Once upon a time, there were three soldiers. They weren't knights or generals or anything fancy. They were soldiers. All three of them fought at the Battle of Holhawken Wood. All three of them survived.
It's said that five thousand people died in Holhawken Wood. The ground was so soaked with rain that wounded soldiers fell to earth and drowned. Their bodies did not lie in repose. Their elbows and knees were bent at wrong angles. Broken spears and helmets were scattered a.
Those who survived Holhawken Wood remember the dark and dripping trees. They remember the exhaustion that robbed them of strength and reason. Most of all, they remember the dead.
Those who survived Holhawken Wood were given a bowl of hot broth and sent home. After the battle, the war was over.
The three soldiers at the center of this tale found themselves walking homeward, mud from the battlefield still on their boots. Dark memories skittered through their minds. For several miles, they walked toward home without saying a word.
Finally, the first soldier said, "I forgot to ask before. Did we win?"
The other two soldiers stared at him.
"What?" he asked. "Someone has to win. I hope it was us."
"I'm alive," said the second soldier. "I can look down at the stream beside the road and see the water rushing over the rocks. I can look up and see the clouds. I'd say that is victory enough."
The first soldier thought about this. He looked at the stream beside the road. "I can go home," he said at last. "My brothers and I can go fishing."
The second soldier gave his comrade a friendly slap on the back. "You see?" he said. "You get your life back."
The first soldier looked pleased, but then his expression fell. At last, he admitted, "I don't understand it, then. If we're lucky to be where we started, then why did we go through all that fighting in the first place? We could have stayed where we were at the beginning, then everyone would have won."
The second soldier nodded, sadly. He said, "Such wisdom is rare."
For the next hour, the soldiers walked in silence.
As they came toward a farmhouse, the first soldier drew his sword. Once again, his two companions stared at him.
"Well," he explained, "it's a lot of trouble, isn't it? This little bit of metal is only good for one thing. And I'm through with all that." The first soldier held his blade before him and took a quick step forward, plunging his blade toward an imaginary foe. He took a quick step sideways, and turned his blade to deflect an imaginary counterattack. Then he adjusted his grip once more, so the sword dangled loosely from his grip. He held the weapon at arm's length, as if it were something distasteful. The first soldier ended this performance by saying, "I should get rid of the wicked thing."
"What will you do?" asked the second soldier. "Will you just throw it into the stream? Or find a hollow log?"
"I will go to the stream," the first soldier decided. Immediately, he hopped to the water's edge. He bent down to lift smooth rocks from the water. The rocks trailed ribbon of water as they left the streambed. "I'll bury it," the declared, "beneath the rocks."
The second soldier stepped forward to put a restraining hand on the arm of his companion. Looking up from his work, the first soldier saw that children had wandered over from the farmhouse. They were watching his every move.
Speaking for the first time, the third soldier said, "There's a better way. A blacksmith can heat up the metal, and reshape the swords into plowshares. We can take these tools of war, and make them into tools of peace."
All three soldiers agreed to this plan.
* * *
When he got to his village, the third soldier hugged his family. He took off his uniform and dressed in his old clothes. He took off his sword, and he put the weapon in the woodshed behind his house.
Many years went by. The third soldier became a silversmith and a very wealthy man.
One day, the silversmith opened his shop, and saw that someone had robbed him. He had reason to suspect his apprentice of committing the crime. So the silversmith went back to his own house. He went to the woodshed. He found his old sword and he took the weapon into his hand. The silversmith went to the house of his apprentice, waving the sword over his head.
"Settle with me!" demanded the silversmith. "Settle with me, thief! Or I will strike your hands from your body!"
* * *
When he got to his village, the second soldier hugged his family. He took off his uniform and dressed in his old clothes. He took off his old sword, and he hid the weapon beneath a loose board in the floor.
Many years went by. The second soldier went to the university and became a scholar.
