I can’t get Isaiah’s prophecy of a peaceable kingdom out of my mind. Many congregations heard it read out loud on the second Sunday of Advent. When the Messiah comes, “…the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain. (Isa 11)
It’s a beautiful scene, made all the more so by Edward Hicks’ familiar paintings. It’s pleasant to imagine what that world would be like, but where are the people? Aren’t there supposed to be people in the peaceable kingdom, or have we so disappointed God that he’s given us up for cows and bears? Jesus’ nativity says no, God has not given up on us. To the contrary, Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save the world (John 3), humanity in particular, along with cows, bears and the rest of creation.
The peaceable kingdom vision depicts predators and prey living in harmony with one another. No longer will one species need be nourished at the cost of another species’ life. Among earth’s creatures, we humans stand apart from all others as the most voracious of all predators. We kill all manner of other animals to satisfy our bodily hunger. We kill for the sport of it. We kill each other with heedless abandon, sometimes in the name of the state, and sometimes out of personal animus. We have even been known to kill each other for the sport of it.
Our skills at predation have become quite sophisticated. We kill to nourish our fears, anxieties, ambitions, and egos. We do it not by taking whole lives, just parts of them, through looks, words, and deeds. Abusing, oppressing, humiliating, dominating, intimidating are all ways to kill a little of another’s body, mind and spirit. We cheat and steal from one another in criminal acts, and in the ways we conduct business, treat employees, violate that which has been entrusted to us, and more. They are all forms of predation.
Earthly creation was given into our hands, entrusted to us by God to serve as stewards responsible for its welfare. We have used its resources to benefit the well being of humanity, but not always wisely. We have too often failed to consider the well being of creation itself. Our ability to apply new technologies for our personal benefit have often surpassed our ability to reflect on how they affect the long term health and well being of the rest of creation. We have, in some insidious way, become parasites preying on the host that gives us life. It’s dis-ease is our disease, and we are adept at denying both. It’s not out of evil intent. In fact, we’ve usually meant for good things to happen, and taken pride in our achievements. More people live longer, healthier lives. There are fewer famines and less extreme poverty. We’re more aware of our interdependence as peoples of differing ethnicities and nations. Nevertheless, we have trashed our environment, and threatened the viability of our fellow non-human creatures.
As predators go, none have surpassed us. I wonder if it’s one reason why we’re easily frightened by the science fiction threat of invasion by extra terrestrials who are more powerful predators than we. Is it fear that another life form superior to our own would have to be predators because evolution favors predation over all other traits?
Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom is not about wolves, lambs, leopards and kids. It’s about us. The animals in his vision are metaphors for human beings. It is we who will neither hurt nor destroy in God’s peaceable kingdom. But when?
Theologians are fond of talking about the already but not yet; the inbreaking of God’s kingdom already present in our time and place, but the fullness of it is not yet ours to experience in this life. Isaiah’s vision of God’s peaceable kingdom has always been present, at least in small pieces, because God has always been engaged with creation as both judge and savior. But with God’s incarnation in Jesus, whose birth we soon celebrate, it ceased to be a matter of visions, prophecies, and God’s words mediated by human agency. Jesus did not speak and act for God, but was God speaking and acting for us. What Jesus did, Jesus still does, and will continue to do. Jesus is not a historical event to be remembered but a present reality to be followed.
Followed in what way? As bearers of the peaceable kingdom, at least as much as each is able, in the ordinary events of daily life. The first rule: do no harm. Bringing healing, restoration, and opportunity into the lives of others may be the goal of discipleship, but first we must accept for ourselves the healing, restoration, and opportunity for new life Jesus offers to us. Having done so as best we can, we must commit to doing no harm to other creatures, human and non human. It’s not that easy. We remain predators depending on the lives of other creatures to nourish our own. We remain creatures for whom violence in some forms may be necessary to defend against violence in other forms. As predators, we remain suspicious of each others’ intentions, and for good reason. It’s not that easy to do no harm, but we can try. And when we try, we can begin to bring the healing and restoration to new life that has been given to us, into the lives of others, at least a little. It’s a start. It’s good news.
Perhaps, in some small measure, we might then also begin to say, as Jesus said, look what’s happening: Those who were blind have new sight; Those who could not hear God’s gracious words have heard them; Those who could not follow Jesus are walking with us; Those who were excluded as unclean have become one with us; That is good news. It’s not easy. History tells us that in enthusiastic hubris, we’ve often done great harm trying to bring the good news of God in Christ Jesus. We’ve used our predator skills to proclaim the good news. It doesn’t work that way. Remember the first rule: Do no harm.