Smoke & Fire

When I stepped out of my car at St. Louis Mennonite Fellowship last week, the first thing that hit me was the smell.

I hadn’t expected that. I anticipated the noise but not the scent. The incense grew stronger as I walked over to the white tent in the parking lot. Soon waves of smoke wafted through the air. As I entered the space, the smell grew stronger. I breathed in the aroma.

From the guns.

Mike Martin and Fred Martin of RAWtools spent hours that day disarming over 150 donated guns. I even got a turn at the saw to slowly slice through a gun in several spots. As they kept up their work, I took in the buzz of the saws, the smell of the gunmetal, and the sight of peacemaking.

Mike co-authored with Shane Claiborne the 2019 book Beating Guns: Hope for People Weary of Violence. In it, they note that while the U.S. has only about 5% of the world’s population, we have 42% of the world’s privately-held guns. To feed this addiction, we have nearly five times as many licensed gun dealers as McDonald’s restaurants. We even have more guns than people in this country!

All of that matters because, as they note, “where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths. This is the mess we find ourselves in.” The U.S. sees more gun homicides per million people than any other nation. And in the world’s 23 most developed nations, 87% of the children killed by guns are in the United States.

“It’s time to name our love affair with guns and violence as a form of idolatry,” Shane and Mike added in their book. “We’ve trusted in something other than God and the promise that love will cast out fear. The good news is, it is never too late to repent.”

The disarmed guns aren’t heading to the dump. Instead, Mike and Fred will use their blacksmithing skills to create garden tools, jewelry, and toys. It’s their modern take on the dream of the biblical prophets like Micah and Isaiah.

He will judge between many peoples
    and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore. (Micah 4:3)

I attended an event where Mike and Shane beat guns back in 2019. But it was good to enter such a holy time again last week as Mike and Fred got out their anvil, fired up their forge, and created some garden tools out of metal that formerly had been a gun.

At the Churchnet event on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University, students, pastors, and others from the community were invited to even take a turn with the hammer. There in Cape Girardeau — the land of Rush Limbaugh — we beat our modern swords into ploughshares.

On the cool afternoon — and especially that evening after the sun set — the fire of the forge warmed up the area. It also provided the key ingredient for the transformation.

“There’s this thing about turning guns into garden tools,” Shane and Mike wrote in their book Beating Guns. “You have to add some heat — a little more than 2,000 degrees of controlled flame.”

“But you can’t make a tool in just one ‘heat,’” they added. “You have to repeat the process. You put the gun barrel back into the forge and bring it out to shape it some more. Then again. And again.”

It’s slow work bringing about change. And the same is true for our society. We need a refiner’s fire that burns away the impurities. We need faithful laborers as we reshape our lives and communities. Beating swords into ploughshares isn’t a magic bullet. But this prophetic metaphor and act helps us learn a better way.

When you live in a time where there is injustice, when you live in a time where there is violence, when you live in a time where the blood is crying out from the ground, and when you live in a time where despite all of that those in power say the status quo is okay, that’s when the prophets show up.

We do not have to accept that the world is the way it should be or must be. So, when politicians say “thoughts and prayers” are all that we can offer amid an epidemic of gun violence, I say I know that’s not true. For I’ve smelled the smoke and seen the fire.

You can learn more about RAWtools on their site. And if you’re not a paid subscriber to A Public Witness, you can help sustain this journalism by subscribing today.