Nineteen fifty-nine was an exciting year for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Luna 2 was the first man-made object to reach the moon, an important step in space exploration. As a token of friendship, the U.S.S.R. gave U.S. President Eisenhower a copy of the pennant that declared the Soviet presence on the moon.
Not only did it reach out to the cosmos that year, the U.S.S.R. also drew the heavens down to earth, with a great bronze statue bearing Biblical prophecy. This noble reflection of Soviet piety cited Isaiah’s famous text “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift the sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Fittingly, the statue was a gift to the United Nations, and still stands in a Plaza opposite U.N. headquarters.
There’s a related Biblical statement that hasn’t made it to the U.N., isn’t part of popular culture. Nobody cites the prophet Joel: “Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears.”
How can you have contradictory prophecies from legitimate prophets? Why is the Soviet Union quoting the Bible about peace? Communism is not known for religious faithfulness or pacifism.
The first paradox is easy to deal with; you simply have to read Isaiah’s famous words in context. He isn’t talking about a miraculous cessation of hostility between nations. He’s discussing the peace brought about by Israel’s military muscle; by God’s fiery vengeance on those who do evil. Peace doesn’t come through hugs, by everybody deciding that fighting’s bad. Isaiah and Joel are saying the same thing: peace comes through the strength of the righteous.
What about the religious rumblings from Russia? Khrushchev wasn’t re-writing communist ideology by turning to the Bible. He felt he was winning. Cuba, just ninety miles from America, was now in the Soviet camp. Soviet agents were in high places, including the U.S. Senate. China had survived its first decade as a “People’s Republic,” a symbol of the spread of socialism. The Soviet Defense Minister proclaimed his doctrine as “…the fact that it bases itself on the superiority of the armed forces of the USSR over the armies of the most powerful countries of capitalism.”
Khrushchev’s faith was in the power of its army, of its nuclear weapons program; not the power of the Prophets. For the Soviets, peace comes through the righteous strength of socialism. They demonstrated this a couple of years after the ‘swords into plowshares’ gift to the U.N., by deploying nuclear missiles in Cuba.
So what do we do now, when a foe suddenly sends a few friendly words? Should we beat our (economic) weapons into plowshares and give our enemy a hug? It will probably work as well as it did for Neville Chamberlain in Munich.
Better to face our foe with righteous strength and determination. It worked for Kennedy, as he stared down the sanctimonious might of the U.S.S.R. It’s the only way to defeat the sanctimonious cries “Death to America.”