I like the PetsMart commercial I once saw during the Christmas season. A bulldog walks through a door into a room and lies down near a blazing fireplace. His natural enemy, a cat, walks in, rubs up against him and lies at his side unharmed. A small white mouse, a cat's hors d'oevre, walks in and stands next to the cat. A child looks into the room and sees this unusual sight. The scene closes with the words "Peace on earth."
The commercial is a modern artistic dramatization of the prophet Isaiah's vision of God's coming peaceable kingdom. Another artist painted a more literal portrayal of Isaiah's vision. The artist was Edward Hicks, a self-taught colonial folk painter and Quaker preacher. His version of Isaiah’s vision is entitled "The Peaceable Kingdom." And it was not just one painting, as you can see in the slides we have been projecting on the screen. Hicks painted between 60 to 100 Peaceable Kingdom paintings with varied compositions. At first his fellow Quakers looked askance at his profession as an artist, which made him return at one point to farming, as well as preaching. He offered these paintings to friends as visual reminders of what our world could be.
In many of these peaceable kingdom paintings the foreground is crowded with animals lying down in the shade of the trees. Predatory animals are resting peacefully in a lush garden next to their enemies in the animal kingdom. A child stands next to a ferociously mild beast, while another is unharmed with their hand petting a docile tiger. In some of the painting a tree is split as if by lightning, a possible symbol of a still divided church which Hick’s experienced among his own Quaker people. The primitive style gives the painting a mood of childlike innocence. It has the feel of an otherworldly fantasy.
These paintings of Hicks could easily be dismissed as sheer fantasy removed from this world, if one overlooked the small figures in the distant background of the painting. It is a painting within a painting. In the background you can see Quaker William Penn making a treaty with Leni-Lanape tribe of Native Americans. Human enemies are sitting at the table of peace. With this scene in the background the painting is no longer mere fantasy, but a socio-political reality. For Edward Hicks Isaiah's idealized vision had concrete meaning in the real world in which he lived.
Isaiah envisioned a peaceable kingdom coming upon the earth. Animals will dwell together in peace, as in the Garden of Eden. It is a vision of paradise restored on earth. The animal kingdom is harmonious. Humanity and nature are at peace. Threat, harm, injury, and violence are no longer, even to the most vulnerable, a child.
The prophet Hosea shared a similar vision in his day. He prophesied:
In that day I will make a covenant for them
and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land,
so that they all may lie down in safety.
This may sound like a children's story---Dr. Doolittle meets Noah--- and not an agenda for living in the real world. Our world is not like that and appears to have little hope of getting near those images. Our newspapers drip with the ink of violent stories. Gay bashing. Gang shootings. Domestic violence. Our eyes ache with the sight of Obama-approved drones destroying innocent civilians and villages in Pakistan. Our ears are pummeled with the ratatat of gunfire in Afghanistan. Humans cannot seem to co-exist without devouring one another.
Nowhere is the painting of the peaceable kingdom more ripped apart than in Israel-Palestine. Israel continues to take land and bomb Palestinian communities with the financial and political support of the US, including Christian Zionists. Christian Zionists make the serious error of equating biblical Israel with the modern secular state of Israel. They cross-breed biblical religion with secular politics. This results in an unquestioned support for whatever acts Israel perpetrates on its Palestinian neighbors.
At the same time, Hamas continues to meet Israel’s fire with their own fire. The recent violence against Gaza is portrayed as Israel’s sheepish right to self-defense, while her devouring of Palestinian lands sounds more like the roar of a hungry lion. There is no peaceful co-existence. And the world wonders if there will ever be peace in the land where the Prince of Peace once lived. These contemporary images of violence are far removed from Isaiah's vision of the wolf lying down with the lamb.
A more realistic illustration of our world might be more like a drawing that my adopted son, Andres once drew when he was seven years old. Andres grew up in the harsh world of an abusive family. His drawing was a brightly colored crayon image of a Zebra. But, the Zebra was not a serene picture of one of God’s creatures at peace in a field. The Zebra had a knife in its belly and blood dripping all over the page. For many children this is more like the real world. In the real world it seems more realistic to admit that the only time we will see the lion and the lamb lying down together is when the lamb is in the lion's belly!
And yet, Isaiah was not one who withdrew from the real world. His vision came at a time of great turmoil in Judah's history. King Uzziah left Judah in a position of wealth and power. The people were living high on the hog and their Pentagon officers were snapping their suspenders. The ferocious power of Assyria crouched in the background, waiting to pounce on Judah. Assyria succeeded in devouring northern Israel because of internal pecking and squabbling. Judah escaped the claws of Assyria only to end up a tributary state.
