The following blog post is based upon a sermon preached at Stone Church for the 2nd Sunday of Advent.
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.
– Isaiah 11:6
The Peaceable Kingdom is the masterpiece of Quaker pastor and American folk artist, Edward Hicks (1780-1849). Based upon the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of an earthly paradise (Isaiah 11:6-9), the painting depicts a colourful menagerie of beasts- some domestic and others wild- sitting docilely together on a soft, grassy embankment, a tranquil gaze in their animal eyes. Numbered in their midst are three cherubic little children (symbolizing a redeemed humanity). One appears to float – in defiance of gravity – above the back of the lion, gripping the tiger in a playful and loving headlock. Two more rest along the base of the embankment, one gently petting the nose of a mighty leopard just as a toddler might fearlessly stroke a house cat curled up before her on the living room rug. Read on a strictly literal level, Isaiah’s vision of the perfect world (and Hick’s artistic depiction of it) points to an end of all violence even within the animal kingdom, with carnivores abandoning their penchant for flesh in favour of hay and oats, shoots and leaves. But, clearly, Isaiah’s words point to a truth beyond the mere literal. Indeed, they point to a day when the powerful and wealthy no longer take advantage of the poor and the meek. They point to a world where human beings live in delightful shalom with the rest of God’s creation. It is an image which beautifully articulates the deepest longings, the most passionate hopes, of the human heart.
But how easy it is to scoff at such a vision. In fact, around the time Jasmine and I were still dating, we had a mutual friend who did just that. He had just recently heard the Isaiah 11 passage for the first time (I believe it was read to him at a lessons and carols service held in our college chapel). Later that week, as we shared a lunch together between classes, he told me just what he thought of it. To him, the very thought of a predatory animal lying tranquilly next to what would ordinarily be its supper was positively absurd. Even if understood on a symbolic level, as a picture of peace between the nations, it still sounded, to his ears, laughably naive. Such a world – a world without war, a world without exploitation and injustice – just isn’t possible, he explained to me. At the time, I just starred at him dumbly, not having a clue what the best response would be. After all, my friend had a point: It is extremely difficult to believe in such a vision as this. However, that is what it means to be a people of faith: It means to believe in a vision such as this.
Admittedly, such a belief is extremely difficult to sustain – a fact which the painter, Edward Hicks, knew all too well. After all, Hicks was just like the rest of us: far better aquatinted with the realities of conflict and discord, anguish and pain than with the ideals of righteousness and peace. Within his lifetime, United States saw the war of 1812 – a war which resulted in 20,000 casualties on the American side alone. And, if that weren’t enough, Hicks was embroiled in a far more personal battle within his own denomination (the Quaker Church) – a conflict that ultimately resulted in a painful and bitter schism, ripping apart what was known as “the Society of Friends.” Perhaps this is why he painted no less than 63 different versions of the Peaceable Kingdom. Indeed, while most artists explore a wide array of subjects and themes, Hicks fixated obsessively on the perfect world of Isaiah 11:1-9. Why? My theory is that Hicks knew from experience how easy it is to dismiss such a vision as childish and naive. And so, to keep the fires of this hope alight in his heart, he reworked Isaiah’s vision over and over again with oil on canvas.
This, I believe, is the duty of the church. That is, to keep Isaiah’s vision of the perfect world – a world without war and exploitation; cruelty and greed – alive in our collective imaginations. It is to stoke the flames of this incredible hope. We do so NOT in order to make this ideal world a reality by our own efforts, forcing others to conform to our vision of earthly paradise. (Indeed, just think about the horrible things done within the 20th century, all in the name of creating a utopia!). Rather our calling is to enact or live out the practices and customs of Isaiah’s perfect world here and now. Or, to phrase it differently, our calling is to live our lives AS IF the Kingdom were, in a sense, already here. In so doing, we offer the rest of the world a glimpse of what Jesus referred to as “The Kingdom of God” or “The Kingdom of Heaven.” Like Edward Hicks did with his art, we are to show the world a vivid picture of the Peaceable Kingdom.
That’s what the Saints did, from Saint Chrysostom in the fourth century to Saint Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth: they lived their lives by an ethic that mirrored God’s Kingdom. Or, to take a far more recent example, it’s what Martin Luther King and the civil rights activists did in the American South during the nineteen sixties. The real world was a world where a brown guy like me and a white guy couldn’t sit down at the same table together in a restaurant and enjoy a sandwich as friends. But the civil rights activists acted AS IF that Jim Crow world of segregated cafeterias was long gone and AS IF a new world had already dawned – a world where anyone can eat lunch with anyone else, no matter their race. And so, they did just that: They went to segregated lunch rooms and cafeterias and broke bread together as brothers. Did that draw attention? Yes, much of it negative. They were cursed at; they were refused service; they were humiliated; they were thrown out. But, in their willingness to live out the way of Christ, they showed the world what the Peaceable Kingdom looks like and, more importantly, by their very actions, invited people to join in that world.
That is and always will be the true calling of the church – to live out the Kingdom of God. It is to be a living work of art displaying for all to see that Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah’s vision. The world may behold such a vision and fall in love with it, even long to be a part of it. Or, the world may mock it and laugh at it. But our calling remains the same: to walk in the way our King and to live out the politics of the Kingdom of God. If the church in North America persists as a vital, life-giving force into the twenty-first century it will be because we have lived up to this calling. If it continues to whither and die, it will be because we have failed to live up to this calling. But let us not fail. Let us allow our imaginations to be inspired by Isaiah’s vision of a perfect world and live out our true calling as the people of God.
By Terence Chandra