Column: Evangelical activist Shane Claiborne wants to beat our guns into plowshares — really


What Would Jesus Do? Not this, says Shane Claiborne — not arm a nation for war against itself. The Tennessee evangelical activist and his co-author, Michael Martin, a Mennonite pastor turned blacksmith, are taking seriously the Biblical admonition about turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. This is no modest dream in the most gun-owning nation on Earth, where no one thought anything of a TV show cowboy hero, Roy Rogers, naming his dog Bullet and his horse Trigger. Our gun-owning households often have not just a gun but an arsenal, and the culture is casually invested in the idea of guns as solutions, not problems. The tour for their book, “Beating Guns: Hope for People who are Weary of Violence,” asks people to surrender their weapons for mass destruction, turning every caliber of firepower into gardening tools and monuments.

You have written and spoken about so many topics where some current Christians part company with the teachings of Jesus, like poverty or refugees or the death penalty. But guns seems to be the most difficult subject to take on.

There’s folks that say we don’t have a gun problem, we have a heart problem. We realize we’ve got both a gun problem and a heart problem. God heals hearts and people change laws and we need to think of it as both of those.

I grew up talking about being pro-life. But I began to see how narrowly we’ve defined that, especially in Christianity, where you can be pro-life as long as you’re against abortion. You could still be pro-death penalty, pro-war and call yourself pro-life, as long as you’re anti-abortion.

So I really wanted to be more consistently an advocate for life. And when it comes to guns, we evangelical Christians, white evangelicals, own guns at a higher rate than the general public. That became really troubling to me, that the folks that are worshiping the Prince of Peace are packing heat.

Here in Southern California, when people turn in guns in gun exchange programs, oftentimes they’re turned into rebar, reinforcement bars, to make buildings stronger for earthquakes. What do you do with the guns that people give to you?

We are inspired by the vision of the ancient biblical prophets Micah and Isaiah, and they talk about beating swords into plows and spears into pruning hooks. And that’s what’s inspired us to turn guns into garden tools.

So we don’t have too many swords but we have a whole lot of guns in America, more guns than people. We turn them into more life-giving things.

It’s hard to put words to what happens at the forge when we kind of gather round the fire at the forge and speak of it as a symbol of the Spirit of God. As you move the metal towards the fire, it begins to take on the character of the fire, so it glows, and it softens. We believe that that should transform us into people that care about peace and love.

When you’re on your tour, are you asking people to give up their guns to you? And is it working?

We’re seeing that happen all over our country — people that are tired of violence and people that voluntarily want to get rid of their guns. There’s so many stories that we’ve seen, from guns used in suicide to guns that were from former military folks, veterans and others that want to get rid of their guns. And we give them the space to do that.

In some cities we’ve had a dozen guns or more that have been donated and we immediately make them inoperable and then the folks that donated them, many of them want to take the hammer.

Part of why we go to the forge and transform metal in guns into plows is that it’s very difficult to argue with the kind of sacramental — and I don’t use that word lightly — the kind of holy mystery of what happens when a mom who has lost her kid begins pounding on a gun and screaming at the top of her lungs. We’ve had police chiefs and Republicans and Democrats and gun owners and survivors of mass shootings that have all gathered at the forge to take the same hammer.

You’re from Tennessee, the Volunteer State. What was your experience with guns growing up?

I grew up with guns. In Tennessee, I was pretty lethal with squirrels, and I went squirrel hunting with my grandfather. I grew up really familiar with shooting guns, and my dad was in the military.

Only as I was writing the book, looking back, I saw how impacted I was with gun violence. I had a friend in elementary school who was playing with a gun with his best friend and ended up accidentally shooting and killing him. I had an uncle that took a gun in his front yard and took his own life where he had small children that I used to play with.

One of the things we found is half of almost half of Americans know someone who’s been shot or directly affected by gun violence. We’ve seen that an overwhelming number of gun owners want to see some common-sense changes when it comes to things like assault weapons. One of the groups we worked with, they wore T-shirts that said, “I'm a hunter against assault rifles. You don’t need 10 rounds to kill a deer.”

For us, this isn’t a partisan thing. This is people who care about life.

The National Rifle Assn. has blocked many of these changes in the law and regulations — very aggressively, to say the least.

The NRA that we have today is in some ways very different than the NRA that of decades ago, because they believed in some regulations. Now we see there’s been schisms within gun enthusiasts. There’s many people that see it as a sport and as hunting, and there’s others that see it as almost this conspiracy theory that we’ve got to be prepared to take on our own government at any point if we need to.

