The activist was trying, I think, to get across the idea that without bankers society would be better – fairer and more just and peaceful. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide their personal position on bankers and the world financial crisis, that’s not what interests me here. What caught my ear was the use of language.
This phrase comes from the Biblical prophet Isaiah, describing the world after God’s kingdom is established on earth and all things are made right. Here is the phrase in context:
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. 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. (1)I previously wrote a piece on man’s constant urge for a better world for peace and justice, and the inability to achieve it, which you can read here. I don’t want to repeat myself, but the current wave of protests against the financial systems of the world and reference to the swords into plowshares intrigued me.
The fact is that most people want a better world, but disagree on how to achieve it. It is easy to imagine a dialogue between the author of the sign and a banker. The activist tells the banker the world would be a better place if the focus were not solely on profit. The banker replies that without access to capital, wealth would be concentrated in fewer hands, and that systems that promised absolute equality have historically ended in absolute tyranny.
Both banker and activist could most likely learn from each other, but neither is likely to change the mind of the other. As many see the world lurching throughout history from one extreme to the other, we long for a middle way, for balance. The problem is no one can find this balance. Indeed, many who claim to bring balance turn out merely to hold the same old positions.
After the Second World War, an attempt was made to bring balance to Europe by establishing a supra-national authority, run by Europe’s best and brightest, that would override national and ethnic enmities that had bloodied the continent for millennia. First, France and Germany ceded control over coal and steel production to the European Coal and Steel Community. In the following decades, closer and closer union was pursued, and Brussels was populated by brilliant minds seeking the best for Europe – peace and prosperity.
But, as things stand, national differences threaten to tear the EU asunder. National interests it seems cannot be trumped by bureaucrats in Brussels, however visionary and well-intentioned. Europe is still very much a group of sovereign nation states unwilling to surrender authority to a supranational body.
So, it appears that the European project has failed to produce balance. Moreover, any human authority that tries to settle disputes between nations is likely to be accused of bias by one or more parties to the dispute, and may even become the target of wrath. So, even if we were to find a very wise and virtuous person, who held humanity’s best interests at heart, no one would follow him or her.
We need someone with unquestioned authority to settle the disputes of humanity. This is the picture we find in Isaiah Chapter Two. Only a supremely wise, just, and unbiased being could convince disputing nations to beat their swords into plowshares. No more wild experimentation. No sincere appeals that it will be different this time. No more claims to have learned the lessons of history, when at the darkest times it becomes painfully clear that the lesson that we always forget is that history repeats itself.
Humanity clings desperately to the hope that one day swords will be beaten into plowshares. However, it seems, that the biblically-inspired hope of perpetual peace and justice cannot be established without the biblical-described source of such peace – God’s kingdom of justice established on earth as it is in heaven.
(1) Isaiah 2:3-5 (New International Version).