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war to peace beating swords into plowshares

War To Peace: Beating Swords Into Plowshares

Two passages in the ancient Hebrew bible by prophets or holy men who claimed to have been inspired by Yahweh, point out the extreme opinions people can have concerning the issue of war and peace. Both of these writers felt as if they were giving good advice to the people of Israel; however, the tone of their arguments could not be more diametrically opposed. Governments, cultural groups, and each one of us agonize over the issues they brought up.

The prophet Joel in chapter three of his book written around 800 BC, called on the people of Israel to engage in war against their enemies. He admonished them to: “Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Wake up the mighty men! Let all the men of war draw near; let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weak say ‘I am strong’.

In contrast to Joel, most thoughtful people might prefer to embrace the council of the prophet Isaiah when he wrote in chapter two of his book, possibly written around 700 BC: “The Lord shall judge among the nations and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

It is possible that these opposing views were reactions to the state of political circumstances in Israel when each of these prophets lived. Ancient Israel, like many nations throughout history, had to respond to the actions of its neighbors, whether friendly or antagonistic. Around the time these writers lived, Israel and Judah were periodically attacked by Assyria.

Regardless of the historical circumstances, however, surely Isaiah’s point of view is much nearer to what most rational people today want in their hearts in spite of what some of our world’s government leaders or weapons advocates profess. Most people believe Isaiah expressed a strong eternal truth: he did not want war, violence, or aggressive behavior in his generation, nor do reasonable and rational people want it today.

Isaiah’s passage has become the international standard for those who would like to see the end of war. One popular example of spreading this ideal is that in 1959 the Soviet Union gave a sculpture by Yevgeny Vuchetich to the United Nations sculpture garden in New York City of a man beating a sword into a plowshare. It conveys a poignant message, especially from a nation who many viewed as somewhat antagonistic in its political outlook at that time. And it seems particularly ironic that the nation that gave an impressive sculpture which implies a theme of peace among nations would allow its current leader to instigate a recent senseless and bloody invasion of its neighbor.

The eloquent Isaiah passage is inscribed on a wall in the Ralph Bunche Park near the UN building. The park honors Ralph Bunche who won the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his peace negotiations in the Middle East, and who was the first African- American to earn the prestigious award. Obviously, the sentiment expressed by Isaiah is much more in fitting with the peaceful goals of the United Nations and the sentiments of Ralph Bunche than Joel’s call to arms.

Unfortunately, it seems as if the aggressive side of our human nature all too often has followed the path advocated by Joel when he called on his people to arm themselves and prepare for war. Nearly every nation on Earth today has found it necessary to establish an army to be ready if another nation attacks or to quell civil unrest. Conflicts from individual murders to all out wars seem to be the major theme of our human history, and today these sad stories of crime and killing dominate our daily news.

It is interesting that both Joel and Isaiah used plowshares and pruning hooks as symbols. Plowshares and pruning hooks are farming implements that since the advent of agriculture thousands of years ago have helped humanity create life and nourishment from the soil. The way these Hebrew writers used the same images to convey opposite points of view is a poignant contrast.

Other writers have also used the sword to plowshares imagery to convey a message of peace. Another Hebrew writer, Micah, who wrote a few years after Joel and Isaiah, used almost the same wording as Isaiah when he wrote in chapter four of his book: “And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plough-shares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Two centuries later and many miles away, the Chinese philosopher Confucius wrote in his Analects about his desire to find a king or ruler for the Chinese people who would lead them by the rules of propriety and music so that they should not care to fortify their cities by walls and moats but would fuse their swords and spears into implements of agriculture.

In 1914 a flag designed for the Irish Citizen Army contained a picture of a plough, with part of it made from a sword, and seven of the stars of the constellation Ursa Major. Called the Starry Plough, the flag symbolized the idea that Ireland would control its own destiny ‘from the plough to the stars’ as the nation strove to break away from oppressive British rule. A play written in 1926 by Irish writer Sean O’Casey called The Plough and the Stars was a tragedy about poverty in Ireland in the early 20th century.

Two other uses of sword and ploughshare symbols are the Swords and Ploughshares Museum in Ontario, Canada dedicated to the ‘Citizen Soldier’ who must leave his family and his work to go fight for his nation. Another is the California Bay Area organization called Swords to Plowshares which helps low-income military veterans find good homes.

Whereas a plow is seen as an instrument that brings life-giving food from the soil, throughout our history a sword has been the symbol of conflict and war that destroys human life. Many past kings and military leaders had their portraits painted with a sword somewhere in the picture in order to symbolize the glory and honor of their military prowess.

