Guns to Garden Tools

Patrick Anderson, editor

 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 anymore. – Isaiah 2:4

In the summer of 1994, Carolyn and I traveled to Lillehammer, Norway, to attend the meeting of the European Baptist Union, an organization which met every four years. This was the first time the attendance of Baptist leaders from the former USSR was permitted. Throughout the Cold War, although they had been invited, Baptists and other Christian folks in the Soviet bloc were reluctant or unable to attend such meetings, either for lack of resources or fear of reprisal.

Being in this meeting was one of the most exciting experiences of our lives. The Berlin Wall had been breached in December of 1989; the Soviet Union was disintegrating; “religious freedom” was in the air. Carolyn and I met church leaders from Belarus, Ukraine, Estonia, Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Moldova—from all over the place.

One fellow from Bulgaria made a particularly strong impression on us. As a metal worker, artisan and sculptor, he had created haunting metal figures of Jesus carrying the cross on the way to Calvary. The face of Jesus was etched with pain, sorrow, and exhaustion as though the sculptor had poured his own suffering into the image.

He had made the statues from discarded artillery shell casings which he had readily found in his country by the Black Sea and then melted down in his forge. From his modest exhibit, he sold the few pieces he had brought with him. I arrived at his booth after the last one was sold, but he promised to make one for me when he returned home, and I was able to retrieve it a few years later. Today, it sits in a place of honor in our son Chris’ home.

The practice of turning ammo to art is inspiring. The Isaiah writer told of a day to come wherein the swords of war would be beaten into useful items for agricultural purposes. Art and utility made from tools of destruction, transforming militancy to peacefulness—it seems to be a trend.

I read of a man in South Sudan making hand-digging tools called “maloda” from the junk of war. He had fled murderous militia, carrying his five children for days across the country from his home village. They became part of the 2.3 million people in Sudan, refugees of war. “I thank God that my hands were not cut off,” he said.

He was faced with the need for food, shelter, medicine, and a secure future for himself and his children. (I can only imagine the effort necessary to provide for children in a country plagued by war, with no available jobs or financial assistance. Where does one begin?) He was a farmer in the village he had abandoned, so he sought to follow that trade, regretting the loss of the planting implements he had left behind. Displaced persons cannot afford oxen or tractors for plowing; so they use their hands to dig in the rough soil to plant rows of sweet potatoes, millet, lentils and okra.

He joined a small group of Christian men as they met regularly to pray and encourage each other. They also learned business skills and blacksmithing and began to pool their resources together. With a loan of $50 from the support a micro-lending ministry called “Five Talents” he started a business with his newly learned trade as a blacksmith.

Today, he pounds scrap metal into farm tools and earns enough money to employ two young men and is able to put all of his children in school and provide for his family’s basic needs.

Closer to home, in Colorado Springs, I learned about some Mennonite blacksmiths, Fred Martin and his son Mike. They combine their Mennonite faith and blacksmith skills to teach others how to forge guns into garden tools. They founded a program they call “RAWtools.” Their strong anti-violence belief system led to the name—WAR spelled backwards to make RAW, whose mission is to “disarm hearts and forge peace” by turning guns into garden tools.

They partner with willing communities to find new ways of resolving conflict through relationship, dialogue and alternative means of justice. Their non-violence workshops address theory and practice and employ role-playing techniques. They offer a free garden tool in exchange for a gun. They take the biblical passage Micah 4:4 …everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, to encourage people to look inward and address the triggers such as fear and hate that lead to violence.

“RAWtools” has been replicated in numerous places. “Guns to Garden,” for instance, is a gun buyback program created by “New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence,” partnering with local law enforcement to buy back guns and transform them into usable art and gardening tools.

Another offspring is based in Oakland, California. That group held “gun melting and transformation” events at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Atlanta. Guns that had been used by loved ones to commit suicide, guns used in senseless shooting deaths, and guns designed for no purpose other than to take human life were cut up, smashed, melted, and repurposed as garden tools. Those rituals help to fulfill the Isaiah mandate as well as forge a new kind of public ritual for processing grief.

Symbols can be powerful, and public rituals can heal. For those who have survived violence or lost loved ones, turning a weapon into a productive tool or object of art can mark a time in one’s life when violence is put behind them and new life arises in front of them.

As I think on the dramatic end of the Cold War, the excitement and promise felt in the Baptist gathering in Lillehammer in 1994, I cannot help but feel a deep sense of grief and foreboding today. The gun violence in America is epidemic. The number of and deadly capabilities of guns available to Americans boggles my mind. Russian soldiers are poised on the border of Ukraine threatening a new Hot War less that three decades after what many of us had celebrated as the end of Soviet militarism and the beginnings of a new era of peace.

When Jesus was arrested in the Garden, and Peter tried to whack Malcus’ head off with a sword, Jesus said, “Put your sword away.”

There has got to be better ways of dealing with the passions that lead to destructive violence. If ever we have needed to turn swords into plowshares, it is now.

 

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