With thanks to the Rev’d Anne le Bas for her fine sermon for this day, which I have used as the starting point for mine …
I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself working in a noisy environment, as I did once when I worked in a car parts factory in Adelaide, without proper ear protection. An hour or so into the shift you almost succeed in filtering out the heavy-duty clanging of metal on metal, it becomes a dull background roar that physically wraps around you like a cocoon while you work, preventing you from talking to anyone else, preventing you from even thinking straight, just locking you into your assigned task, which in my case was to machine within a .75mm tolerance one-third of the nation’s daily requirement of universal joints. Even smoko and the half-hour meal break didn’t mean a break from the din because the meal room was just a wire cage in the middle of the factory floor, but at six o’clock in the morning, an hour before the day shift started, one by one we switched our machines off and the whole factory fell silent. Have you ever heard a silence like that, a silence that’s made even more shockingly still by the clanging that’s still going on inside your head?
During the early months of 1919 an Australian journalist living in London suggested in an article published in the London Evening News that a mark of respect be shown to the millions of war dead on the first anniversary of the signing of the Armistice. That first two minutes’ silence at 11am on the 11th of November 1919 was a profound echo of the silence exactly a year earlier, as the guns stopped firing all across the battlefields of France. A silence that must have been almost physical in its intensity, overwhelming in its mixture of sadness and relief. The silence of Armistice Day, as it was first called, that was, and in a sense still is, too raw to be appropriated by nationalistic myth-making, a silence that recalls, not the pride of young nations eager to get involved in dreams of Empire half a world away, or the endless raking over of ancient military defeats and victories, or the disturbing claim that our national identity was somehow forged in the churned up mud of France or on the beaches at Gallipoli – but the moment that enough men and women in enough nations of the world were appalled enough at what they had done to choose life instead of death – a silence in which, I like to think, we remember not the war to end all wars, but the moment of silence in which it ended.
In our reading from the prophet Micah, we hear another moment of silence from a battlefield no less devastating. Seven hundred years or so before the birth of Jesus – a brutal time in a brutal world. Assyria had become a mighty nation in part of what is now Iraq, breaking out across the ancient world and sweeping everything away before them, destroying without mercy and enslaving entire populations. The northern kingdom had already fallen, and Micah records the invasion of Judah and the capture of 46 of its fortified towns. Initially King Hezekiah of Judah manages to buy off the invaders but later, inexplicably, reneges on the deal. Jerusalem, under siege, looks certain to fall.
Sieges in the ancient world were actually no different to sieges in modern warfare. Think Leningrad, under siege by the German Army during World War II for over 600 days – starvation, disease and despair used as instruments of foreign policy. Like the prophet Jeremiah a century later when Jerusalem was besieged by the armies of Babylon, Micah believes the city will fall – he is politically and militarily realistic - and yet he quotes to us a poem of universal peace – refusing to scrabble for the false hope of military victory Micah instead dares to hope that things will not always be like this. There will come a time, he insists, when God would create from this wasteland a new world, a world in which the nations would recycle the dreadful technology of war into implements of peace, a world in which human beings would invest their energy in the humble ambition of living unmolested on their own land and eating the food they have grown themselves.
So far it’s been a long wait. The world we live in is no less grim than the world that Micah knew. But here’s the thing – the act of hoping in the promises of God, the courage to live as though God’s promises are already true, is what transforms the world we live in, because it’s the act of hoping in the promises of God that transforms us.
So, how do we go about transforming swords into ploughshares? Exactly twenty years ago today, on another Remembrance Day in a little village in Northern Ireland named Eniskillen, an IRA bomb claimed the lives of 11 people in a crowd gathered at the local war memorial. The village was devastated – Eniskillen is one of those places where everybody knows everybody else – condolences of course flooded in from politicians and church leaders – you would think nothing would help the grief and anger of parents who had lost their children that day except revenge and punishment. But from that village the response was quite different – out of their tragedy the townsfolk created the Spirit of Eniskillen Trust which still today works with young people in places all over the world where there is conflict and division.
Turning swords into ploughshares means taking something destructive and death-dealing, and transforming it into something creative and life-giving. A sword kills: a ploughshare opens up the ground for seed to grow, to flourish and to multiply. The ploughshare makes us more vulnerable, open to new possibilities – it seems like the riskier option but in fact it’s the only option that leads to new life.
As Christians, we see the very best example of turning swords into ploughshares in Jesus himself, who took the cross – an implement of torture and death – and turned it into a gateway to new life and hope, a
demonstration and a promise that God’s love is not defeated even by the
worst the world can do. It’s always seemed to me that Jesus must have known what the most likely outcome would be of preaching a message of radical forgiveness and hospitality – empowering people who the system would rather stayed powerless was always going to lead to a sticky end – Jesus could have taken the safe option, tailored it just a little bit to appease the status quo but what he did instead was to accept the consequences of his own message, meeting evil with forgiveness and love and in the process, transforming it into a way of liberation for all.
No doubt, beating swords into ploughshares isn’t a job for whimps. It’s a noisy, sweaty job, and it can get you into trouble. And there’s always the sneaky suspicion that you might need that sword, later on. You see, if we’re honest about it, we all have a few swords in the back of the wardrobe that we haven’t transformed into ploughshares yet. We carry a few weapons of mass destruction around with us – our words and our attitudes that attack other people, our envy, fear or insecurity that lead us to cut other people down or to stay silent when others are attacked. Christians do these things at least as well as other people. There was another anniversary this last week, the 9th of November which is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass in 1938 when Nazi thugs set out to destroy Jewish shops and businesses. Part of the tragedy in this, for Christian folk, is that the Church in Nazi Germany for the most part stayed silent, refused to take the risk of condemning violence and discrimination against the Jewish population. I was appalled this week at the parallel, when I heard that the campaign platform of the so-called Christian Democratic Party includes a call for all Muslim schools in Australia to be closed, and no further planning approvals for mosques to be granted. If we are silent in the face of these things, if we accept the stereotyping of others practiced in our name and refuse to condemn it as evil, then we are actually helping to plant the seeds of future conflict. We look for the causes of war in great political events, the decisions of governments, but in reality they start much further back, in the small decisions that each of us make about the way we relate to those around us.
Just as war is our responsibility, something we put in motion here and now
in the small things we do, so also is peace. Whenever we see that we are
hurting others and do something to set that right, we take something destructive and transform it into something positive and good. Whenever we take the risk of opposing an injustice that we would rather ignore, we beat that sword into something that will bring life. Whenever we look at another person and see the common humanity we share with them rather than the differences of culture or outlook that divide us we take one small step towards that world of peace that Micah longed for.
Right now, we hold in our hands the tools that shape the future for good or for ill. It is up to us whether they are swords that bring death and despair or ploughshares that bring life and hope.