That’s the folks that we’re really concerned are holding the conversation hostage. And of course 90% of Americans want to see changes when it comes to background checks and domestic abusers having guns, and things like that. So I’m encouraged because I think we see that everywhere, gun owners against gun violence and ordinary people rising up. But from Parkland to the Black Lives Matter movement, young people are rising up and saying it doesn’t have to be this way.

The question of what the writers of the 2nd Amendment had in mind is a great question. James Madison said, “Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty, as well as by the abuses of power.”

Particularly for Christians, this is a great concern of mine, that we have a higher authority than the Constitution, and that is the Bible and Jesus. And yet you wonder, what if every Christian in America took the Sermon on the Mount as seriously as the 2nd Amendment?

You quote the lyrics of one song that our houses are protected by the good Lord and a gun, and you might meet them both if you show up here not welcome, son.

We’ve got pastors now that are saying bring your guns to church. We’ve had our own version of that, which is you can bring your guns to church but we’re going to invite you to lay them on the altar and disarm, and we’ll chop ‘em up and turn them into something else.

We’ve been traveling with this Bible case that my friend gave me. It’s actually designed to carry a gun instead of a Bible. And it says on the front of it, Holy Bible is it. It’s a disguised gun case.

And that I think shows us how deeply entrenched the gun, the love of guns has become for many Christians, and how troubling that is. We really believe that it’s not extreme to consider our love of guns as a form of contemporary idolatry.

Warren Cassidy, who is a former executive of the NRA, said you would do better to understand the NRA as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world. Idols are things that we put our trust in that are not God but we treat them like they are.

We have many Christians that are really so dedicated to the gun that it has become a certain form of idolatry that changes how we act in the world. As the old saying says, it behooves us to be careful what we worship because what we worship, we are becoming.

It’s no coincidence that one of the first stories of the Bible is murder, Cain and Abel, a brother killing his own brother. As you read that story, it says the blood cried out to God from the ground. And we know that God is still listening to the blood that cries out from the ground, from the murders and mass shootings, but also from the Michael Browns, the Tamir Rices, from all of the violence, so guns are a manifestation of that violence,

Are you invited to churches by pastors to speak to their congregations? And are these congregations that you think may not want to hear your message?

We have been invited to all sorts of church spaces — sanctuaries, Catholic churches, Episcopal, evangelical, non-denominational. The question for us really is, can we reconcile violence with our commitment to Jesus?

[In the New Testament] when the soldiers come to get Jesus, Peter, who is kind of his right-hand man, as the soldiers come, Peter picks up his sword and cuts one of the guy’s ears off. And Jesus scolds Peter.

And then he picks the ear up, heals the guy, and the early Christians saw that as the final triumph over redemptive violence. Tertullian, one of the early Christian leaders, said when Jesus disarmed Peter he disarmed every Christian.

And you don’t see Christians picking up weapons again for hundreds of years. The early church really got that message that, for Christ we can die, but we cannot kill. And when you look at the cross and the gun, the cross says, I am willing to die. The gun says, I am willing to kill.

But there’s somebody in your book you quote saying that if Jesus had had a gun, he wouldn’t have been killed. That’s missing the whole point of the crucifixion, but there you have it.

We literally have seen these bumper stickers that say if Jesus had you know had an AR-15, he’d still be alive. There is some really bad theology out there.

Every religion has folks who have misused their religion to do tremendous violence, and Christians are not exempt from that.

We think of Muslim extremists, but there are plenty of Christian extremists that have taken guns into Planned Parenthood, that have shot folks thinking that they are doing good, that continue to bless bombs and guns and think that God is on their side.

So we want to deconstruct that violent theology, and any person who loves guns too much has the nagging problem of Jesus to deal with. He’s radically nonviolent. And that's really hard to reconcile with a lot of the redemptive violence that we hear in our world.

But Jesus is not the only person that’s trying to make disciples out of us. So is the NRA.

When my fellow evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, who stood in front of a national TV pointing to a gun that he had in his pants — he said, if we had these. we can take the Muslims out before they get here.

And [Liberty University] is the biggest Christian college in the country, where they’re telling Christian students to carry a gun!

At the end of the day, there are many Christians who see Jesus as impractical or unreasonable in a world of ISIS, a violent world, and yet Jesus lived in a very violent world. He was born in a genocide. He was murdered and tortured on a cross. And when he tells his disciples to love their enemy, he knows that the Roman Empire is torturing and killing people.

And yet the way that we bear witness of our God is by not mirroring that violence but living in contrast to it.

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