Can we dare to hope for something better than what many politicians, advertisers and social media offer us? Isaiah offers a hopeful vision for peace and justice among the nations: ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war or learn war again.’ He is not describing the end of time when God will draw all people to himself, but it is meant for us today.
As the USA is still fighting some of the longest wars in history, in Australia, and elsewhere, more and more we are accepting the divisions insidiously creeping into our community and political lives. We accept narratives that dehumanise other people. It does not have to be this way. For Isaiah, the intrusion of God’s reign will set us on a path of peace, justice, life, hope and liberation. As we inherit a more and more violent world, we see that God does not accept this misshapened world. There is work to do in re-shaping all the attitudes and instruments that lead to violence and war into attitudes and instruments of peace and provision for all. The invitation is to collaborate with God by turning all that leads to violence into the tools of nonviolence and peace. The tools (‘swords’) that lead to conflict will be will be transformed into tools (‘ploughshares’) that prepare the soil for something new. Though it may seem unrealistic and naïve, we are asked to imagine a world without weapons of war; without nuclear weapons; without drones; without guns of any kind; without threats; without hatred; without revenge being the default response to conflict; without building higher walls or fences; without using a ‘ring of steel’ to deter vulnerable, hurting, frightened people from finding safety. Can we even imagine such a world? Can we imagine a world in which violence does not order our every step? It is difficult when the cries of the vulnerable are dismissed as irrelevant. It is difficult when the rhetoric invites attacks on women (this week in a Sydney café) and men who are different. Like Jesus, Isaiah calls us to see beyond the present moment as we look at ourselves and allow our hearts to be open to allow the broken world seeking healing and reconciliation to enter. The heart of Advent is about participating in and actualising a vision of a different world. Chris Hedges, US journalist and author, says: ‘You can either be complicit in your own enslavement or you can lead a life that has some kind of integrity and meaning.’
In 1997, a 5-metre sculpture was placed in a Washington, DC square. Named ‘Guns into Plowshares’, this symbolic structure consisted of some 3,000 guns, surrendered by local people, welded into a steel plough. It took two and a half years to mould. It proclaimed the prophetic hope for a time when God’s way will take priority – where people will be fed rather than succumb to violence; where people will have genuine regard for each other and forget how to fight. Advent reminds us of the preciousness of all life. Can we begin by making time to look at one another and listen to one another? What hope is there of living less selfishly and more peacefully?
To wake us from our complacency, the gospel offers us some images to wake us up. 700 years earlier, Isaiah envisioned the reallocation of resources from the manufacture of weapons of war to implements of cultivation. Obviously, it is better to feed people than to kill them. What a different world might emerge if more doctors, teachers, nurses and means of development were provided rather than more troops? What a different world would it be if we accepted more of Cuba’s exports of doctors and nurses and medical care rather than US exports of more arms? As followers of the vulnerable One, let us recall the words of President Eisenhower in 1953: ‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.’ All stolen from the children of the earth and Mother Earth.
Paul knows that Isaiah’s dream of peace does not come without a struggle, mere wishful thinking or leaving it to others. Being alert involves a positive struggle to build the reign of peace by initiating personally, and in solidarity, nonviolent action to dismantle weapons of war. It is a shift from a mentality of conflict to a mentality based on justice and equity where people have enough food, decent health care, proper education, and past injustices righted. Paul’s addresses the point of how we can be aware of God’s extraordinariness when life seems so very ordinary. Because life can seem so ordinary, the risk that we are not ‘woke’, asleep. Paul calls us to live our ordinary lives in extraordinary ways by realising that they are very different, very un-ordinary, because of Jesus’ presence.
A new world is possible when in immediate interpersonal relationships the breadth of our embrace is extended to include more and more people. Though the scriptures look at universal issues we need to apply them to our own lives. This is a time for dreams and visions being made flesh in our lives. It is a time of outrageous hope for peace now, for passionate repentance, for justice to come among us. It is a time for rejoicing that God is on the side of the poor through us: those blamed for their plight whether refugees, poor families, people who are homeless or unemployed and the many people who still live with HIV/AIDS in Africa and Asia and Latin America whose access to medication is limited or nonexistent (NB: December 1 is World AIDS Day).
Let us go beyond just imagining and dreaming to making peace in our everyday lives wherever we are. Despite scepticism that seeking peace through justice is not effective in avoiding war, one cannot deny that justice, safety, and sharing have a better chance of resulting in peace than injustice, danger, and wealth disparity.
What steps might we take to heal division, alienation, and broken relationships in our family, our community, and the world? It is about beginning with one step, one relationship, one apology, one gesture of reconciliation. Can we believe that we are part of God's dream? What ways do we need to imagine for our interactions to change? How might we deepen our respect for one another? How might we hear one another, and in the listening, hear the voice of God?
This Advent, we wait again for the child who was born under the shadow of a mighty empire but now born again and again in our lives – and found among the vulnerable and the scared and the afflicted. Here is our call to be prophetic and speak truth to power as did the prophets. We still have prophets amongst us in their words and actions. The words of past prophets do not belong to the past or have to stay in the past. They did not accept the status quo – and nor should we. To accept the status quo is to be asleep to all that is unjust in our world, to the normalisation of hatred, bigotry, and the ongoing violence of some among our law enforcement agencies especially in relation to poor people, mentally ill people as well as First Nations people. Should not the invariant strain on community relations and the violence between police and the first peoples not wake us up especially when our leaders normalise this violence as appropriate or legitimate and boast of progressive strides being made.
An important role of the prophet is to wake us up to face injustice; to rouse us when we tire of resisting; to reassure us that this is not how things need to be in our world – and help us see that God has something better in mind for all. As we begin this new Christian year, let us see ordinary things with extraordinary vision. Let us see God at work even and especially in the most ordinary of places. Let us have hope in God who lives here and now with us, teaching us real peaceableness in our ordinary lives – and who asks us to be extraordinary witnesses to that peace. Pope Francis, like Isaiah, tells that though things seem to be a mess, it is not the end of the story. It is the beginning. Advent challenges us to believe that the world as it is does not reflect God’s dream who wants us to dream together of something new by working to together – a world where all people from infancy to old age have their basic needs met, and no one suffers or dies from lack of basic necessities, sufficient food and shelter, or adequate health care; a world where adequate structures and systems allow people to be self-sustaining and supporting; a world where the poor are not exploited by the rich, and the powerless are not exploited by the powerful. This always threatens those most invested in resisting change but a serious following Jesus means being serious about our role in the world of making it possible for God to get into the world. If the gospel has any meaning at all, it has to have meaning for our world today. It has to be about liberating the oppressed, releasing the prisoners, and lifting up the downtrodden—which Jesus continually insists that it is—then given that we are surrounded by oppression, captivity, and disenfranchisement every day on every side, it is time to get to work. Isaiah’s prophetic vision may be of the future, but it is a future we are called to implement today.
Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre, Enmore, NSW
President, Pax Christi Australia
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia (NSW)