Isaiah 2: The problem of “They”

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Among the most moving and inspiring visions in the entire Bible is this passage from Isaiah chapter two. It also happens to be the OT lectionary reading for Advent 1 this year. Today I preached at New Leaf Church, talking about Advent as a time of active anticipation in preparation to receive the mystery of Christ’s birth and parousia that Christmas draws us to. Advent is my favorite season of the year. I’ve posted about it four times in the last two years (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4), especially about how I came to a tangible understanding of what anticipation is all about while living with a couple that was expecting a new baby. Advent reminds us that we live in the “already-but-not-yet,” the overlapping of ages (as the Romans 13 passage from today’s readings reminds). This means that we are called to be midwives of the birth of the new creation; we breathe out the hope we have in Christ through healing and restoring action in the world, naming evil in ourselves and in the systems of the world.

This Isaiah passage looks forward to this as well: judgment. We tend to shy away from judgment language because we don’t want to sound, well, judgmental. But a biblical understanding of judgment isn’t as much about condemnation (indeed, for those who in Christ there is no condemnation, says Romans) as it is about naming evil. Writers from Isaiah all the way to St. John the Divine (writer of the Revelation) affirm this picture because without the naming of evil and consequently the cleansing of it, there can be no restored creation, no Shalom (today’s Romans 13:11-14 reading points us to the naming and repenting of our own evil; those in Christ no longer face condemnation but they still face judgment!) Isaiah 2 sees God as the righteous judge between the nations. These verses have inspired peace movements around the world as Christians have tried to embody the future vision of Isaiah in the here and now. However, these Christian groups have been small in number (the Plowshares Actions by the Catholic Worker folk, while powerful witnesses, are relatively unknown by the body at large, as are most peace movements that take Scripture seriously). I am often frustrated by why this is, and I’ve decided that while Isaiah 2 is the source of inspiration, it is also at fault for this neglect by Christians as a whole.

When I say at fault, I mean that the wording of Isaiah 2 points the finger elsewhere–“They” shall beat their swords into plowshares, they shall learn war no more. As long as we don’t have to do it, I’ll say “Amen” every time! That is the condition of the American church. “They” is perhaps the most harmful word in entire Bible; if there is any Scripture that might possibly convict us of a drastic need for repentance and change, “they” renders it null and void. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Others will do it. Americans (and maybe humans in general) respond well to a check list of “do”s and “don’t”s, which is why the Ten Commandments are so popular. There is enough ambiguity in them to allow for a libertarian philosophy of living–I maximize my “freedom” up to the point just before it runs a direct contradiction to the letter of the law. But as soon as I’m not told exactly that I must or must not do something, I feel no responsibility to acknowledge that Jesus might be calling me to a deeper and more challenging way of life that gives up my freedom.

I think when most people read this gripping image in Isaiah, they shrug it off–“they” will do it, the sinful and corrupt nations of the world. “We” are the protectors of liberty and all that is of God (we meaning the USA and complicit American Christians). Creative approaches to making this dream in Isaiah a reality aren’t even in the realm of most Christian imagination.

Moreover, if Isaiah had simply said, “We will beat our swords into plowshares,” it would have just made it easier for people to understand that peace begins within us. We the church, Christians, must be the first to beat our swords into plowshares–hence the apt, simple, yet alarmingly ignored, modest proposal for peace: That Christians of the world would agree not to kill one another.” How will the “nations” know how to beat swords into plowshares, to turn weapons of war, the ultimate in contradiction of God’s desire for humanity, into tools for helping us live out the call to tend the soil and creation found in Genesis? “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me [and us].” The Church must show the way. And to do that, we must start seeing “we” where “they” appears in passages like this.

More than ever, dear God, we need the prince of Peace. Maranatha! Lord, quickly come!

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