Today, pictures of a sword can be found on military insignias around the world as a symbol of a nation’s ability to fight when provoked. Yet, could a sword also be interpreted as a symbol of how little we have advanced in our understanding of human nature and how we are still solving problems through conflict rather than rational negotiation and fair compromise. Obviously, the maturation of our consciousness is still evolving.

It should be an easy choice for rational human beings between promoting life or destroying it. But war and conflict fueled by greed and lust for power have been used frequently as malevolent methods of advancing an economic or political agenda or to eliminate a group of people who someone considered undesirable or inferior in some way. Unfortunately, there have always been those among us who have the tendency to value humans only as long as they are useful, and when they are no longer needed, they can be discarded.

Joel called on his fellow Israelites to be strong in a physical or military sense. However, is it not time that we redefined the word ‘strong’ when it comes to human relations? Should not the word ‘strong’ be applied to someone who nurtures life instead of someone who destroys it? It would seem that the truly strong are the people Isaiah wrote about who sought peace, not the people Joel wrote about who saw strength as only the willingness to kill an enemy.

We know today that it takes patience and intelligence more than physical or military strength to negotiate a peaceful settlement to a political or social conflict so that no lives are lost and no property destroyed. It is fine that Joel told his readers to say ‘I am strong’. What he failed to tell them is that they would be much better off being strong mentally by seeking peace than they would be in turning the tools that help them grow their food into implements of killing.

When farming implements are turned into weapons, everyone loses because the source of food has become the source of death. Thinking through an antagonistic situation and coming to a fair compromise will save many more lives than using your muscles to swing a sword or aim a gun.

The world needs everyone to be strong in a creative way and not a destructive way. Although, some statistics show that the overall global homicide rate may be down a bit from the 1990s, the recent rise in mass shootings and extremist religious conflicts are alarming. The issue is complex, but it seems to boil down to too many angry and unstable people with easy access to deadly weapons. And too many power-hungry leaders with too many mindless sycophants who are willing to do obey them.

The only news about war that is not as bad as it could be is that in spite of the thousands of deaths in Korea, Vietnam, the recent middle east conflicts, and the war in Ukraine, it has been over 75 years since the world experienced the millions killed in the two world wars of the 20th century. At least, that is the case so far. But the conflicts continue.

Shame on us for making planet Earth, our home, a dangerous place to live, and some would argue that it is getting worse daily. We have enough bombs and guns to kill ourselves many times over. Yet, in spite of the fact that there are thousands of nuclear missiles and untold millions of small weapons on Earth, we must be hopeful that the time for destroying each other is slowly passing and that we are maturing beyond the aggressive urges that have caused us to often treat each other very poorly.

Isaiah wrote his book of prophecy almost 3000 years ago, but still his profound and sensible message has not influenced our thinking to the point that nation does not lift up sword against nation. His good council advocating peace among nations has not yet become our everyday thinking. Our aggressive nature has been with us a long time and it is proving to be a hard trait to overcome.

Fortunately, there is an organization dedicated to helping us express the more thoughtful and caring side of our human nature. The establishment of the United Nations in 1946 is a sign that many of us ardently desire a more peaceful world. Yet, we should find it shameful that the budget for the United Nations is miniscule compared to the amount of money some nations spend on military weapons.

As idealistic as it is, the UN is the best organization we have come up with so far to try to keep nations at peace with each other. The result of the low funding is that the UN’s efforts to keep peace in the world are not as effective as they should be, especially when it is pitted against the politics of power and aggression practiced by many of today’s rulers.

The government officials in some nations feel as if the United Nations is not strong enough to prevent international conflict, and so they maintain large military organizations. For example, the 2023 UN budget of $3.22 billion pales in comparison to the 2023 United States military budget of over $800 billion, China’s at well over $250 billion, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin has asked for $143 billion to fund defense, intelligence, and law enforcement.

Yet, in spite of the fact that he military budgets of many countries far exceed the budget of the United Nations, there are enough concerned people to maintain hope that the spirit of United Nations can prevail. Yes, even at the UN, there seem to be numerous controversies concerning territorial and political disputes among nations, especially the most powerful ones. And given the low budget and the constant vying for power and prestige among its members, it is no wonder the United Nations is not a more effective organization. But the dedicated UN ambassadors keep trying to convince the rest of the world that a peaceful agreement is far better than a stubborn standoff.

Do we Earthlings have our priorities backwards? Why, for example, do nations have departments of war or defense instead of departments of peace? The concept was first proposed for the United States in a 1793 essay titled “A Plan of A Peace Office for the United States” by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence from Pennsylvania. Although Rush’s idea got a lot of attention, it was not implemented, and today the US and most nations in the world are stuck with War Departments or Defense Departments. Is the idea of promoting peace just not strong enough to warrant a cabinet level position?

