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Plows to Profits

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
-Isaiah 2:4

“Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears.”
-Joel 3:10

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
-Micah 4:3

Growing up as a teenager in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I was surrounded by farmland. Every spring brought the working of the fields to plant for corn, soybeans, and alfalfa accompanied by the necessary, though odorous, spreading of cow manure on the fields. Upon walking out my country church’s front doors, I was met by a field of corn swaying, almost worshipfully, in the fields. My neighbors, dear Brethren folks, had farmed the same 300 acres for three generations. Faith, work, purpose all came through the rich, dark, fertile soil of their farm. Such is the profound agrarian connection that a people called Brethren have when you discuss this act we call ‘work.’

In Appalachian culture, much like most Brethren churches, there is a tenuous relationship with work and money. Often times called blue-collar workers, many Brethren are factory workers, farmers, and mechanics. They are a people of the Protestant work ethic. You’ll know you’re loved when you’re affirmed by the work you do. Money is perceived to quickly become excess. You always want more but you dare not have too much. Money also represents status (in a negative sense)—too much gives you too high a view of oneself. It’s not so much the money, innately, that scares Brethren as what the money does to people. There is a fear of being too far removed from the land and hard work.

Brethren, then, continue to be a people who live close to the land, a conservative people, and one who find their local church to be of immense importance in their lives. Brethren in urban settings are often championing initiatives to get people back to gardening—life outside the hustle and bustle of the urban center.

This begins to reveal something deeply meaningful in the Brethren spirit—closeness to the land is likened to godliness. There is a deep appreciation for rootedness and grounding. This explains why Brethren have never been systematic theologians. Brethren argue that one can have their theology clearly defined in systems and categories and still miss the simple command, the ‘earthy’ call, to follow Jesus. Theology is lived out—not an academic exercise.

The title for this post is borrowed from the subtitle of Donald Kraybill and Steven Nolt’s book Amish Enterprise: From Plows to Profits. In this fascinating read, Kraybill and Nolt explore the journey of the Amish, a close cousin of the Brethren, from being a people of the farm to a people in the marketplace. The central question for them throughout their well researched text is how do values of the plow (the farmland) translate and not get lost in the world of the marketplace (the profits)?

The tensions they elucidate exist in the three scriptures cited at the top of this post. At first glance, the Isaiah, Joel, and Micah passages seem to be at odds with one another. The quick answer is simply that they are—such is the tension in which a pilgrim people of Christ live. As we dig deeper, we realize the eschatological importance of these texts. Like three squares on a quilt, they each shape the expectation and reality of a Christ-centered people who always look to the end of the story.

Isaiah’s words call the exiled people of Judah to look ahead to the promised hope. The same God who had rescued their ancestors from slavery to the world power of Egypt was not absent or aloof. This same God was still mindful of his people—a people suffering immense despair and losing hope that their God would vindicate his name and his people.

These would have been the same people who watched as the sacred city of Jerusalem was conquered and the holiest of sites, the Temple, was pillaged and destroyed. How would God vindicate these people? God’s answer—put your hand to the plow!

Plow and pruning shears represent closeness to land, cultivation, creativity and hope. Isaiah and Micah spoke of swords being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Tools of violence turned into basic tools of agriculture. On a deeper level we witness weapons of destruction being converted into tools of cultivation and growth. The imagery then and now is inspiring.

Joel’s words are not a contrast for the life of a believer. Instead, the contrast comes from the way of the world to the ways of God’s people. The world is about conquest and survival—in light of these two primal forces, violence erupts. The people of God, as cultivators and creators of culture, do their work well and faithfully so that peace and hope may irrupt. The question for us all as we live amid a network of economic relationships and connections is whether we will be a people of eruption or irruption. It all comes down to what we do with swords, spears, plows and pruning hooks.

Ethnic resistance then becomes cultural infusion. Timely production becomes high quality artisanship. Close-knit family becomes a place of refuge and belonging for countless travelers. There is a sense for Brethren in which being close to the land means being close to God and doing the work he ordained for us. Farm work provides cohesiveness for the family and the community. 

