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Isaiah 11:1-10

(originally posted in 2016)

The Peacable Kingdom by Edward Hicks

“The Peaceable Kingdom”

You may have missed it. Probably not. But you might have missed the details of it. Surprisingly it hasn’t received much attention in national news outlets. The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) just recently started making national headlines, despite the fact that there has been a standoff for months!

Here’s the scoop; Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company, LLC was scheduled to complete this 1,172 mile pipeline connecting the oil fields in North Dakota to refineries in Patoka, Illinois.[1][2] While originally slated to be completed in 2016, protests by Native Americans and activists in North Dakota have halted construction. While the Standing Rock Reservation, a reservation for the Lakota people, is located south of the proposed pipeline the issue is that of clean water. The DAPL is planned to be built under the Missouri river, Standing Rock’s primary water source. Clashes have arisen as Lakota Natives and activists (as well as natives of many other tribes) have protested not only Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company, but also local and federal police. It’s hard to say how this will be resolved when both sides believe the law is on their side and the US government has been all but silent. The Native peoples argue that the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851) protects these lands from US activities without Native permission. In the treaty, the US government stated that they would not claim any part of these lands. [3] The oil company says that they have permission from the US government to build this pipeline.

Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time that American companies have ignored this treaty in pursuit of underground wealth. Just a few years (1858) after the treaty was signed miners found gold in the hills of Colorado, also land protected by the treaty. Despite protests by Native Americans the gold rush lasted for 3 years, ignoring the treaty and Native lands. This time, however, tear gas, rubber bullets, and massive hoses are being used by federal agents to prevent protestors from blocking the DAPL.

As history seems to be echoing itself, this week will see a critical moment in this chapter of this grand story. The Army Corps of Engineers has said that they will be shutting down the camp where protestors have been gathering.

This might sound like a strange way to begin a commentary of Isaiah’s vision of a peaceable kingdom, but in researching I ran across that well-loved painting by the Quaker painter Edward Hicks titled “The Peaceable Kingdom.” (1833) This painting depicts our First Reading for the second Sunday in Advent. And it is one of at last 62(!) versions of this painting. Hicks was obsessed with Isaiah 11 and would fanatically paint “The Peaceable Kingdom” in various forms for himself or as gifts. [5]

In the version we’re using the primary subject is that of the second stanza;

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. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

This painting depicts, in simplistic Quaker fashion, the literal events of these verses. Even a child leading them.

Something to note about this passage is the domestication of wild animals. These wild animals no longer pose a threat to the domesticated animals; who serve people. One way to read this is the the ultimate beneficiary here are the farmers. Their livestock won’t be taken from them by wild forces, but those wild creatures will be domesticated themselves. The most prominent of these animals are the lion and the ox eating straw together.

But then, if you turn your gaze to the left pane there is a completely separated image. This mirrors the stark break found between verses 5 and 6. In this Hicks has depicted an agreement between Quaker founder William Penn and Native Americans. While some point to this being a purchase of land between Penn and the Natives, it could likely be a depiction of the Walking Treaty of 1737 between Penn’s descendants and the Lenape. What is interesting is that the Walking Treaty is arguably an injustice by Penn’s descendants to the Natives. This land was all but stolen from them. [6]

William Penn had a reputation as being incredibly equitable with the Native Americans. This equity and respect did not filter through to his descendants. With this in mind there are few things to note about this painting.

First, if the left pane is, in some way, an amalgamation of William Penn and the Walking Treaty, we might read it as a critique of the latter; that the Penn family has neglected their patriarch’s peace with Native Americans.

But then if you look at the most prominent figures of the right section – the lion and the ox – you notice they resemble figures on the left. The face of the lion, particularly the eyes, looks almost human.The long hair of the lion looks human. And it’s brow looks like the powdered wigs worn by Penn and the Europeans on the left. Then the ox, to the left of the lion just like the Native Americans are to the left of Penn, resembles the Native Americans. Directly above the ox’s head is the bright stripe; looking like the mohawk styled hair worn by the Natives to the left. Then the shape of the horns looks like the shape of the headdresses, particular the chief. Even the colors of ox and lion resemble the colors of the Native Americans and the Europeans.

With this, the Americans are the belligerents who need to change their diet in order for peace to be realized.

At the time of this work (1833) one of the greatest political tensions in the US was between the US government and Native Americans. Some 20 years after the War of 1812 where many Native American tribes fought alongside the British Empire (including the Lenape), tensions between Natives and Americans are high.

Hicks depicts the promised Peaceable Kingdom of God as a union between Native Americans and the US government. Would that Hicks’ painting were reality.

The unfortunate truth is that, like the descendants of William Penn, tensions still exist between the government of the US, those seeking wealth on sovereign Native lands, and the Native Americans themselves. A thousand miles or so west and almost 200 years later the Standing Rock Reservation protest is a story we Americans know all too well. A quote attributed to Twain (without validation) seems appropriate, “History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes.”

So on this second Sunday of Advent where we read about the Peaceable Kingdom; in this time where peace can seem incredibly far off; what is one to preach? In the midst of clashes between Native Americans and corporate and political entities, what do we preach?

The temptation of preaching this passage is to turn these words into a mandate or a commandment. But that’s not how they function. These words of the prophet aren’t directive; they’re promise! This can be hard for pragmatic Christians to grasp. We almost always need a “take away;” a directive, a “so what.”

But this is Advent. Our directive here is to wait. But not simply to wait, to anticipate! To expect. To look forward. We anticipate the Peaceable Kingdom; a time where warring factions will be at peace. A time of wisdom, understanding, equity for the meek, and good judgments for the poor.

As Christians we believe that this Peaceable Kingdom has been initiated in the first coming of Christ and will be fully realized in his second coming. We in-between beings are those who anticipate. This doesn’t mean that we’re simply idle reclusive beings, but means that in all of our endeavors we do so with incredible expectation! In our service of the least of these we anticipate the coming Kingdom. In our living with the poor we anticipate the coming Kingdom. In our worship we anticipate the coming Kingdom. And even in our protests we anticipate the coming Kingdom.

For in the Kingdom to come the clashes and violence like we see between Native Americans and Federal agents at the Standing Rock Reservation will not be. If the lion will eat straw with the ox, so will the warring factions of our world be those who recline at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

For this we say in great expectation; Thanks be to God! [1] [2] [3] [4] ibid. [5] [6]