From the Prophet Isaiah:
Out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
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.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Isaiah 2:3b-4 (NRSV) – December 5, 2012.)
In the Turtle Bay neighborhood of New York City, at the northwest corner of First Avenue and 42nd Street is a small municipal public park, Ralph J. Bunche Park named in 1979 for an African-American diplomat who had been instrumental in the working out of the 1949 Palestinian Armistice Agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors. In 1950, Dr. Bunche became the first African-American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The park is across the United Nations Plaza from the UN headquarters building. There is a granite staircase there which, since 1981, has been named the Scharansky Steps in honor of Soviet dissident Natan Scharansky. On the northern wall of the steps, now known as the Isaiah Wall, the latter part of this quotation from the prophet is inscribed. The stairway with the wall and inscription were originally built in 1948.
I made my first visit to New York City in the spring of 1968 when I was 16. On a trip to the UN, I saw that wall and was immediately transfixed. I love Isaiah’s words and every time I have returned to the city, visiting that wall has been a priority. It’s something of a pilgrimage for me, visiting a shrine to a vision of a dream not yet achieved.
We read a lot of Isaiah during Advent, or we hear a lot of Isaiah images – the peaceable kingdom, infants playing with poisonous snakes, lions eating straw with the oxen – “and a little child shall lead them.” (Isa. 11:6) There’s good reason for that; after all, it is in Isaiah that we read, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isa. 7:14)
As we go through this season of preparation, reading these particular words, I know there’s not much any one individual can do to move the nation toward not learning war any more or to prevent the nation from lifting up the sword against another. Those are decisions “above my pay grade” as the saying goes. However, I wonder if I have some personal, metaphorical swords that could be beaten in the spiritual ploughshares, some spears I could bend into pruning-hooks.
According to Freud and his followers, our psyche is a battlefield; instinctual urges and drives at war with societal norms, constraints on our ego at odds with our impulses. As a result we all have defense mechanisms, e.g., denial, repression, fantasizing, acting out; there are dozens of these psychological defenses. Some are mature and constructive; some are not. During Advent, could it not be possible to convert some of the destructive psychological defenses, these mental swords and spears, into constructive behaviors, into emotional ploughshares and pruning hooks? I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, so I make no suggestion how this would be done, but I have faith that that it could be done. Like most things, however, it won’t be done unless we take the first step.
Advent is the beginning of the Christian year. A beginning seems like a good time to take first steps, especially first steps toward beating swords, real or metaphorical, physical or emotional, into ploughshares.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.