By: Taylor Bell
On the evening of Sunday, March 17th, Baptist Church of the Covenant will host Shane Claiborne and Mike Martin for the tour of their new book Beating Guns (for more info, visit here: https://www.beatingguns.com./). We believe this tour is an opportunity for Covenant to join others in faithfully exploring new ways to address gun violence today. We believe it is time for a new and more hopeful conversation. Because the current conversation isn’t working; if it was then we’d be seeing solutions. Before we can begin the conversation, we need to address just what Claiborne and Martin mean by “Beating Guns.” But, if you’re like me, you found their book’s title a bit … jarring. Because it is provocative, we feel it important to explore what Claiborne and Martin mean by “Beating Guns.”
Beating Guns is a reference to Isaiah 2:4. In this passage, the prophet proclaims: “they [nations] shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4, NRSV). It is important to note this verse sits within a larger vision proclaimed by Isaiah. And to understand the “beating swords into plowshares” line, it is important to know the whole of the vision:
“2 In the 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 nations shall steam to it.
3 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.
4 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 anymore.
5 O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk,
in the light of the LORD!” (Isaiah 2:2-5, NRSV)
What Isaiah sees in this vision is his country Judah redeemed and living out God’s will. Here Judah is understood as Zion, and therefore is the country where people can meet God. Prophetically speaking, if Judah was to be such a country it would mean the leaders had repented of their idolatrous and oppressive ways, their rule being a faithful reflection of God’s will. Instead of idolatry, they would faithfully worship God. Instead of oppression, they would actively seek the people’s welfare—especially the orphans’, the widows’, and the immigrants’ welfare. Judah would become a country known for its peace, justice, and compassion. Now, other world leaders travel to Judah to learn from God how to forget war and learn peace. As such, swords and spears are no longer understood as weapons, but as raw materials for agricultural tools. Here, faithfully living out God’s will means transforming instruments that bring death to tools that cultivate life.
Yet, if you read the surrounding passages, Isaiah 1:1-31 and 2:6-22, it is apparent this vision stands in stark contrast to Judah’s reality. It is so jarring a contradiction that some scholars wonder if 2:2-5 are Isaiah’s original words! What we find in the bordering Scripture is a country deemed sinful, idolatrous, committers of evil, and ignorers of justice and compassion. It is the complete opposite of Isaiah’s vison! Judah’s grave and root sin is having “forsaken the LORD” (1:4) causing Isaiah to be so incensed he cries out to God, “do not forgive them!” (2:9).
So, what on earth is this idyllic vision doing amidst such despairing indictments? The gap between ideal and reality is so wide you’d think Isaiah is irrational and crazy. But Isaiah isn’t irrational or crazy, he is speaking for God. There must be, then, an intentional reason this vision is placed here. Contradiction, especially jarring contradiction, is used to grab our attention, waking us up from our apathy and inattentiveness. You could say Judah was asleep to its own sin. Where Judah saw prosperity and righteousness, Isaiah witnessed idolatry and oppression. As a prophet, Isaiah was responsible for waking Judah to their sin. Perhaps then, Isaiah employs such jarring contradiction to wake Judah to the reality that God has called them to be so much more. That despite their violence, idolatry, and oppression, God is working to redeem them.
And yet, we must acknowledge that so much of Isaiah’s vision is not up to God. Yes, God has a pretty important role, namely providing divine instruction (2:3). But, this vision is also dependent on humans to trust and follow God’s instructions. This is evident in the call-and-response dynamic that characterizes the vision. God provides divine instruction, and humans faithfully respond. For instance, swords are not beaten into plowshares until after the people have gone to Zion to learn God’s instruction. Thus, Isaiah’s vision is not created solely by God. It is really a co-creation between God and humanity. Without humanity’s faithful response, God’s vision remains only a vision. Thus, Judah beats their swords into plowshares not because the world is suddenly safe and it is politically astute, but because they are faithfully responding to God. Because they have accepted God’s invitation to co-create a peaceful world.
I have yet to read the book, and I can’t read minds, but it seems Claiborne’s and Martin’s intention is to restart the conversation on gun violence for Christians. To step away from political ideologies to explore the issue through our shared faith. Yet, in specifically emphasizing Isaiah 2:4, where nations “beat their swords into plowshares,” it also seems Claiborne and Martin are claiming we as Christians have a divine mandate to end gun violence. If Isaiah 2:4 was defining for Judah, then it is also defining for us Christians. Like Judah, we are called to beat our guns into plowshares. Because, like Judah, we are called to join God in co-creating a peaceful world. What our role as co-creators looks like today, that is up for conversation.
Which is why, as Christians, it is time for a new conversation on gun violence. If we are going to answer God’s call to end gun violence, then we cannot keep having the same conversation. We cannot keep blaming the “other side” nor avoiding it altogether because it makes people upset. We must garner the courage and hospitality to talk with each other. And we must also have the faith to stop having this conversation alone. We need to involve God in this conversation, because God is a co-creator with us. This is why, as a Christian pastor, I believe a conversation rooted in Scripture has the potential to transcend our political limitations. Not because Scripture provides all the answers, but because Scripture opens us up to God. We must have the courage, hospitality, and faith to begin such a conversation because there is too much violence in the world not to. Perhaps even, such a conversation is the first step towards co-creating with God a divinely peaceful world. This is the conversation we hope Shane and Mike will help to start, and it is the conversation we plan to continue. Come join us. All are welcome.
 The same exact verse is in Micah 4:3. For purposes of conciseness I have focused solely on Isaiah 2:4.