EthicsJourneys of Faith

Turning Swords into Plowshares

They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I was watching a celebration on TV and at the same time reading Shane Claiborne’s book Beating Guns:  Hope for Those Who Are Weary of Violence.  Both celebration and book quoted John 15:13: “No greater love is this than the one who lays down one’s life for one’s friends…” It was an interesting juxtaposition.

The early Christians believed that one could die for Christ, but not kill for him. Claiborne adds that there is no justification for violence or even self-defense advanced in the first 300 years of the Church. The early African Christian apologist Arnobius puts it this way:  “It is better to suffer wrong than inflict it… We should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another.” 

Yet in our country we seem obsessed with violence. According to Claiborne, children have seen 8,000 deaths by the end of elementary school. All of the superheroes our children look up to blow things up and bring a wake of violence in their path. Violence just seems to be the way of the world. Yet are these the ways of Jesus? Our heroes should be people of peace like the saints. We seem to have bought wholesale into the myth of redemptive violence—that only violence, in the hands of the “right” people, can defeat violence and hatred. But MLK, Jr. said only light can defeat darkness and only love can defeat hatred. 

That conviction is not naïve. Do we really believe that Jesus can change things and transform us? It’s like tithing: do we really believe that God takes care of us? Do we really believe God’s way is the way? Or do we think we need to take things into our own hands? We think, “Well God, you’re great and all, but let us handle things down here in the real world.  You’re up there in the sky.” We’re saying we are going to heaven and God doesn’t really care about things down here.

I don’t think we truly believe that, but we are acting that way. And I think that’s our problem.  We have left the peace and justice for another time, another world. We wait for heaven instead of pointing to this new kingdom today. There is a big difference between these two, and it’s almost heretical what we have done.  Why do we care so much about protecting our property and wealth? Why are we so concerned about the amount we pay for taxes and gas, rather than life, justice and mercy?  We need to read the Minor Prophets more.

Jesus said we must lose our lives to save them. What if we had as much courage for peace as we did for war? What if we had holidays to celebrate people of peace? This is not just pie-in-the-sky rhetoric: If we are planning to live in the new kingdom and the new kingdom is a place of peace and no tears or pain or violence, then we should start living that way now.  

Yes, I’m thankful for the men and women who have sacrificed for this country and given me the liberties that I enjoy every day. Personally, I have not served in the military and I don’t know what that is like. But I’m uncomfortable with putting the American soldier who is trained in war on the same level as Jesus Christ our Savior, the Prince of Peace, who died on the cross for our sins. Our allegiance as Christ-followers is to the Cross above all, not to a flag or nation. We are called to something higher as Christians. We are called to peace and the fruits of the Spirit, not violence and hatred.

We must be committed to peace as much as we are to violence. We must be trained in, and practice, the ways of nonviolence. We must use our imaginations in combating violence and hatred anywhere—in our lives and neighborhoods and world. We must appeal to the “better angels of our nature,” as President Lincoln said. As Claiborne writes, “War is still the way of the world, but it’s not the way of Jesus. In the empire’s attempt to make disciples of us we are taught the way of the sword rather than the way of the cross, and we are persuaded to kill our enemies rather than love them.” May we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us today and always.

Life-giving Discipline: Take some time to lament those we have lost through wars, mass shootings, and police brutality. Ask God to help you be a person of peace in your words and deeds. What would it look like practically in our homes, neighborhoods, and world?  Ask for God’s guidance for commonsense gun laws. For extra credit, check out Audrey Assad’s song “Your Peace Will Make us One.”  

“We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools… Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the crucified one…” – Justin Martyr


Matthew Bowles is a husband, and dad to two children and one cat.  He is a hospice chaplain in Memphis, Tennessee, where he does life with his Catholic and United Methodist God-families.  In his spare time, he loves to read, run, play guitar, and watch college basketball.

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