Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Fulfillment of Life: Newtown and The Tree of Life

"They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks." Isaiah 2:4

This is a beautiful, beautiful piece of art. I aways, always tear up when I look at it.   

The phrase, "I had thought I had lost my ability to be surprised" I borrow from David Steinmetz professor of Church History at Duke Divinity School on the heels of the Nickel Mines, PA Amish school shooting. I have not talked to him about what happened at CT but I am sure he would agree this is just as surprising if not more so. Twenty Seven Dead, 20 of them just babies. Babies with their whole life in front of them. My heart aches and hurts when I think about it. It makes me sick. 

For some reason this sculpture is all I can think about...

The Tree of Life sculpture displayedrecently in the British Museum of Art in February 2005, was made as a part of the Transforming Arms into Tools initiative in the post-Civil War country of Mozambique.  It represents an imaginative vision ofthe passage in Isaiah 2:4 where it is written “They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” It is a quite literaldepiction of this biblical prophecy due to the materials used in the sculpture, namely decommission weapons.  The passage and the sculpture relate to each other in a very intimate way.  I think the Tree of Life gives imagination to the Isaiah prophesy and in turn the Isaiah prophecy makes sense of the sheer oddity of the formation of the sculpture itself. 
                Isaiah’s prophecy functions historically in a time where a vision of a new reality is needed.  With Isaiah’s prophecy signals a shift in prophetic speech from merely informing present events but also future ones as well.  This particular passage,2:4, in its entirety reads, “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; theyshall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” During this periodthere was a large amount of political strife in the kingdom of Israel andJudah.  This was a period (namely the 8th Century) when Judah was influential enough to be a force in world events.  This was long before the Babylonian Exile and contemporary with the fall of the Northern Kingdom.  What was needed from the Lord was a vision of a future whose situation was peaceful.  This was a message of hope for thepeople, that after exile came restoration and the end of war between nations.  Isaiah 2:4 is situated as a part of a larger universal prophecy (chapters 2-4) meant to offer salvation to all.  In this hopeful future, weapons of war (swords and spears) shall be beaten into tools of peaceful existence (plowshares and pruning hooks). 
            Likewise, the Tree of Life sculpture is made to commemorate a contemporary example of this hope, the later twentieth centurycivil wars in Mozambique.  Between the years 1976-1992 the country was plunged into civil war amid competingpowers in the nation.  In addition,world powers with interest in the area poured approximately seven million weapons into the country to continue and enforce the war.  After the Civil wars had ceased local Bishops and Christian artists sought to create communal images that the nation could hold to begin the process of reconciliation and more importantly conceptually envision a non-violent existence.  This started the Transforming Arms into Tools initiative where citizens would exchange their weapons forvaluable tools such as sowing machines and plows.  The Tree of Life (above) is a sculpture made out of those weapons collected and decommissioned by the Mozambique civil government. AK-47s, handguns, and ammunition clips make up the structure of the sculptureas they have been cannibalized to fit the form of a tree, which is meant todraw to mind the tree of life depicted in Revelation 22.  It is a beautiful structure, where the trunk is made of the remains of tools of death and the leaves are hollow magazine clips.  This transformation is the healing and transforming of a bloody past.  Here citizens of once warring people give up their weapons for the tools of peace while transforming weapons intopeaceful beauty.
            These two works are meant to make sense of one another.  On the one hand Isaiah’s vision is grounded in the speculative, leaving the reader and hearer to wonder what that might look in aconcrete situation.  On the other,what does one gain from turning guns into a tree? 
            The future hope of deliverance from strife that Isaiah wishes to point to is meantto signify harmony unseen to his contemporaries and still to modernreaders.  In the sculpture, the weapons signify a peaceful end and a new image for the things Mozambique citizens used to commit murder against one another.  After a twenty-year period of civil war it takes creativity to transform the social imagination of violence to peace, and the artistsbehind the sculptor give voice to a liberation from violence by literally beating swords/guns into a tree of life while handing out plowshares.  These two works, Isaiah and Tree of Life, make sense of one another because The Tree of Life gives us the tangible form of what Isaiah meant by the hope for transformation of weapons into objects of peace.  Isaiah, also, gives us the cipher on which to interpret the Tree of Life as a work of art.  For if we did not have the vision of a time when swords would be beaten into plowshares then the making of a tree out of automaticweapons would be a meaningless gesture. These two works give us a hope of a time when “nation will not lift upsword against nation and peace reigns.”

 The observer of the Tree ofLife should be perplexed yet moved. Perplexed at the leaves meant to signify new life thatare made from magazine cartridges.  In Revelation 22 it is written, 
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. Rev. 22: 1-5
We become moved because of the hope in a time when the weapons of warwill have no use but to be made into trees and works of beauty.  This tree in particular shows a world struggling against war a peaceable kingdom where swords will be beaten intoplowshares and spears into pruning hooks. This tree witnesses to reality as it should be.  We cannot call this work of art hopelessly utopian because it is rooted in the struggles of Mozambique and the transformations Isaiah prophesies.  

So, why a tree? Why art? Why now? In times like these do we not have better things to do? It is true, we owe it to the victims to be in solidarity with them. I think thats what Jesus would do. 

Our problem is to learn how to mourn. Mourning and lament in the wake of tragedy rather than screams of gun control or gun ownership expansion deal with pain in a realistic and redemptive. The fact that we think that more violence, more guns would beget peace is outrageous. That somehow more guns near children solve the issue, I am not convinced. 

For example, two days before this tragedy in Newtown a man shot his son after trying to sell his handgun in Penn. ( 

It did not make national news. But this should cause us pause about the ways we deal with tragedy, death, and violence. 

This tree represents God's way of dealing with violence. 

But I am convinced that death is not the final say. As Nicolas Wolterstorff, writes on the loss of his son
To believe in Christ's rising from the grave is to accept it as a sign of our own rising from our graves. If for each of us it was our destiny to be obliterated, and for all of us together it was our destiny to fade away without a trace, then not Christ's rising but my dear son's early dying would be the logo of our fate. (Lament For a Son, pg. 92)

Furthermore, images such as the Tree of life symbolize our fate. The fate of the world at the hands of a God who does not abandon creation to its own violence.

We think whoever has the most bullets lowers crime and ends war, but the only time war ceases and violence stops is when those things are beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks.

Its reality transformed and assigns the only amount of worth to our weapons amount to, torn apart to make a divine statement that death shall not have the final say.

That guns and weapons ultimately serve as the paint on the eschatological work of art.

The reason I think on this work of art, is that it is a window. A window to the future that is breaking in on us. It is a reminder that the reality where children's bodies aren't subjected to unspeakable horrors. Rather, it is a reality where
rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all the tears from her eyes - and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and he that sits upon the throne will say, 'Behold, I make all things new.' (DBH, Doors of the Sea, 104) 
The children's fate lies with this reality. This should not cause us to abandon grief and lament or give cheap answers to bewildered parents. Rather, it provides the overarching context for discussions once the time for talk has begun.

I think of this painting because if a window to that eschatological place needed to be seen it is time like these. Because it reminds us that it is not idealistic hope to yearn for this, but is a reality which comes to us in a tree.

Maybe even a tree such as this...