The wolf did with lambkin dwell in peace
His grim carnivorous nature there did cease
The leopard with the harmless kid laid down
And not one savage beast was seen to frown
The lion with the fatling on did move
A little child was leading them in love.
When nineteenth-century Quaker artist and preacher Edward Hicks embellished the frame of one of his early paintings of The Peaceable Kingdom with a versified paraphrase of Isaiah 11:6, he certainly wanted his viewers to both read and see the sermon.
At first glance, Hicks’ portrait of the future seems foolishly utopian: a heifer nuzzles the back of a full-maned lion, whose head is brushing the arm of a confident, rosy-cheeked child. Wolf and lamb lie together in a meadow, while a full-grown ram seems carelessly inattentive to the leopard at his back. There is no fear; there are no predators in Hicks’ holy vision.
But your eye inexorably moves to the back and left of the painting, where Hicks has rendered a this-worldly image of Quaker leader William Penn’s famous 1682 treaty with the Delaware Indians. The shimmering river behind the carefully balanced treaty group (four Friends and four chiefs) tells us how the negotiations proceeded and what resulted from their covenant—one of the few respectful dialogues between Whites and Native Americans in the whole history of the continent. Equality reigns; conversation continues.
The preacher in the artist has made his point: the future in the foreground emerges from the peacemaking of the past.
Intriguingly, art historians tell us that Edward Hicks painted at least 61 different versions of The Peaceable Kingdom in his lifetime—all with similarly irenic animals and people, but sometimes with subtle differences in shading or posture. Never fully satisfied that he had captured the peacemaking connection between this world and the world to come, he kept working at it—adjusting the palette, warming the hues.
Peacemaking takes work, close attention, and continual adjustments.
Which is a sermon we could all stand to hear more often.
Seventh-day Adventists are, by history, a contentious people. Conceived in the wonderfully contrarian Millerite movement of the 1830s and 1840s, this denomination was born in the 1860s—in the midst of America’s Civil War—and learned to argue at an early age. When Lincoln called for volunteers to fight, Adventists refused and stayed home—and loyal to the sixth commandment. When nineteenth-century “robber barons” built their massive monopolies on the backs of workingmen and -women, Review editors excoriated them in full-cry editorials. When the National Reform Association called for Sunday law legislation in the 1890s, Adventists rallied thousands to oppose and defeat the threat to religious liberty. And when early-twentieth-century America was awash in alcohol and its resulting social misery, Adventists marched into the public square with an unrelenting call for Prohibition.
As useful as that public combativeness was in identifying Seventh-day Adventists as a people known for spiritual and social reform, it has proved less helpful within this faith. We are, theologically, also a quarrelsome lot—about justification and sanctification; about the sanctuary doctrine; about the nature of Christ; about the role of Ellen White; about the meaning of 1888; about the ordination of women to ministry.
Truth is, we don’t have a history—or a vision—of peacemaking among us, in part because of our very commitment to truth. Our story seems to teach us that being right is more important than being kind, that negotiation is the sport of those who can’t compete. We prefer the laurel wreaths of victory to the olive branches of peacemaking on any day. The memory verse is “Put on the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:11).* Not one in 10 remembers that Paul also wrote: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18).
It’s time for that to change—within this movement, through this movement, and for this movement. Declare yourself a citizen of the peaceable kingdom. Make the case for dialogue, not winning. Speak kindly to those we once called “Brother” and “Sister.”
Take olive branches to the next church business meeting.
* Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.