But, as Kraybill and Nolt recognize among Amish communities, there are numerous external and internal forces at work against these agrarian lives and values. Through their resistance, however, these Amish communities are engaging their surrounding economies and not losing their soul:

Lancaster’s Amish have negotiated a workable settlement for the forces of modernity. Forced to leave the farms of their past, they have refused to enter the alien culture of corporate America. Their embrace of microenterprises represents a tenuous cultural agreement—a midway point between their pastoral past and the world of high-tech industry. They have, indeed, relinquished their grip on the plow as well as on some aspects of their family-centered living, shaped by three centuries of tilling the soil. But they have yielded neither their right to manage their own time and resources nor their control of technology. Acting rather judiciously, the Amish have held the terms and conditions of their work within the religious boundaries of their ethnic community. Their move toward entrepreneurship marks a pivotal moment in their history—a most significant adjustment to the modern world. They have struck a bargain that nourishes their economic health without conceding their cultural soul—a bargain that appears to be working in their favor for the moment. But in time the byproducts of that bargain may, in fact, transform the very cultural values that gave birth to it in the first place. (p. 28)

Brethren, like these Amish, caught between the spectrum of past/tradition and future/innovation, continue to be a people of non-conformity. “Obedience to Christ,” Brethren believe, “is the center of Brethren life. This conviction has led the Brethren historically to practice non-conformity…[in which] Brethren have sought to follow the way of Christ in contrast to the way of the world” (A Centennial Statement, 1984, p. 8).

This conviction has aided the Brethren to maintain their distinctiveness and mission amid a hyper-changing world—to be a people of the plow in a society of swords and sales. The contrast with the ways of the world illumines the hope that is ours in Christ. We are a people with the end in mind. With the prophets, we can “beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks” (Micah 4:3, NIV). Where the world takes up tools of violence and conquest in a quest for survival, Brethren take those conquering and consumeristic tools, baptized in the blood of violence and money, and turn them into tools of cultivation and creation.

Charles Thompson in his book, The Old German Baptist Brethren: Faith, Farming, and Change in the Virginia Blue Ridge describes the Old German Baptist Brethren of Franklin County, Virginia. In his book he enters into conversation with many from this sister movement of the Brethren as they seek to eek out an existence of farming in a world of mega-agricultural farms and food processing centers. Thompson discusses the cultural goods the peculiar Old German Baptist Brethren bring to their region. Towards the end of his book he writes:

The key to understanding German Baptists is to learn about their doctrine of nonconformity. To understand their nonconformity one has to understand nonresistance. Nonresistance means the Brethren refuse to fight for a worldly cause, even one that directly affects them, because their allegiance is to a higher calling not of the material world.This has nothing to do with weakness or passivity, however. As their endurance of persecution throughout their history and their belief that martyrdom is an ever-present possibility show, the German Baptist faith requires courage. They seek to live their difference every day regardless of animosity. By standing apart from the world in their ‘uniforms,’ they constantly remind themselves of their commitment to the Ancient Order and their potential for suffering again at the hands of a fickle state. On the other hand, they say their lives are deceptively easy now as luxury can tempt one to become complacent. Experiencing ease today is no guarantee of having it tomorrow. All this affluence and comfort that Americans experience could turn on them quickly. German Baptists believe this condition requires their constant vigilance, but not their active intervention. They must wait upon God rather than take matters into their own hands. Nonresistance, while nonviolent, requires spiritual action amounting to holding faith and strong convictions while never resorting to physical or even legal resistance. (p. 200)

When one looks at the communal life of the Old German Baptist Brethren they step back into the patterns of the early Brethren. The historic “three negatives” of nonconformity, non-resistance, and non-swearing show not a legalistic people but, instead, a people seeking to live an alternative to the consumeristic ways of the surrounding world.

Brethren historically have historically been a people that did not identify with those of affluence. Instead, Brethren stand on the side of history with those whose history books long overlooked. We were against slavery. We were one of the first Christian movements to ordain women. We chose to pay native peoples for their land in the early Republic.

The rationale for such historic stands comes from these three negatives. We do not participate in the world’s violence because life is too precious to lose for worldly conquest. We do not swear because our word is too precious to lose in worldly legalese. We do not conform because our witness is too costly to be lost in worldly (and fleeting) pursuits.

Had we not been a people who stood against the consumeristic trends of history and lived counter-culturally to the wealthy, affluent, and world powers, we would have never been the historic movement that stood for the marginalized, downtrodden, and forgotten.

I’m not advocating that Brethren return to farms and plows. But could this agrarian heritage offer values that inform our engagement with the modern world? Simplicity names excess. Peace names violence. Community names individualism. Our positive witness names negative distortions in our world. Should we return to farming? Maybe. Should we allow our heritage to cultivate an alternative witness in our lives? Yes. Only then will the plows of our labor produce a profit that doesn’t steal our souls. May we be a people that names the end to a progress-addicted society that rarely knows where it’s going or why it’s going there.


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