Learning the Lessons of Peace

Isaiah, one of the great Jewish prophets, was an advocate of peace whose words inspired Jesus’s non-violent teachings centuries later and continue to resonate to the present day, writes Rev. Howard Bess.

By Rev. Howard Bess

African-Americans have given us a great gift of songs that we call “spirituals.” One of the greatest is “Down by the Riverside,” which paints a picture of a new Christian believer walking down to a river to be baptized. The song begins “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield down by the riverside.”

The song’s refrain ends with the words “and study war no more,” words drawn from Isaiah 2:4, part of the great anti-war writings in the Old Testament.

The Prophet Isaiah (Illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company)

The Prophet Isaiah (Illustration from a Bible card published by the Providence Lithograph Company)

In the Eighth Century BC, the prophet Isaiah was weary of the wars of the nation of Judah, with the Israelite nation split in two through a fight for control of the throne of David. The leadership of the nation of Judah (the southern portion of ancient Israel) believed peace (shalom) could be established through power of shield and sword, but Isaiah argued that peace would come when people took the ways of the Lord seriously. According to Isaiah, the process must begin with the laying aside of sword and shield, and forever forsaking the absurdity of war.

A “school” of Isaiah developed around this prophet that lasted at least 200 years. His followers maintained his anti-violence, anti-war stance. Centuries later, Jesus from Nazareth embraced the thinking of the Isaiah school as an anti-war, anti-violence prophet.

These Bible truths surged into my thinking over the last few weeks of the 2014 political campaign. Both Sen. Mark Begich and now Sen.-elect Dan Sullivan vowed that they would “fight for Alaska.” Other candidates shouted the same message: “I will fight for you.”

But I reject the offer. My response is to say “No thanks; I do not need or desire someone fighting for me.” I make this response as a believing and practicing Christian.

We are still involved in searching for the facts of the life of the Jesus of history. However, some issues are clear. Jesus was born and raised in the village of Nazareth in Galilee, an area populated by poor, disenfranchised Jews. They were powerless and angry.

Reza Aslan’s book Zealot does a great job of describing the political, social, economic and religious context in which Jesus grew up. Galilee was the seed-bed of the Zealot movement. In the days of Jesus’s ministry, the Zealot movement was not unified and self-appointed leaders abounded, although it eventually became organized and unified. Yet, one thing characterized the entire movement. It advocated the violent overthrow of Roman occupiers, the oppressive rich and those who controlled the Temple in Jerusalem. Many Zealots carried concealed knives.

Was Jesus a Zealot or was he a prophet in the Isaiah tradition of no swords or shields? Aslan concludes that Jesus was a Zealot at heart and did not back away from the Zealot commitment to violence. Many other scholars are taking the opposite view, insisting that Jesus ministered in the context of the Zealot movement, shared the same concerns and wanted justice for all, but Jesus advocated a different path. He taught love, kindness and justice as the way to establish the kingdom of God on earth.

I believe that Jesus was a political, social, economic and religious activist with non-violent commitments, which I think is the better reading of the material that we now have. Seeing Jesus as a devout Jew in the Isaiah tradition of non-violence makes sense to me and it is consistent with the best of modern scholarship.

How does all this translate into American politics in the early 21st Century? First, if Jesus was in fact as active in the political world as it now appears, no serious follower of Jesus can avoid involvement in the public arena. The idea of keeping your religion out of the political world is not an option.

One of the pleasures of living in Alaska is the ease with which a person can become acquainted with political office holders. I have a first-name relationship with ex-governors, U. S. senators, members of the state legislature, heads of state departments, mayors and city councilmen. I have expressed my opinions to them on a variety of subjects; I have contributed to political campaigns; however, I have never asked for a favor for myself.

After the November election here in Alaska, I decided to ask every political figure that I know to stop using the word “fight” to describe their public service. I will make the request to help rid our society of fighting public officials. I want to be represented; I want my public officials to advocate, serve, work, even argue on behalf of justice, generosity, grace and peace.

I have decided to lay down my sword and shield and clean up my political vocabulary. I am going to ask every political person I know to do the same and to study war no more. We need good government, but we have no need for fighting representatives. This is the Jesus way.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.                  

5 comments for “Learning the Lessons of Peace

  1. M_Raghavan
    December 5, 2014 at 21:02

    I am not well read in Isaiah, but I am convinced in my study of history and religion that Jesus was and always remained a devout Jew. I am fascinated by the prospect that his message of peace is not as radical as people make it out to be.

    I am of the opinion that this message is Universal, and much more reflective of the inclusionary messages of all ancient faiths.

  2. Zachary Smith
    December 4, 2014 at 15:14

    I don’t believe ANY of its contents.

    None at all?

    * Give honor to your father and mother by treating them with respect.
    * Do not murder a fellow human being.
    * Do not steal or take anything that doesn’t belong to you, unless you have been given permission to do so.
    * Do not tell a lie about someone or bring a false accusation against another person.

