these swirl in our conversations and in the media constantly, and the frequency with which we ruminate on them without answers is collectively exhausting for our country. We desperately need markers of hope in our culture that remind us that if we have the courage to seek it there is a light at the end of the tunnel, there is a better way to live than this.

A couple of years ago in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando I wrote a song for Union Church titled “Swords Into Plowshares”. The song is based on the second chapter of Isaiah with an assist from 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, and is an encouragement to resist hatred, put down the weapons of war that we wield all too easily, and instead choose to “walk in the light of the Lord” along the path of peace. The words of the prophet that inspired the song are ancient, but on that night when I put them to music I badly needed to hear them and I needed to see the eschatological vision of hope that they portray.

My friend John who plays bass guitar in our church worship band has told me one of the reasons he likes “Swords Into Plowshares” is that he can hear the anger in my voice every time I sing it. I confess, I was very angry when I wrote it. I was angry at the shooter. At the others who at the time I felt like were complicit in that terrible crime. And also at myself, because I was complicit too. Not because I was directly involved obviously, but for my lack of empathy toward the gay community up to that point and my overall apathy toward the contributing factors that lead to acts of violence like this one. The Pulse shooting struck a particular chord with my wife Amy and me because we had recently attended the wedding of her sister and her wife. The night after the tragedy we wrote a letter to the newlywed couple pledging our support to them and promising to advocate for them whenever possible. It was a small gesture in light of everything, but it felt like a baby step away from indifference and toward building peace within our own family.

“Building” is the operative word here, because beating swords into plowshares is a physical, strenuous act. It is not passive, it requires effort, concentration, and creativity. I also understand that it’s a vulnerable act, which is why so often we cling to our weapons, whether they be physical or philosophical in nature. They give us a sense of security, and we justify holding onto them in the name of self-protection. But we’ve seen time and again that exercising our right to arm ourselves comes at a terrible price, and rarely if ever does it result in lasting shalom, because how can you negotiate peace at the tip of a sword?

There’s nothing wrong with anger in and of itself, because we should be outraged by what happened in Texas. I’m positive that Isaiah was angry as he explained to the people of Israel that the pervasive injustice they had become so comfortable with would lead to a reckoning. But I’m also confident that as he preached his vision of hope in Isaiah 2 he earnestly believed that there was a chance to turn things around with God’s help.

My prayer is that we would have the courage as individuals, as the body of Christ, and as a nation to let our anger lead us to take up this vulnerable, strenuous task of breaking down our weapons and recreating them into something life-giving. Only then will be able to hope for the future that the prophet Isaiah speaks of, where people do not rise up against each other, and they will no longer learn war.

Swords Into Plowshares
The mountain of the house of the Lord
Is lifted high above all of the hills
Every nation, tribe, and people comes to call
We all kneel before the same throne and
We shout out with one voice

Beat your swords into plowshares all
You children of the King
Lay your anger down, disarm your hearts and sing
Feel the Spirit move within your bones
As our hymns sound through the halls
O Father bind us here now, one and all

See the wounds in Jesus’ hands, and touch his side
Where the blood was spilled that rescued all humankind
He absorbed our sin and violence forevermore
That we may reconcile, forgive each other and
No longer learn war

Come, let us go to the mountain of God
That we may learn to walk in his ways
Drop your weapons now
And walk in the light of the Lord