Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Joel 3) transports me to a White House visit in the early 1950s, when five preachers got an audience with President Harry Truman, presented him with a Bible, and advocated for him to refrain from war in Korea. The preachers spoke about the prophet Isaiah’s call to beat our swords into plowshares and called for the President to work for peace. I’m not sure these preachers were adequately prepared for their meeting. They were not simply dealing with a world leader. They were dealing with the first Southern Baptist to be elected President, one who had been immersed in Bible study his whole life and who probably knew the texts as well or better than any of the preachers in the room. And they were dealing with a sufficiently complicated man: this President, who was calling for a world wide revival of faith to combat communism, who repeatedly said that his guiding principles were the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, was also known as “Give ‘Em Hell Harry.” And so when the preachers cited Isaiah’s peacemaking words, the President gave ‘em hell and asked why they didn’t preach the whole Bible. He cited Joel 3, where the prophet calls for the people to turn their ploughshares into swords. Truman argued that the two prophetic texts were not contradictory; that the application depended on the situation. And so for him, giving the evildoers hell, through the use of swords and guns and nuclear bombs, was justified by the prophet Joel, given the circumstances he faced. Isaiah was reserved for other circumstances. I have no doubt that he fully believed this to be true, and I imagine such a hermeneutic is what helped him sleep at night.
President Truman was right about one thing; we don’t tend to preach this text, especially those of us in the peacemaking tradition. The prophet’s words are harsh and clear: prepare war, stir up the warriors. . . beat your ploughshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, “I am a warrior”. . . Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. This is not the harvest Jesus spoke of, a harvest of faith. This is a harvest of blood vengeance, leading to a day in the prophetic imagination when enemy Egypt will be a desolation and Edom utterly destroyed. The problem with Truman’s interpretation is this: exactly when in Israel’s history was such a mindset not justified? We don’t know the precise historical context of Joel, whether it was pre-exilic or post-exilic. Either way, you can’t really make an argument that the nation was facing a crisis and a threat worse than it was in Isaiah’s time, when that prophet envisioned the tools of violence being re-forged into instruments of peace. No, I don’t think we can simply claim historical circumstance as a justification to unleash hell instead of building up the kingdom of heaven in our midst. That’s too easy an out. There must be something else going on.
My understanding of the passage comes not from the encounter of preachers and a President, but from two lunch conversations I can remember having, with two sets of young people. One was with a group of young Karen refugees from Burma. We talked after watching a documentary of the genocide being waged against their ethnic group. They were clearly wary of peace talks and diplomacy. And their historical trauma clearly led to some hopes and visions of a day when the brutal dictatorship would be destroyed. A similar conversation had taken place several years earlier, this time with a group of Sudanese refugees, who had been among the Lost Boys who fled their country’s genocidal war. They, too, were wary of peacemaking efforts. It makes me wonder whether the words of the prophet Joel might be in the Bible simply to give voice (a primordial scream of a voice) to the feelings of people like the Karen and Sudanese war refugees, who witnessed unspeakable atrocities and suffered untold horrors, and who can’t dream past a day when the weak become strong enough to tell the powers to go to hell and destroy those who rain down violence on them. It leads me to believe that the difference between the two prophecies is not historical context, but involves who should be able to appropriate those words for their own in any given context. It is inappropriate, it seems to me, for the leader of an empire with more swords than he knows what to do with to try and appropriate Joel’s words as justification for warmongering. Just as it is inappropriate for me to put Isaiah’s words in the mouths of those most victimized and violated by violence. I have to remember that Joel’s words, too, are the Word of God; they’re just not made for my mouth.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.