One day, the scholar got into an argument with one a student. What started as an academic debate became a very personal. Harsh words were exchanged. Feeling insulted and humiliated, the scholar went home. He lifted the loose floorboard. He found his old sword and he took the weapon into his hand. The scholar went to confront his student with the sword held before him like a promise of vengeance.
"What can you say now," the Scholar demanded. "What can you say now, you caustic shrew? Apologize to me, or I will cut out your tongue!"
* * *
When he got to his village, the first soldier hugged his family. He took off his uniform and dressed in his old clothes. He took off his old sword, and he carried the weapon to the blacksmith. He had it re-forged. He had it made into a plowshare.
Many years went by. The first soldier became a farmer. He plowed the ground, and he planted seed. The farmer got married. They had two children.
One child was good with her hands. She had a steady gaze and a quiet eye for beauty. When the time was right, she went to work in a nearby village. She was an apprentice the silversmith. The other child had a sharp tongue and a sharper mind. She taught herself to read and she was accepted into the university as a student.
One day, the farmer was surprised to see his children burst through the front door.
They were both out of breath and pale with fear.
The farmer gathered his daughters into his arms and asked, "What's going on? You two act as if you've seen a ghost!"
"Father!" cried the farmer's eldest daughter. "The silversmith has gone mad! He has accused me of theft. He is waving a sword in the air and threatening to kill me."
"Father!" cried the farmer's youngest daughter. "I am also pursued by a madman! I was arguing with an old scholar at university. He flew into a rage. He appeared at the university with a sword. He was screaming for an apology!"
* * *
Moments later, the sound of shouting could be heard outside the front gate. "Thief!" shouted the silversmith. He stood at the gate with his sword raised high. The scholar stood beside him, shouting, "You can't hide from me!" He gave the wooden gate a furious kick.
When the farmer saw two men at his front gate, red with anger and armed with swords, his first thought was this: "What a pity! I don't have a sword anymore." But then he recognized his former comrades.
The farmer stepped out his door unarmed. "Brothers," he called. "Don't you know me? All three of us stood together at Holhawken Wood!"
The scholar stopped kicking the gate. He and the silversmith stared.
The farmer continued, "After the battle, we agreed to turn our swords into plowshares. It was your idea," the farmer reminded the silversmith. "Don't you remember? We were standing beside a lake."
"It was a stream," the silversmith said.
"Yes," the farmer admitted. "It was a stream, wasn't it? But you still have your sword. Why is that? What happened?"
The silversmith looked at the tarnished blade, and recalled, "When I got home, I hid my sword beneath some loose boards in the floor. I thought that maybe, someday, I would have need of it again. Even after all these years, I remembered it was there. In my anger, I took up the sword once more."
"My tale is similar," agreed the scholar. "I hid my sword in the woodshed. I thought that maybe, someday, I would have need of it again."
"When I saw you outside my gate," the farmer said, "I thought of my sword, too. In fact, if my sword was still here, I would have grabbed it. I would have fought you. With a sword in my hand, I would never have recognized you. The sword would have told me where to look. I would see only targets and threats. I would not have seen you, my old comrades."
We tend to imagine that peace will come after some final battle. Once there is a final victory, then all swords can be beaten into plowshares. After the fighting, then all spears can be made into pruning hooks.
When the Scripture says, "Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore," this vision of peace is not predicated on a final battle. There is no military antecedent to this new reality. Instead, it happens when people say, "God will teach us the way, so that we may walk a true path."
Someone with a plow sees the world very differently than someone with a sword. Changing the tools we use is one way that our vision is transformed.
* * *
This is not just about swords.
What are the tools that you keep on hand? I don't simply mean your computer, or your cell phone, or your car. Those things should be included, but I hope you will think more broadly about this. When the chips are down, what are the tools that you use to engage the world? Cynical detachment? Anger? Force of will? Complaints?
If these are the swords we use, then how can we transform our weapons into tools of peace? It won't come after a final victory on the field of battle. It will come when we say, "God will teach us the way, so that we may walk a true path."