Swords into plowshares

by Sera Chung

Sculpture, the art of mass: the gathering of a presence, the light massiveness of its immanence, the curvature of space. Mass not as a mass but as density and as gravity, as a measure of presence.

The gathering of what is and remains dispersed, of what – at and in the origin, shattering it – pressed forward, dissipated, and dispersed, without there being any need for this violence or any salvation in speaking out against it. On the contrary, it is in seeking to absolve oneself from this violent birth that ruinous violence springs forth… Save that “safe” here does not mean “intact, unharmed, or unscathed”; on the contrary, it means “nascent, touched, breached once and for all.”

  • Jean-Luc Nancy, “Held, Held Back,” Multiple Arts The Muses II

Swords into plowshares statueIn the garden of the United Nations, I met a most interesting man. On a wintery afternoon in December, standing between the waft of commercial heat and the tang of sulfur evaporating from the East River, I stood face to face with him. He was tall, with a physical stature like the fiery Ares, but with a cool-headed composure like summer fading into viridian winter winds. His martial spirit was reflected in his tightly pursed lips and wild eyes. But what caught my attention was neither his physical stature nor his expression of valor. Rather, it was in that lone piece of steel firmly held in the crevasse of his fingertips and his palm: a sword, a plowshare, or a sword-plowshare; the immense mass of a war weapon transitioning into an agricultural tool. Straight paths of the shaft developed curvatures, seizing the last glimpses of the sun in every angle. At his feet, the famous words of the prophet Isaiah were written: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not raise sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war no more.” Faithful to this mission, here he has stood, out of place, anonymously, solitarily, beating on that piece of steel since 1959.

The sculpture “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares” by Yevgeny Vuchetich was a gift from the then Soviet Union in 1959, and is one of the several art pieces housed in the United Nations. A visual rendition of the Isaiah verse, the bronze statue symbolizes a desire to “put an end to war and convert the means of destruction into creative tools for the benefit of all.” The anti-war message of the sculpture is appropriate, since the original verse was written when Judah was under the military attack of Assyria. However, as I stood before the towering mass of the sword-plowshare, I began to think of the “means of destruction” and injustice that ails us now in our current socio-political framework: child soldiers, human trafficking, starvation, refugees, genocide, and many more. I felt out of place, anonymous, and insignificant against the taller, and forceful systems that divide and dehumanize. At that moment, all I could do was humble my head, and stand in silence. The stillness, however, was shortly interrupted. It was not the sound of sweaty blacksmiths pounding on pieces of iron. Rather, it was the voices of the weak, the oppressed, the misfits, and multitudes of the anonymous that called out to me from the transitory space, the tenacious and agonizing process of shaping a sword into a plowshare. I was reminded of the cross, once the deadliest and most remarkable of all weapons, which had been transformed into a plowshare that loosens and aerates hardened hearts and minds, reconciling God and humanity. The plowshare continued to probe my spirit, shaking, uprooting, and exposing the swords within myself that met the steeled tip with rooted resistance. I wished to take my swords and lift them high, and thrust them into the ground. I desired to participate in the will of this stranger’s whom I had just met. I wanted to be bent at the waist, humbled at the head, but arms lifted to the heavens like neat furrows waiting to cradle the living. I wished to learn war no more, or at least, un-learn the war I had in me, in order to become a living plowshare.

Returning home that cold afternoon, the sound of “beating” did not stop resonating. Like the volatile winds of December, the words of Isaiah became an ever-changing melody:

I shall beat my sword into a plowshare; my spear into a pruning hook,
I shall heal my wounds into understanding; my pain into compassion,
I shall humble my consciousness to other perspectives; my knees to the floor,
I shall change my utterances to prayer; my thoughts to prophetic visions…

In the midst of the bustling beat of Manhattan, the dense snow fell like grace notes on my lips.

Sera Chung, is a student at Princeton Theological Seminar who is doing a field education placement with the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.

The photo is by David Young.

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