Daniel Berrigan gave the following talk, "Courage is a Verb: Do It," earlier this year at the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University. It is based on a verse from the Book of Isaiah and will be included in a volume on courage that is forthcoming in the Boston University Studies in Philosophy and Religion series, published by the University of Notre Dame Press:
And God will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples. And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift sword against nation. Never again will they learn war. (Isaiah 2:4)
I suppose in the lexicon of most believers there are one or two commanding texts, words that beckon up and away from "the paralysis of analysis," as Dr. Martin Luther King [Jr.] had it. Beckon us to -- doing it.
At that point, perhaps we touch on the point of Christianity itself, as Kierkegaard wrote. Surely he was the great and dour decrier of a Christianity that remained "an inert truth," as Whitehead would put it, or a Christianity that remained merely "notional," as Newman would put it. In any case, a religion dead and buried in the mind. A religion that put to naught an essentially commanding word and summons.
"Do it." To me, this text of Isaiah has been pure summons. A vigorous text designed to set the human in motion. Stand there indeed, but do something!
The congruence between the times in which the oracle was first issued and our own times is striking, unsettling, close. Isaiah spoke in the eighth century before Christ, a time of imperial darkness, of wars and rumors of wars, of duplicity in high places. Isaiah entered deliberately upon this scene of desolating power.
His method was, to say the least, unsettling to conventional religion and politics. A religious figure, and the most political of men! Isaiah refuses to separate public responsibility from the voice of God within.
It was all quite simple. He had seen God; therefore --
It was, and is, a terrifying equation. He had seen God; therefore he had a message for the king and the people. The premise and conclusion were forged with a fiery, dangerous simplicity -- the simplicity of a saint or a madman.
Isaiah seemed to have enjoyed a vogue -- for a while. He was heard in the corridors of power, he had audience at the throne -- for a while. Then the war with Assyria broke; it proceeded bloodily and was hardly resolved. Prelude to more violence; never an end of it; a war like every other war. And the fortunes of Isaiah were altered. War was resumed; his message darkened. Now he spoke only of doom and defeat, words perennially unwelcome to imperial ears. Isaiah said, "The first war was only a first act. You shall now be invaded. Samariah will fall." So it transpired. And worse. Eventually, a siege was laid to Jerusalem by Sennacherib of Assyria.
In those terrible years, Isaiah was, in one way or another, a presence to be reckoned with. The imperial adventurers, whether foreign or domestic, felt the sting of his prophecy. He played a variety of roles; sometimes he reminds us of a court fool, sometimes of a dog impeding the wheels of the rampaging chariots. And sometimes he is an honored oracular presence, dwelling inordinately on bad outcomes to dubious enterprises. And oftener than may be thought healthy, he derides the foolish inflations of royal ego.
And then, something else. He utters an oracle that seems to issue from a burning bush or a fiery epiphany. Isaiah announces -- the impossible. The necessary impossible, the absolutely crucial impossible; the impossible that must come to pass. That which shall come to pass precisely because it is impossible.
"They shall beat their swords into plowshares." It is as though he were holding in suspension two fiercely incompatible elements in a terrifying experiment. The necessary must somehow be joined to the impossible.
Swords into plowshares. The oracle is absolutely crucial to the lives of nations, to the lives of individuals, to honor and a civilized sense of humanity. To the fate of the earth. But the oracle is also impossible of fulfillment.
Therefore, the conclusion of Isaiah. Because the task is crucial, necessary, and because it is radically impossible -- therefore it is true. It will come true. God has sworn it.
"They shall beat swords into plowshares." The oracle entirely surpasses the human, even while it engages the human. Even while it commits, invites, commands, exacts vows, demands conversion of heart.
It is in the unlikely suspension of these two, the surpassing of the human and the exaction laid on the human, that the truth of God is manifest.
Indeed, the oracle surpasses the human. Is anyone in need of instruction on the subject of our helplessness, our lassitude, our sleep of death, our psychic numbness, our inertia of soul, before the universal, dreadful nuclear predicament?
And yet, and yet. The oracle, like a resurrecting command, beckons forth this very helplessness, this acceptance of dumb fate, this rehearsal of death. It implies this: You are not helpless, you are not objects of fate, you are not dead. Your despair is to your shame.
Further, understand that it is not God who will beat swords into plowshares; it is yourselves. It is you whom the times have beaten, literally (your spirit, enterprise, imagination, your very humanity) into the form of death, into that death before death which we name despair. Disarm. It must be done, and it cannot be done. And if it is to be done, it must be done by God, and it must be done by ourselves.
The task is literally impossible to our resources, to our will. More than fifty years of nuclear impasse testify, pitifully, cynically to the impossibility. Nuclear disarmament? It is beyond all political wit and witlessness. It is impossible to Russians, Americans, French, British, Chinese, Germans, Israelis. As impossible to Olaf Palme as to Ronald Reagan. Impossible to uncommitted nations and communist and capitalist nations. The kingdoms of darkness and the purported kingdoms of light are equally plunged in darkness.
And perhaps most striking of all, beating swords into plowshares is impossible to conventional Christianity. Such religion has offered the stalemated world, during most of these years, by no means a suffering or witnessing church. It has had no oracles to offer the benighted nations. Indeed, the church could not, in any semblance of good faith, echo the oracle of Isaiah. No, the church has been the aider and abetter, the co-conspirator, the hand that laid a blessing on the forging of swords. A blessing that is a curse.
And yet the oracle sounds, with absolute assurance. "They shall beat swords into plowshares, their lances into pruning hooks." "They" shall do this, which is to say, ourselves; in this generation, in our lifetime, our adulthood -- in no other. Shall our children be safe, our world salvaged? It is, literally and brutally, now or never.
I fear falling into another sort of fatalism here. As though in saying "now or never" I were saying something like this: The famous clock of the nuclear scientists is ticking away, a time bomb. We stand to lose everything, unless we muster our resources and lay our weight to a great fulcrum, a nuclear accommodation -- an Icelandic freeze, so to speak. All are agreed there are too many nukes; very well, let us reason together; let us find an acceptable number of nukes to live with, to be "comfortable" with. Let us seek a marriage of convenience in Armageddon.
This is too easy in principle. It is also frivolous in political understanding and doomed in practice. The oracle of Isaiah stands against all such absurd "peacekeeping," a nuclear winter in the soul, pure numb desolate terror.
Isaiah stands against; so does God. The oracle proceeds neither from expediency nor psychological necessity nor imperial arrogance, however veiled; not from Armageddonists nor from nuclear nightmares or daymares; not from the spirit of blackmail, rancor, ideologies bloody or bloodless. It proceeds from a different source than these polluted ones. It proceeds from the fidelity of God.
The word implies a promise; disarmament shall happen, it is irresistible. No human will, no malevolence, no nation, not the most powerful imperium, can prevent it. The tone is absolute, for the promise is uttered by God, and God is faithful.
I have an image awakened by the text. First of all, a hand. Or better, many hands. The hands of women and men and children. Hands of farmers, hands of former warriors. Indeed, the text implies that all hands are symbolized by these two; the converted warrior, the veteran who casts his medals away; and then the farmer, cultivator, nurturer, cherisher, the "compleat ecologist," the lover of children and of all the living.