Sure, in today’s world, security is an important necessity. We lock our doors at night and pay taxes to support police departments and armies. But the disturbing thing is that while our military budgets are enormous, all over the world thousands of people suffer and die daily from dementia, cancer, heart disease and other ailments that increased research funding could find cures for.

In the meantime, America builds multi-million-dollar jet fighters and multi-billion-dollar aircraft carriers, China is spending untold millions of dollars on building artificial islands in order to set up military bases in the South China Sea, and Russia is ruining its economy spending billions of dollars in its attempt to destroy Ukraine. It seems absurd, yet some would argue that these expenditures are justified for the sake of keeping a nation safe from attacks. There are too many of us who believe that deterrence comes only through military strength.

We have all heard the argument that defense spending is good for a nation’s the economy because it creates high paying jobs. But so does medical and scientific research, and wouldn’t we all be better off if we spent more on beneficial research that could discover cures for our many serious diseases and discover more about ourselves and our universe than have nations develop new destructive missile systems.

It is situations of this sort that demonstrate that we humans are still evolving.

We have not yet reached a level of maturity where we can put our weapons, from knives and handguns to atomic bombs, aside and act like rational humans instead of short-tempered junkyard dogs.

Most world leaders are well educated, but are they wise?

We humans have so much going for ourselves. We have built a great global civilization with viable cities, universities, research facilities and bustling international trade. Although we are tiny creatures on a blue speck in the vast universe, we have built rockets and satellites that are exploring the far reaches of space. Yet, we so far have not been able to control that quirk in the back of our brain that keeps us so fearful of one another that we spend more on security and weapons than everything else.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with competition among companies or nations that keeps us striving to do things more efficiently, to make better products, or to be the first to land humans on the moon. It is when the goals of competition become more important than the value of human life that we run into trouble. Is my nation willing to risk my life to gain a little more land or a few more resources?

Then we get into the issue of how important life is. Most citizens around the world tend to value human life and feel as if everyone has the right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’. For example, nearly every community has a rescue squad whose job it is to respond to people in distress and save lives. First responders sometimes risk their lives to save others.

It is the same with soldiers and military personnel. They are taught to fight an enemy in order to save the lives of their family and friends back home. Fortunately, a level of altruism exists in us to counter the level of aggressiveness we are force to live with.

Although, history has taught us that every generation has produced truly selfish, greedy, narrow-minded people, a lot of how we feel about other people is based on the circumstances of how we meet. For example, there are numerous stories of people who were deadly foes in a war who met on friendly terms after the war was over.

The attitude many people have about war is expressed in a poem by the English writer Thomas Hardy called: The Man He Killed

Had he and I but met
By some ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!
But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so; my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although
He thought he’d just enlist, perhaps —just like I —
Was out of work —had sold his traps—
No other reason why.
Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.

Isaiah would probably like this poem. He was a man of peace and this poem is about peace on a human- to-human level. He and Thomas Hardy would like what the United Nations and many other peace organizations around the world are trying to accomplish. War destroys property, kills innocent people, and creates refugees. It is not good for humanity, and in this nuclear age, if our irrational rage gets out of control, it could end much of what we have built since our ancestors first fashioned a spear point out of a piece of flint.

We Homo sapiens have accomplished a great deal since we evolved from our hominin ancestors. We have built great cities, cured many deadly diseases, sent satellites beyond our solar system. Yet, we should be ashamed of ourselves for creating the need for so many weapons. While we were learning to live together in cooperative groups, we were also learning to turn our spears into hydrogen bombs. At times our intelligence seems to have gotten off track and has created a rather precarious situation for us to cope with. We must get our pride and our politics under control. We must replace our culture of death with a culture of life.

Would it not be the height of irony if we humans who consider ourselves the most intelligent creatures to have ever lived on Earth, or in our solar system, and possibly for many light years beyond, turned out to be the stupidest and most self-destructive? Our descendants would never forgive us if they had to reinvent the wheel, find a cure for the bubonic plague, or study birds in order to fashion a flying machine.

The world is now way too small for all of the egocentric warmongers who insist that human life and property has value only in promoting their selfish agenda. It is essential that these people wake up to their responsibility not only to the citizens of their own nation, but to all of humanity.

It is important that we keep ourselves going. There is so much more to learn, so much good work to do. We do not need more fighter jets, more aircraft carriers, more bombs. What we need is each other, our skills, our wisdom, our warm smiles, and our friendly handshakes. Let us turn our swords into plowshares and pruning hooks, and not learn war anymore.

Ted McCormack

December 2022

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