Twice the Old Testament prophets announce that a day will come when men beat their swords into plowshares —
(Isa 2:1-4) This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem: 2 In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. 3 Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4 He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
(Micah 4:1-7) In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. 2 Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 3 He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. 4 Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken. 5 All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever. 6 “In that day,” declares the LORD, “I will gather the lame; I will assemble the exiles and those I have brought to grief. 7 I will make the lame a remnant, those driven away a strong nation. The LORD will rule over them in Mount Zion from that day and forever.
Consider Isa 2. This will happen “in the last days.” And it’s not just God’s people who will do this: “Nation will not take up sword against nation.”
Micah follows the language of Isaiah, adding: “Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid,” God will assemble the exiles, and God will rule from Mt. Zion (Jerusalem) forever.
Plainly, both prophecies speak of the New Heavens and New Earth, not the current age. And yet it is also true that the Kingdom — which is what they are describing — is coming and that we are part of this Kingdom. Surely our task as citizens of the Kingdom is to live under the new ethics of the Kingdom. Doesn’t that mean that we should already be beating our swords into plowshares?
I’ve answered this question from one direction in Pacifism: Fitting Government Into the Story. There I pointed out that the New Heavens and New Earth will also mean the end of marriage, the end of government, and the end of pain in childbirth. But that doesn’t mean those things go away now or even that they should. It only means that these things need to be redeemed for God’s purposes — and that we fight against the evil that is within them without fighting to eliminate them.
Hence, although marriage will end when Jesus returns, until then, marriage should be honored as God-given and the church should work to redeem marriage so that no longer do spouses abuse spouses and so that marriage can be for life, as God intended.
Just so, human governments will be destroyed when Jesus returns, but until then, we work to make government honor its God-given role to defend the innocent from evil, and we work to eliminate oppression of the weak by the government.
What about violence? Swords will not be beaten into plowshares until Jesus returns. Therefore, we either refuse all participation in the military or else we seek to redeem the military for God’s purposes. I think the second choice is truer to God’s intentions.
It means that military force is used solely for proper governmental purposes: to protect the weak from evil. We oppose the use of the military for oppression.
As noted in Pacifism: Just War and Christian Politics, Part 1, quoting Arthur F. Holmes,
Third, the just war theory does not try to justify war. Rather it tries to bring war under the control of justice so that, if consistently practiced by all parties to a dispute, it would eliminate war altogether. It insists that the only just cause for going to war is defense against aggression. If all parties adhered to this rule, then nobody would ever be an aggressor and no war would ever occur. The basic intention of the just war theory, then, is to condemn war and to prevent it by moral persuasion. But since people will sometimes not be so persuaded, it proceeds to limit war – its occasion, its goals, its weaponry and methods – so as to reduce the evils that have not been altogether prevented.
There are two paths toward a “plowshare” world that I can think of.
One, we can simply refuse to fight and hope that this overcomes evil, leading to peace on earth.
Two, we could refuse to fight except to defend ourselves and those who are oppressed, figuring that this shows our love for the oppressed and keeps evil in check.
Now, I readily admit that there are problems with both approaches, but I think the second comes closest to what I read in the Bible — as the God-given role of government is to defend the innocent from evil.
(Rom 13:4-6) For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. … 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.
(1 Pet 2:13-14) Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.
When I was young, many argued for unilateral disarmament — the idea being that it was our military that caused other nations to be afraid and so to arm and threaten us. The argument was: put your arms downs and the other nations will be shamed into doing the same. As they’ll have nothing to fear from us, they’ll no longer feel the need to militarize.
Of course, we have since seen plenty of unprovoked aggression: USSR seeking to conquer Afghanistan, Iraq trying to conquer parts of Iran (twice), Iraq conquering Kuwait, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan seeking to destroy Israel. Indeed, Kuwait is a good example as it was largely disarmed. They’d beaten their swords into oil wells.
Now, had the USSR or Iraq been successful in any of these cases, the result would have been the making of more swords, not plowshares. When aggressors win, they don’t stop being aggressive. Rather, they consolidate power and then continue their aggression. Remember Nazi Germany’s annexation of Poland, Austria, etc. Had the USSR conquered Afghanistan, it would have soon pushed through Iran or Pakistan to the Indian Ocean. (There’s nothing in Afghanistan itself of strategic value.)
I hate that this is true. I truly wish that beating our own swords into plowshares today would lead to peace, but I believe history teaches that it doesn’t. And I believe the scriptures teach that government is charged by God with defending its people.
Nonetheless, there is a place for the peacemakers today — and the church is to be a peacemaking body. This is accomplished by being actively involved in pushing our respective nations toward peaceful policies and even working at the international level to reduce the likelihood of war.
For example, when the church works to have the wealthy nations forgive the debts of the very poor nations, we not only honor the teachings of the Torah and the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, we also reduce the likelihood that a nation will feel compelled to go to war to take resources from a neighbor or to gain leverage to bargain for foreign aid. And we make that nation a less tempting target for its neighbors. Justice in the prophetic sense helps bring peace, I believe.
Just so, when we agree to just trade laws so that the poor nations can earn their way out of poverty through agricultural exports, we do the same. We encourage people to work for a living rather than seeking employment in militias — and we take away poverty as a rationale for fighting. We give people a sense that they can earn a living through honest labor rather than having to seek honor in suicide bombings or conquest.
Insisting on justice and righteousness at the international level is not enough, but it helps. Obviously, winning souls is far more important, but it’ll be easier to win souls when people aren’t starving and aren’t engaged in wars of conquest.
You see, it’s not either-or: either evangelize or seek justice. It’s both-and. However, both-and only works if we are careful not to fool ourselves into thinking that our efforts to bring justice replace evangelism. They don’t.