For NWYM Peace Month, I am concluding my 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 the 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.
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.
In this final post of the series, I intend to wrap things up by both summarizing the heartbeat of Micah 4, as well as illustrating how the historic Friends position at the core of the Peace Testimony connects with the early church father’s interpretation of the same passage. One might sum up Micah’s message to its broadest strokes by stating God’s vision of peace is one where “the exaltation of God and His authority leads to the transformation of human relationship and toward the restoration of the dream of the Garden.” The classic Friends understanding of Micah 4 as a normative marker of the Kingdom of God is not of course, the only interpretation, though it is indeed an ancient one. More popular in our day is a futurist outlook, something akin to “God will one day be exalted and His orders to the nations will one day be to end war and poverty, if we might be lucky enough to see it.” This view does not really involves human activity, it is just something God does apart from us, perhaps after Jesus’ parousia, or return to this place.
What sets Friends and the early church apart from most of the rest of the church is that they did not hold that this vision of peace was merely some far off eschatological reality for the future. They saw this as part of their inheritance from Jesus’ first coming and a clear mark of the Kingdom of God having arrived. George Fox and others looked at this biblical text as something that God was fulfilling around, among, and through them; something that was at the core of their corporate experience in stillness with God. An early Friends statement on the Peace Testimony clarifies this position:
Our weapons are spiritual, and not carnal, yet mighty through God, to the pulling down of the strongholds of sin and Satan, who is the author of wars, fighting, murder, and plots. Our swords are broken into ploughshares, and spears into pruning-hooks, as prophesied of in Micah iv. Therefore we cannot learn war any more, neither rise up against nation or kingdom with outward weapons, though you have numbered us amongst the transgressors and plotters. The Lord knows our innocency herein, and will plead our cause with all people upon earth, at the day of their judgment, when all men [and I suspect women too] shall have a reward according to their works. -A DECLARATION FROM THE HARMLESS AND INNOCENT PEOPLE OF GOD, CALLED QUAKERS… 1660 (Authored by George Fox and Others)
In our time, with the exception of a few Anabaptist leaning friends here and there, we might be tempted to think the Quakers had climbed way out on the “hermeneutical limb” in holding that position. After all, I am sure one could pour this radical text through the strainer of modern criticism and, in the end find plenty of objections to anything like fearlessly attempting to live into its truth. With our military coziness and exclusivist patriotism, this statement seems distant, almost foreign to our modern ears. However, this understanding stands in line, and echoes alongside that of the prophetic voices of the early church. It hearkens back to those who were perhaps even the disciples of the disciples of Jesus Himself. It reminds us of the ancient witness a people of God from another time who, like the early Friends, lived under a heavy handedness that purified one’s motives: A church who did not hear Jesus’ words “take up your cross and follow me” as words of mere metaphor, but in ways that might actually lead to a grisly death.
Fox’s words did not ring with new truth but with old truth; old truth like that of the close of the apostolic age when he said something very much like:
“We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for ploughshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith, and the expectation of the future given to us by the Father himself through the Crucified One.” —Justin Martyr- 2nd century (a man perhaps tutored personally by the apostle John)
Even Justin Martyr, the great apologist, was not alone in his interpretation of what the Kingdom of God would look like around him. Nor was he the only one radical enough to assume Micah’s words were a prophecy that was fulfilled by Jesus’ coming. Another great champion of orthodoxy also picked up this tune saying:
“But the law of liberty, that is, the word of God, preached by the apostles (who went forth from Jerusalem) throughout all the earth, caused such a change in the state of things, that these [nations] did form the swords and war-lances into ploughshares, and changed them into pruning-hooks for reaping the corn, [that is], into instruments used for peaceful purposes, and that they are now unaccustomed to fighting, but when smitten, offer also the other cheek.” —Irenaeus of Lyons, 2nd century (perhaps a disciple of a disciple of John the gospel writer)
It is tempting for many of us to label the Peace Testimony, or the expectations of the early church as mere idealism, or misguided hope. Yet as I hope this series has shown, there is no escaping the historical truth that where these visions of peace are lived out with conviction it has changed the world to the glory of God. These are not new things that Quakers have proclaimed, but old things that echo from the heart of God. It was a song sung on the lips of Micah and Isaiah in the Old Testament, one that became a chorus in the early church, and then was forgotten about for a while. It is a song that George Fox heard and sounded again. We all have a choice to either sing this song for ourselves in foolishness before a world gone mad, or let God sing it through someone else. Someone more in tune to the song of God than the rhetoric of the radio. We can choose to be ever earful of the fearful zeitgeist of our age, humming “pumped up kicks” all the way to the gun shop. Or we can allow the gospel of the God of Peace to transform our eyes—and for that matter our imaginations—in ways that hope for, and see peace.
Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, wrote: We crave things we neither need nor enjoy. “We buy things we do not want to impress people we do not like.” Where planned obsolescence leaves off, psychological obsolescence takes over. We are made to feel ashamed to wear clothes or drive cars until they are worn out. The mass media have convinced us that to be out of step with fashion is to be out of step with reality. It is time we awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick.
The second amendment and the second great command do not pull us in the same direction. We should at least be honest enough to admit that much is true. The early church and early Friends were willing to wrestle with this holy tension inherent in things like justice, love, and peace. Now is our time to listen as we discern our own place to stand as Quakers. May we not be known for a dusty legacy of days long past, but for our radical obedience to our Present Teacher—the Prince of Peace—in the here and now. Perhaps we can find a balanced and wise place, a place of hospitality to stand that wisely navigates the stewardship of love for our time. But my hope and heart is that we can do more than peaceably live quiet lives in the shadows, but that we might loudly live into our rich heritage as Christians and Quakers, who boldy sound the clarion of truth, and demonstrate a life that dwells in “that power and Presence that takes away the occasion for all wars” to our generation.