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SMTHToday’s post is the 3rd of a 5-part series, “Making Peace with Mortality,” by Dr. Margaret Peterson, associate professor of theology at Eastern University.

Peterson’s Ph.D. is in theology and ethics from Duke University. She received her first education in end-of-life care twenty years ago, as her first husband was living with and then dying of AIDS. She chronicled that experience in a memoir, Sing Me to Heaven: The Story of a Marriage.

Her second husband and former faculty colleague, Dr. Dwight N. Peterson, with whom she is the author of Are You Waiting for “The One”? Cultivating Realistic, Positive Expectations for Christian Marriage, has been in failing health for some years and entered hospice care (at home) in July of 2012. Peterson blogs daily about their end of life experience at


Use of language of violence and warfare around the subjects of illness and death is so automatic and pervasive in our culture that it does not occur to many of us even to notice, let alone to question it.

It is not clear, however, that this language always serves us well.

Modern medicine has done a great job of extending the average lifespan (mostly by reducing childhood and maternal mortality). It is doing a much less great job of caring gently for older and infirm persons, every single one of whom still dies, and many of whom are brutalized as they do so by a medical system that only knows how to fight.

Maybe it is time to think of an alternative to war. Maybe it is time to think about peace.

God’s people have been thinking about the end of war and the beginning of peace for a long time. Perhaps we can learn something from them. Here is the prophet Isaiah:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. [Isaiah 2:2-4]

I’ve heard this passage read and preached for as long as I can remember, and somehow I always imagined that once swords were beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks, that was the end of the story. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” The end.

And then one day it occurred to me: this passage describes not an end, but a beginning. What do you do with plowshares and pruning hooks? You make a garden.

Let’s think for a moment about what is involved in making a garden.

  • Gardening requires knowledge and planning. It isn’t enough just to mean well. If you don’t know what you are doing, or you don’t bother to think about it, your garden will be neither healthy nor beautiful.
  • Gardening is a lot of work. Soil preparation, planting, weeding, mulching, staking, pruning, harvesting, cleaning up the garden in preparation for winter—it all takes a lot of sustained effort.
  • Gardening benefits from teamwork. Sharing knowledge, sharing seeds, sharing labor, sharing the harvest—all these are ways in which gardening goes better if you do it together.
  • Gardening takes time—lots of it. You can’t dig a new bed overnight. Plants don’t grow overnight, either. Some crops take weeks, others take months, some take years to mature. You can’t rush any of it. It takes time.

Peace is like this. Like gardening, peacemaking is a long and complex process.MKP

Peace requires thoughtfulness, both ahead of time and while the work is being done.

Peace is hard work. It requires cooperation. It takes a long time—weeks, months, years. It doesn’t just happen. You have to cultivate it.

This is true of peacemaking in the world and among nations, the kind of peacemaking that Isaiah is talking about. But perhaps it is true as well of more metaphorical kinds of peace, the kinds of peace we might think of cultivating in place of metaphorical wars, like the wars we in our culture are currently waging against disease, against aging, against death.

What might it look like to make peace with mortality?

What might it look like if we were to stop waging war with illness and death, and instead started trying to cultivate peace?

Perhaps not peace with death itself, but peace with the fact that we are mortal, that every one of us is going to die.

Tomorrow: How is making peace with mortality different from giving up on life? What kinds of active caring might it involve?


Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.