In the 8th century before Christ, when the majority of people were farmers, having more iron for plows and pruning hooks, instead of swords and shields was a very hopeful message. When Isaiah wrote his prophecies, the iron age was in full bloom, having begun in about 1200 BCE, and the Hebrew people were enjoying the benefits iron plows brought to farming. They now had an excess of food from the countryside, Jerusalem was prosperous and they had built a great Temple under Solomon. But iron was literally a double edged sword because it made warfare more destructive and costly. Once the iron age came, you could no longer send an army of farmers out with their homemade weapons, you needed a serious industrial production of iron weapons, which meant having iron mines and forges and taxes for a military-industrial complex.
Israel was not a great power like Assyria or Egypt, but they were significantly advanced for that era and had a nice piece of the arms trade, selling chariots and horses to all sides. Solomon did not get all that wealth to build the Temple out of nowhere, much like the United States today, they were a major arms dealer for other peoples’ conflicts. So Isaiah’s prophecies are not just poetic language hoping for peace in the face of Assyrian threats, it was also prophecy speaking for the majority of people who were farmers, versus the wealthy minority who made money from iron and war.
As I read Isaiah 2 I am reminded of a nearly forgotten speech by a great American General and President, Dwight Eisenhower. I have always thought well of Eisenhower because his wife Mamie, was from my hometown in Boone, Iowa and my Baptist church owned the house she was born in for their Sunday School classrooms. We all know Eisenhower was the Allied Commander in World War II, but his family felt that his most important legacy was his 1953 speech, “A Chance for Peace.” On his tomb are words from that speech:
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.
In the details of the speech he noted:
- This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
- The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
- We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
His words have mostly gone unheeded in the 50 years that have followed. I won’t bore you with the reams of statistics about military spending today, because I think one statistic will suffice. The United States, meaning you and I, spends more each year on the military than all the rest of the 120 some nations of the world combined. I find myself baffled that we hardly talk about this when we talk about our budgetary problems today. Congress is debating how much health care we can afford, whether we can extend unemployment benefits, our national infrastructure is woefully underfunded, social services are being cut back drastically. Our homeless shelter lost $80,000 in the County Budget for next year. But hardly any member of Congress is saying we can’t afford to cut the next generation fighter plane, the F-22, or the new programs to research and build weapons in space, or more predator drones. Eisenhower would have been brought to tears or perhaps rage by a recent military report that noted “75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit.” We have built a great war machine, but are we building a great nation?
This study was quoted Last Sunday by Thomas Friedman wrote an interesting article in the NY Times, who started this way,
When I came to Washington in 1988, the cold war was ending and the hot beat was national security and the State Department. If I were a cub reporter today, I’d still want to be covering the epicenter of national security — but that would be the Education Department.
Friedman makes a compelling case that our national security is more dependent on quality education than on our military might and he proposes that this be our primary national challenge and commitment, to the extent that we should fund a national education academy similar to our military academies that put emphasis on training excellent teachers.
Here again the words of Isaiah 2,
Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths….nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
I am not a pacifist and I don't think we can naively disarm and end warfare. I honor the courage of soldiers and the courage of peacemakers. I do not have all the answers for what we should do in the future to seek an end to warfare, and Isaiah did not have them either. But I do believe that we must follow the prophet spirit of Isaiah who did not give up on the possibility of a different way of life than an emphasis on military power and warfare. In conclusion, I want to share one hopeful historical parallel. A few year ago I was speaking with a man who was a Navy veteran from World War II. He had fought in the Pacific theatre and he admitted to me that it had taken years to be able to see a person not only of Japanese descent, but almost any Asian, and not feel anger and hostility. There was a time during many of our lifetimes when American culture saw anyone from Japan as the evil enemy. We were astonished by Kamakazi attacks, where pilots would knowingly go out on suicide missions and try to fly their planes into American ships. Islamic jihadists were not the inventor of suicide missions, they just brought them to our shores. But ask our young people today what they believe about Japan. Japan is a major trading partner and ally, their young people are exchange students at our universities and no one can imagine ever going to war with them again. This outcome did not happen by accident. It was the outcome of many people who were shocked by the atrocities of war, and the terrible possibilities of atomic warfare and chose a different future.
We are many years away from this kind of future relationship with predominantly Islamic nations today. But our past history shows us that it is possible. I hope some day we can get on an airline and sit next to someone from the Muslim world and not even wonder if they are a terrorist in disguise. I hope airport security lines are a quick 15 minute breeze and that our young people are sweating out math tests rather than perspiring in armored vests in Afghanistan. I hope in ten years we are building bullet trains rather than more bullets, and that former military barracks are being converted into affordable housing for the homeless. Currently we are still beating our plowshares and pruning hooks into shields and spears, but we must dream of the alternatives Isaiah wrote long ago.