This week tragedy struck Oregon as 26-year-old Chris Harper-Mercer massacred 9 people at Umpqua Community College. And this week marked the anniversary of the Nickel Mines massacre in Pennsylvania.
Both are reminders that we have a crisis in America.
We have 4.4% of the world’s population but almost half of the civilian-owned guns. In just the last 3 years, we have had nearly 1000 mass shootings, killing over 1200 people and wounding over 3500. There is a mass shooting almost every day in America (with 4 or more victims). In fact, we hold the Guinness Book of World Records for the most guns – nearly 300 million guns (that’s 90 guns for every 100 people). The runner-up is India, with 4 guns for every 100 people. We have a problem – over 11, 000 murders a year and about twice that many suicides from guns.
Some will argue: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” The fact is: people with guns shoot people. Sometimes they shoot themselves. The areas of the US that have the highest concentration of guns also have the highest concentration of bloodshed.
There is a powerful image in the Bible, where the prophets (both Micah and Isaiah) speak of God’s people beating their “swords into plows” turning their weapons into farm tools. It is an image of transforming the tools that have been used to destroy life into tools that can be used to cultivate life. A number of prominent leaders in the first few hundred years of Christianity pointed to this image of beating swords into plows as evidence by which you would know those who follow Jesus. They insisted that Christians are meant to fulfill that prophecy as the ones who follow the Prince of Peace. Just as Jesus transformed the cross — a terrible instrument of death — into a symbol of life, so Christians are to turn from death to life, interrupting everything that destroys life in this world.
Certainly we Christians lost sight of that vision over the centuries, and have often been the ones carrying the guns rather than the ones beating on them. Christians have sometimes exchanged the cross of Christ for the sword of Rome… or the guns of America. Lord, have mercy.
But there is a group of Christian blacksmiths who you might consider fundamentalists – of the best kind – because they are taking these “swords to plows” verses literally. These metal-workers known as RAW Tools (“Raw” is “War” turned around) are literally forging peace. They take donated guns–AK47s and handguns–and they heat them up in a forge, and beat them into oblivion. I have teamed up with them over and over — something just feels right about taking some of these 300 million guns and beating on them, repurposing them for something better. I’ve beaten on guns alongside victims of gun violence who lost their kids, alongside police chiefs and activists, and alongside a woman named Terri Roberts. Terri is the mother of Charlie Roberts, who was responsible for the Nickel Mines shooting 9 years ago.
There was something incredibly moving about seeing Terri pick up a hammer and beat on the barrel of a gun. But it wasn’t just about the gun. Terri Roberts is a living witness that God is transforming hearts, not just metal.
Over the 9 years since the Nickel Mines shooting, Terri has developed a relationship with the Amish families that baffles the mind, and heals the soul.
There is a young girl, named Rosanna who survived the shooting 9 years ago but whose life is forever changed. She is in a wheelchair now, and eats with a feeding tube. Every other Thursday, Terri visits Rosanna and helps bathe her, reads with her, and sings with her. Spending time together has helped heal the wounds of the tragedy. Every time Terri visits her, she is confronted with the damage her son caused. But she is also reminded that violence does not have to get the last word. Terri has written a book about that journey, called Forgiven. And each year around this time in October, she has tea with the Amish mothers… a way of remembering this season and redeeming it.
As Terri and I beat on the gun together earlier this year, she reminded me that we don’t just have a gun problem, we also have a heart problem. We need God to transform both our hearts and our nation. As we beat on the barrel of that gun, it felt like we were participating in the redemptive work of God in healing hearts and healing streets– beating guns into plows, turning hatred into love.
As we lament the horrors of massacres like what has happened this week in Oregon and 9 years ago in Pennsylvania, let us refuse to choose between false dichotomies like: is this a gun problem or a heart problem? The fact is we have a gun problem, and we have a heart problem. It is my prayer that God would heal our heart problem and some of our politicians would have the courage to help heal our gun problem.
Meanwhile, we are not going to wait on politicians to turn death into life. We cannot wait. The beautiful thing about the vision of the Biblical prophets is that it is the people themselves who start to transform their weapons. Eventually the nations follow and “study war no more.” But peace begins with the people. It is the people who pave the way to peace. The people of God can’t wait on politicians, but instead they take the hammer into their own hands.
So we are going to keep heating up the forge and inviting folks around the country to bring your guns and beat them into oblivion.
After South Africa’s revolution, Nelson Mandela told the people of his country: “Throw your guns into the sea.” Today, as massacres continue almost daily, we have had enough death. We are saying to America – bring your guns to the forge, and let’s beat them into plows. We have had grown tired of death.
For more information about RAW Tools, or to donate guns, go to: www.rawtools.org