[Reflections on the Old Testament Lectionary Reading for Nov 28, 2010]
Isaiah tells of days to come when the LORD’s house shall be established, and many will come to learn how to walk in the ways of God. Famously he says that nations shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. They won’t study war anymore because God will judge between nations.
Isaiah is one of the Old Testament prophets. When we think of prophecy, we think of a prediction of the future. Some predictions come true, but others do not. This vision is not called a prediction, however; it is called “word.” This means it has more authority than a mere prediction.
Isaiah ends this revelation by encouraging his listeners, “Let us walk in the light of the LORD!” He does not bemoan the fact that the reality of their geopolitical situation made it impossible for them to emulate this vision of peace. He does not scoff at this imagery as too idealistic to follow. He believes this “word” is intended to direct the actions of those who call themselves followers of God.
I am no pacifist, but I often wonder whether my faith demands that I become one. I cannot deny that this passage is a clear directive against warfare. Many serious Christians have felt compelled to embrace pacifism based on Scripture, and I respect their conviction. Many other serious Christians have a list of objections on the ready whenever there is a hint of conviction about the way our nation embraces war as a solution to political and economic problems.
St. Augustine was one of the first Christians to argue that war can be just. He lived in North Africa during a time when the Vandals were a constant threat. They were a warring tribe that eventually succeeded in capturing Roman Africa before his death. It was natural for him to see the Roman military as a protector of his culture and religion.
It is normal for us to value our society and culture. It is easy to believe that our society is somehow ordained by God to preserve Christianity. It is easy for a people to imagine that they belong to God’s kingdom on the mountain, as described by Isaiah. Once we buy into the idea that our’s is God’s country, then it becomes easy to see war as a legitimate tool of protection.
Our wars do not protect Christianity. Our wars protect our lives, culture, and society. Yet Scripture teaches us that all of these things are temporary. Jesus never taught his followers to mount a defense to protect their lives, culture, or society. Jesus taught us that we must follow in his footsteps. His steps led to the cross not to the battlefield. On the cross, Jesus died in the face of injustice.