Edinburgh professor examines 'swords into ploughshares' challenge

By staff writers
16 Sep 2011

Professor Jolyon Mitchell has focused on the biblical and practical theme of 'swords into ploughshares' for his inaugural lecture in taking up a new personal chair at the University of Edinburgh.

A packed audience of more than 300 people heard Professor Mitchell tackle the topical and historical issue of how communities involved with or affected by war can transform weapons of violence into tools of peace.

The lively audio-visual presentation at Assembly Hall, New College, in Scotland's capital on 15 September 2011, was followed by a reception in the Rainy Hall. The event marked the inauguration of the Chair of Communications, Arts and Religion within the University's College of Humanities and Social Science as well as the beginning of a new semester. It was hosted by the Faculty of Divinity.

Professor Mitchell traced three significant shifts in response to his chosen topic - ploughshares into swords, arms into art, and swords into ploughshares. He illustrated his talk with many visual and musical references, historical and contemporary, and with reference to the textual work of Dr Hugh Williamson on its biblical origins.

In ancient traditions agricultural implements have been used as weapons, he pointed out, as well as in recent conflicts such as the terrible genocide in Rwanda, which saw more than a million people slaughtered in 100 days.

This dynamic is reflected in a less-quoted Hebrew / Old Testament text in Joel 3.10, which has been picked up by more belligerent Christian radio preachers in the USA and elsewhere.

But even more remarkable, he suggested, is the innovative transformation in the opposite direction, from swords into ploughshares - reflected most famously in Isaiah 2.4, and in many examples of modern art, not least the remarkable sculpture by Soviet artist Evgeniy Vuchetich donated to the United Nations headquarters building in New York to represent the human wish to end all wars by converting the means of death and destruction into those of peaceful co-existence.

While 'swords into ploughshares' has almost become a cliche in the modern world, and among those working for peace and conflict transformation, its origins and continuation as an image challenge us to go deeper in the search for alternatives to war, not least when confronted with the awful realities of situations like Rwanda, where the failure of the international community to act allowed mass crimes to be committed.

Professor Mitchell gave particular attention to initiatives in Mozambique, Cambodia, Iraq, the USA and beyond, where guns and other war goods had been physically turned into art and used to raise funds for development and awareness of the connections between militarisation, injustice and poverty.

At one point in his lecture he asked how the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel might have applied his artistic critique to the current DSEi London arms fair.

He also looked at the extension of the literary and visual metaphor via the 'swords into ploughshares' protest patch sewn onto garments by those objecting to the authoritarian policies of the old GDR, includings its introduction of compulsory military studies for 14-16-year-olds in the East German school system, which produced an alternative peace teaching initiative from the churches each November.

Professor Mitchell pointed out that transformations from the tools of conflict also needed to happen in relation to urban violence, such as gun and knife crime, and domestic abuse.

He described his innovative inaugural lecture, which combined academic research and learning with a highly accessible style, as an invitation to further debate and conversation.

Professor Jolyon Mitchell's research and teaching focuses on peacebuilding, violence and communications; film, religion and ethics; media, religion and culture; media ethics, and theology, history and the arts,

Educated at Cambridge, Durham, and Edinburgh Universities, Professor Mitchell has worked as a producer and journalist for BBC World Service and BBC Radio 4 before he was appointed as Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh.

In that capacity he directs a number of research projects and helps to host a wide range of public lectures and events - work which will be continued as Professorial Chair of Communications, Arts and Religion.

* More on Jolyon Mitchell: http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/divinity/staff-profiles/mitchell

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