Liz McAlister’s July 3 talk, Maryville, TN

The following is an edited transcript of the talk given by Elizabeth McAlister at the Resistance for a Nuclear Free Future Gathering.

by Elizabeth McAlister

So, here we are, celebrating thirty years of Plowshares, the Nuclear Resister and Nukewatch – but it’s five minutes to midnight, and our finger is firmly fixed on the nuclear button. It’s in control of the power to destroy this magnificent planet many times over.  We’re living in a country on the brink of economic collapse, spending half a trillion dollars on the military, fighting trillion dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here we are – a society of killers; our killing fields global; our national landscape teeming with killers. They come out of the White House, the Pentagon, the Congress, DOE, Supreme Court – we see them all over D.C.

And they persecute us; they lie to and betray us; and, with their wars and their weapons, they take their measure to kill us. They kill with our silence and money; they kill in our name. I recall Lord Bertrand Russell, renowned philosopher and mathematician, writing from the Brixton Jail where he was serving time for an act of civil disobedience – and his was civil disobedience not civil resistance – at the War Ministry: “Kennedy and Khrushchev, Macmillan and Gaitskill, DeGaulle and Adenauer (all members of the nuclear club) are taking measure to kill us all.”

Not without cause did our beloved Dick McSorley, SJ, call the bomb: “The taproot of all violence!” The intention to possess the bomb and use it breeds every other violence: guns on the street, war, political ambiguity and cowardice, charades of religion, public paralysis, ravaging of the earth. It trashes the moral order, creating disorder and lunacies of every kind. It declares war on all the world’s people and on creation itself. It plunges the United States and the world into moral, social, and political madness.

What do people who love justice do in such a morass? We renounce killing. We strive to prevent our government from killing – we give no money for the killing machine, no silence before its crimes –  nothing but inspired nonviolent resistance.

Tonight we celebrate the Plowshares and 30 years of resistance embodied in the prophesy of Isaiah. For most of us there exists one or two commanding texts, words that speak to our hearts, to the longings that haunt our days and nights; words that beckon us from “the paralysis of analysis,” toward simply “doing it.”

To the Plowshares communities, the Isaiah text has been summons – words that set the deepest humanity in our souls into motion. Moreover, the congruence of the times of Isaiah with ours is so striking as to be utterly unsettling. He lived in an age of imperial darkness, of wars and rumors of wars, of duplicity and conniving in high places. His people had become an empire and in the process lost all sense of justice, of compassion, of peace.

In those terrible years, the voice of Isaiah was something to be reckoned with. Isaiah announced the impossible: “They will beat their swords into plowshares.” Something new, beyond all effort or genius or ecstatic longing or imagining must come to be. The impossible must happen to those obsessed with violence and arms and the misuse of resources and the wanton expending of lives. The truth of this transformation oracle, “swords into plowshares,” is crucial. It is crucial to the prospering of nations and cultures, to the survival of children, the elderly, and the ill. It is crucial to honor, faith, to any civilized sense of the human – it is crucial to the fate of the earth.

But the oracle is also impossible of fulfillment – or so it seems. Who in the time of Isaiah, who at present, believes it could come to pass? After Vietnam, Granada, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq again … who believes? War erupts. Theologians enter; just-war nonsense is dusted off. The war is fitted to theories. Swords are vindicated even as they kill. Yet the prophesy of Isaiah must come to pass – they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks – even though every poll and prevailing authority and purveyor of conventional wisdom and the preaching of ecclesiastical warriors proclaim it to be radically impossible. The task of transformation is crucial. The word of Isaiah must come to pass because the words surpass the human even while they engage our deepest longings. The words commit, invite, command, demand conversion – of hearts as well as swords. The words beckon into light all our own insipidness, our acceptance of dumb fate, our rehearsals of death. We are not helpless; we are not objects of fate; we are not dead.  Despair is to our shame. Come forth!

Do not imagine that some magic will beat the world’s swords into plowshares. We must disarm. We must take into account – at long last – the widows and orphans, the poor to whom the sword has brought such grief, those whom the sword has cheated. It cannot be done; it must be done. If it is to be done, it must be done – by us.

All the while we know that beating of swords into plowshares looks beyond the stated morality of all our religious traditions. Rather than calling the nation to judgment, our churches are deafening with conniving silence. They pronounce a sorry blessing on the forging and wielding of swords – a blessing that is a curse.

Yet the oracle sounds in our ears with absolute assurance: “They will beat their swords into plowshares…” The oracle implies a promise given and kept – wars shall cease. The tone of Isaiah is absolute, assured. The text invites an image. A hand appears, then many hands. Hands of women, men and children of all kinds. They dent the weapon, crack its shell, blunt its edge, neutralize its dread. More – in seeking to transform the object beyond its original purpose as an instrument of death and maiming and bloodletting, they are themselves transformed.

It is an unlikely time to issue a word of hope and imagination. Yet, the worst time, Isaiah dares say, is the apt time! The moment to speak is exactly when one is tempted to drop one’s hands. This is exactly the time to announce the immanent toppling of the gods of war! We know it well – fidelity to the oracle is a sorry and thankless task. How many years of prison have people served for fidelity to this oracle? Yet we have the promise of Isaiah: the sword is turned aside, the plow renews the earth.

Chapter two of Isaiah is a song of hope. In chapter one, Isaiah went through a tunnel of evil to emerge into “Seeing the Word!” He saw it as only a third eye could see. Neither he, nor we, cannot not see something once we have seen it so deeply – even if we close our eyes really tight. We must shut off the vision by a terrible act of denial. It is burned in the inner eye. Our thrust is to see ever more clearly what we have seen, to walk with what we have seen, to grow into it.

Our study of Isaiah is a way of giving ourselves time to talk about and reflect on our own times. It is urgent that we not lose the message and meaning of Isaiah under the weight of today’s bad news. Nothing of what is coming down today can be explained by a political process. It must be understood as idolatry, which always has the most lethal public consequences (violence, death). If this kind of worship of death is going on, we will reek of death and reap death on the world. Another implication is that no one lives except by a covenant – our covenant is either with God or with empire. No one is in a human vacuum.

These verses from Isaiah and their double in Micah are treated as indifferently as is the Sermon on the Mount. Place both into an abstract – really distant – future and we are not accountable to them. The opposite of that degradation of scripture is the human announcement that makes it now and real. Then the freedom of God and our own freedom function together to bring the vision into reality. But the vision remains on paper opposed by every contemporary concept that theologians conjure to free us from responsibility and accountability. One contemporary name is “Interim Ethic” – beware! The vision of Isaiah is for peace and justice here and now. It’s for truth and disarmament, here and now. So let’s keep keeping on, and making that vision a reality.