“Tanks, Tractors and Tremblers Before God” Part III: Ploughshares and Pruning Hooks


For NWYM Peace Month, I am continuing to look at one of God’s great visions of peace from the Old Testament, a rich vision of shalom that God gave to the prophet Micah during a turbulent time of war and invasion, followed by a time of exile and slavery. Micah’s unique vision of peace has always held a special place in Friends movement. In this blog series entitled “Tanks, Tractors, and Tremblers Before God” I will look deeply at these symbols of God’s vision of peace from Micah 4 and explore the biblical roots of the Quaker Peace Testimony. There is indeed an interesting intersection between God’s rich vision of shalom and various, often untold stories of how Friends have uniquely tried to live out their commitment to peace. You can find part one in the series here.

Micah 4:1-5

1 In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted 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 temple 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 Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their 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,
but we will walk in the name of the LORD
our God for ever and ever.

The second symbols of God’s vision of peace are the plowshares and pruning hooks, once used as swords and spears. These symbols reveal God’s vision of shalom as one that transforms tools of death into tools of life. These ancient symbols of war are almost too “medieval” for us to see rightly. They conjure in our minds connotations of King Arthur’s court or LOTR, archaic Shakespearean English, and “daring do.” Because of the mechanization of modern warfare, we forget that for nearly 3,000 years of human history, the sword was humanity’s symbol of conquest, defense and power. Spears, held in the hands of charioteers, could decimate villages in the blink of an eye. These were the ancient counterparts to smart bombs and drone attacks, every bit as intimidating as tanks in the streets. Outside of the U.S., perhaps the closest modern symbol is the AK-47. Just as the swords of old, some countries today even have them on their flags. They are a symbol of home protection as well as revolution, and represent force and power for the individual. Depending on which side of the gun you are on, it can be taken as a symbol of freedom or oppression.

Typically, after a time of violence runs its course, history often tells tales of heroes rescuing “barbarians” from their barbarity. The victors vilify the vanquished as stories are spun into sanitized, romanticized, and glory-charged epics for the next generation. Yet this vision, one we often embrace, has no place in God’s vision. It is not a story of “good guys with guns ridding the world of bad guys with guns” that we read about in Micah. It is a story of guns being melted down and re-purposed to feed a hungry world. It is one where the steel that once caused poverty is now used to heal it.

Micah reminds us that when God decides for the nations of the world, His first decision is to remove the experience of violence from humanity. Nothing is starker than the difference between raiding and farming, the vision of preparing for battle and the vision of preparing for planting.  God’s people would now once again be stewards of the land instead of killing each other to possess it and its wealth. In God’s vision, the very blades that kill are turned earthward to bring forth  life instead of death. Implements of war become implements of agriculture, the blades that kill become the blades that till, prune and produce abundance.

Like the swords and spears, our modern minds eyes struggle with the imagery of plowshares and pruning hooks. “What could these ancient things be?” we ask. Plowshares did the work of the modern garden hoe, but with cow power! These are not part of our vision of a small backyard garden, but a window into a world without grocery stores, a vision of a world with cycles of work, rest, and of rationing food through winter. Plowshares were used to aerate and plant, to prune and to harvest. Plowshares break up hard packed earth to let in more air, water and seeds. They prepare the earth to make spaces for new life to begin. Plowshares were implements of the “tractors” of the ancient world.  On the other hand, pruning hooks have been replaced by modern loppers. They cut away dead ends that leach resources to improve life. They are used for the trimming, shaping, and maintaining the health of the new life the plowshares made room for.

Here we see a return to the original covenant of stewardship in the garden, a vision of how human order was created to be. It is an exchange of human to human violence for the violent process that is agriculture, a process involving calloused hands from sowing and reaping. This vision of shalom is nonviolent, offering something better than the simplistic legalism of “not doing X” to God’s people. It echoes the vision of Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke of peace as both the goal, and means toward reaching that goal.

guilford riflesThis vision  of peace reminds me of the story of the Guilford Rifles. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Matthew Osborn, a precision rifle maker of the Centre Meeting in North Carolina was ordered to make guns for the Continental Army. Shocked that his rifles would be used to kill people instead of feeding them through hunting, he flatly refused.  He then went around to all his friends and neighbors and bought back every rifle he could that he had made over the course of his life. He gathered them up, took them into his shop and bent their barrels so that they could never be used to kill human beings, other people made in the image of God. According to the story, he was fined heavily but refused to pay. This decision nearly cost him his home and all his land. Continental soldiers and other governmental representatives came to collect his money, but he treated them with gracious hospitality, even as he stood firmly by his convictions. These emissaries to him eventually became captive to their consciences too, and slowly the matter was dropped. The fine was paid in secret by the governor of the time, who just could not go through with taking the man’s house for his civil disobedience.

Whether this story is true or merely a Quaker legend is uncertain. Yet even if the story is not true, that is actually unimportant. The fact that we want it to be true and love telling that story says something about who we are as Quakers. Why would we tell this story for hundreds of years if we did not love it and what it represents? There is just something in it that has a Quaker ethos at its core. It is not so much that Quakers could not be gun makers or own guns. But I do think it is fair to expect a Quaker gun maker to be a different kind of gun maker. It is not that hard to imagine that when a person’s conscience dwells in the Light of Christ, they could be moved to remove guns from their life— even ones representing a life’s work—if people were growing more and more willing to use them on each other. Love sometimes demands the guarding of temptations in moments of weakness. It demands we help each other when we are losing hope and thinking of resorting to drastic measures out of fear. Imagining a world without gun violence is something many people do, especially now. But it is more than a trendy platitude, it is a holy vision, something straight from the heart and mind of God. This vision need not be one where God rips guns out of “our cold, dead hands” as Charlton Heston once boasted at an NRA convention. It is a vision where we are willing to lay them down ourselves with humility and compassion, to even remake them into objects of loving service to our neighbor. Living into this vision without reservation is the only way it can spread. It offers a way of living that  demonstrates to others a vision of “that life and Spirit that makes the occasion for all wars cease.”

Query: How might God be leading you to exchange old defense mechanisms and patterns of behavior for implements that do the work of the Kingdom of God? In what ways does fear, rather than love, move you to action?

Move on to Part 4


About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. I have served College Avenue Friends since 2013. I like to describe the way God has been at work in my life by saying that "He has been creating in me the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar, and the zeal of a missionary." I have an extremely nontraditional background as Jesus has given me freedom from the slavery of addiction to drugs, and my journey to faith came later in life after an overdose in 2000. I graduated with a M. Div with an emphasis in biblical studies from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland Oregon in 2016. I have a love for teaching and revealing the historical and doctrinal context from which the biblical text arises, and connecting its redemptive message to life today. Other interests include teaching a leadership class based on the Friends Testimonies at William Penn University, writing, and metalwork such as blacksmithing, a passion which I enjoy teaching others as a way of discipleship. View all posts by jtower11

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