    I’d have thought a few things were ‘no-brainers’

    • December 13, 2014 at 00:37

      “Give honor to your father and mother by treating them with respect.”

      Certainly — IF one’s father and mother have earned the right to be honored and treated with respect, and deserve to be honored and treated with respect.

      Not all parents have earned such a right. Some parents are abusive or are otherwise unworthy of honor or respect. It is wrong to say that a person has any duty to honor such parents.

      The commandment to “honor your father and mother”, which in the biblical text is unconditional, is an example of something in the Bible that is wrong.

      If anything there should be a commandment to parents to earn and be worthy of the honor and respect of their children, and to treat their children with dignity and respect, that they (the children) might come to treat themselves and others with dignity and respect.

  3. Lutz Barz
    December 4, 2014 at 05:01

    The so-called Bible is a book of Lies. I don’t believe ANY of its contents.
    Not fit for human consumption.
    Learn history if you will.

  4. Zachary Smith
    December 3, 2014 at 13:58

    In the Eighth Century BC, the prophet Isaiah was weary of the wars of the nation of Judah, with the Israelite nation split in two through a fight for control of the throne of David. The leadership of the nation of Judah (the southern portion of ancient Israel) believed peace (shalom) could be established through power of shield and sword, but Isaiah argued that peace would come when people took the ways of the Lord seriously. According to Isaiah, the process must begin with the laying aside of sword and shield, and forever forsaking the absurdity of war.

    With all due respect to Rev. Bess, this is totally nonsensical. Isaiah really was a devout fellow, but he was also an idiot to the core. His encouragement of Hezekiah to revolt against the Assyrians was totally insane. The result was predictable to anybody who didn’t wear YHWH-tinted blinders. I’ve selected a reference from 1909 to avoid any possibilities of ‘modern revisionism’.

    Hezekiah of Judah who had not submitted to my yoke, forty-six of his fortified towns, together with the innumerable fortresses and small towns in their neighborhood, with assault and battering-rams and approach of siege-engines, with the attack of infantry, of mines … I besieged and captured. Two hundred thousand, one hundred and fifty persons, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, oxen and sheep, without number, from their midst I brought out and counted them as spoil.

    I shut him up like a bird in a cage in the midst of Jerusalem, his royal city. I erected fortifications against him, and those coming forth from the gates of his city I turned back. His cities which I had plundered I cut off from his domain, and gave them to Mitinti king of Ashdod, to Padi king of Ekron, and to Zilbil king of Gaza, and I diminished his territory. To the former payment of their yearly tribute, the tribute of subjection to my sovereignty I added and laid it upon them. The terror of the glory of my lordship overwhelmed Hezekiah himself, and the Arabians and his trusted soldiers, whom he had introduced for the defence of Jerusalem, his royal city, laid down their arms.

    Together with thirty talents of gold and eight hundred talents of silver, I caused to be brought after me to Nineveh, my royal city, precious stones, sparkling . . . stones, great lapis lazuli stones, couches of ivory, thrones of state of elephant skins and ivory, . . . wood, whatever there was, an enormous treasure, and his daughters, the women of his palace, his male and female servants (?); and for the payment of tribute and the rendering of homage he despatched his envoy.

    http://tinyurl.com/nn3pyj8

    In the course of suppressing the rebellion, the kingdom was thoroughly smashed, and Jerusalem wasn’t overrun only because it wasn’t worth the trouble.

    Isaiah had previously used his influence with Hezekiah to “reform” – destroying all cults competing with YHWH. This purification would guarantee victory in any future battles. Except it didn’t.

    The capacity of humans for self delusions appears to be nearly unlimited, and when the pressure is on, as in War, fantasy generation shifts into overdrive.

    When the whites were in the final stages of wiping out Native Americans, the cult of the Ghost Dance appeared. If only the Indians could return to good, clean living, they’d be able to defeat the invading whites. Mormon Temple Garments can serve as physical protection – much like the small Bibles, rabbit feet, and other lucky charms carried by soldiers.

    During the Crusades the Vatican issued Indulgences for all past and future sins, and guaranteed entry into Heaven.

    More recently we have Cargo Cults, and the Japanese invocation of Kamikaze Winds. In the latter case, enough demonstrations of suicidal sacrifice would ensure the precious home islands would be saved by miraculous typhoons as had happened in historical times.

    But back to Isaiah. He wasn’t in any way “anti-war”; he was making a prophesy of the results of HIS particular warmongering.

    Was Jesus a Zealot? Almost certainly not. He was too well grounded in the Real World to believe the Romans could be conclusively defeated by warfare. But an alliance with the Zealots worked well for him and the Zealots. They were willing to entertain the possibility Jesus was right in thinking God would intervene, and in return, he got access to their protection (up to 12 armed bodyguards) and also their intelligence network.

    Sad to say, Jesus was a peace-monger in the sense that his teachings might bring the Jews of his day together in a way God would recognize as being worthy of saving from their enemies and occupiers. Believing otherwise is very comforting, but doesn’t recognize the realities of his time.

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