King Ahaz cross-bred religion and politics by paying homage to Assyria's gods for political gain, which resulted in one of the worst periods of apostasy Judah had ever known. Under King Hezekiah Judah craved military support from a former enemy, Egypt. Isaiah cried out against trusting in weapons, instead of the Living God. In Judah, the wealthy landowners choked the life out of the poor farmers. The upper class of Judah lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous, blind to the plight of their poor fellow Judeans. The official religion of Judah offered no effective rebuke. You might say that the church and state were of one mind. Their religion was a mirror reflecting the political agenda of the government. The preachers of Judah proclaimed the policies of a particular political persuasion as the policies of Yahweh. People streamed in the house of prayer and bowed to the gods of prosperity, security, military strength, status quo, and compromise. Sound familiar? Yahweh addressed the people through the prophet with these words:
When you spread your hands in prayerI will hide my eyes from you;
Even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen
Your hands are full of blood
The vision of Isaiah came at a time fraught with sociopolitical tension. His vision is not merely the wishful thinking of one caught in the lion's jaws. Isaiah's vision sought to transform how Israel was to view their present reality. His vision was to function like Edward Hick's painting. The vision of God's peaceable kingdom was intended to serve as the framework with Israel's sociopolitical realities painted in the background. Isaiah's vision is a powerful rhetorical worldview that envisions a new social reality created by God. It was a call to live and act in the realm of a different administration, directed by an alternative agenda, under a new Ruler, who rules in justice, righteousness, and peace.
To live with our eyes flooded with the vision of this alternative realm is to see a world very similar to Isaiah's peaceable kingdom. In this realm violence is washed from all hands and weapons of warfare are turned into instruments of peace and productivity.
They will beat their swords into plowsharesand their spears into pruning hooks
Nation shall not take up sword against nation
nor will they train for war any more
Nuclear bomb shells beaten into plow discs. Machine guns flattened into hoes. No more Pentagon. No more military training camps. This is not an unreal utopia. It is the lens through which God's people are to look at the world. It is an alternative vision for citizens of God's reign and realm.
When will this heavenly vision ever touch ground? Advent eyes have seen the seeds of this vision planted in a manger stall among the peaceful animals, while angels sing: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace." We see the vision in the face of a real human life---Jesus of Nazareth. Within a sociopolitical situation of Roman dominance, overwhelming poverty, and revolutionary violence he gathered a people to live in the vision and reality of God's reign. He proclaimed that the poor are God's blessed ones and peacemakers are God's children. He taught his followers not to offer eye for eye, violence for violence, but to offer love and compassion. We see his peaceable kingdom as he hangs on the cross, a lamb next to wolves, and forgives the lions who had done him violence. Isaiah's vision has kissed the earth in the coming of Jesus Christ.
But, Isaiah's vision is yet to be fulfilled. It invites us to step into the picture. It calls us to take up our cross and follow the one who has walked into Isaiah's vision with all his body, heart, mind and soul. This vision seeks to tame our beastly natures. It invites us to be at peace with our enemies, and to taste a bit of paradise. To live in the framework of this vision may cause some to do rather radical actions to live in Isaiah’s peaceable vision like the Plowshares 8, who beat with hammers on the heads of some nuclear weapons. The vision may inspire work for the removal of bombies or cluster bombs from the fields of Vietnam dropped during the war, as advocated by my good friend Titus Peachey, Peace Educator at Mennonite Central Committee. These bomblets still kill and maim civilians even these many years after the Vietnam War. Titus has worked extensively with the people in Laos to assist the people in dismantling these bombies. Around 260 million cluster bombs were dropped back in the 60s. There are probably 80 million of these unexploded bombies still lying around ready to maim or destroy human lives at a rate of 300 Laotians a year. 156 nations have joined in a treaty to ban land mines, which the US has resisted signing. Spoons and cups have been made from melted down bombs to help fund this bombie removal project re-enacting Isaiah’s vision of a day when “swords will be beaten into plowshares.” Our support of Mennonite Central Committee and its peace work helps make Isaiah’s vision become more of a reality.
To live in the picture of Isaiah's vision is to help those children, who have had their lives torn apart by beastly adults, to heal and experience a world where people do live in a home peaceably, like some members of Zion are doing. It is to use the power of our voice and vote to limit the handguns and assault weapons that turn people into ravenous wolves. Catching Isaiah’s vision is to work at border issues and immigration reform, like another one of my good friends, Jack Knox, is doing. Inspired by what he saw on the border learning tours the Peace and Justice Support Network set up, he has moved to the Arizona border to work regularly on border and immigration issues; walking the desert trail where many migrants perish from the heat, supporting BorderLinks, and advocating for more just border policies. To live in the frame of Isaiah's vision is to be peacemakers, God's children, across our borders, in our own neighborhoods, and yes, even in our own congregations. O, that Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom would mend the split tree of the church!
It is the small child, central to Edward Hick’s painting of the Peaceable Kingdom, that symbolizes a world at peace. It is the small child that we anticipate during Advent who creates the real Peaceable Kingdom through his life.
Isaiah's vision beckons us to enter a new vision, to walk into God’s painting of what the world might be. His vision calls us to live by an alternative reality to our violent world and a divided church. Isaiah’s vision touched the earth in the child born in Bethlehem. In his vision is a hint of hope; the hope of God's peaceable reign, where
The wolf will live with the lamb
the leopard will lie down with the goat
the calf and the lion and the yearling together
and a little child shall lead them.