A small socially distanced group gathered at Alice’s Garden Urban Farm in Milwaukee as blacksmith Fred Martin gripped a piece of red-hot steel from the forge and placed it on an anvil. He then pummeled the piece of metal, a shard from a gun barrel. Others pitched in taking turns hammering, collectively turning guns in to garden tools.
“Literally in one hour, we go from a tool that’s designed to take life into a tool that’s designed to give life,” said activist Shane Claiborne, one of the organizers of the afternoon gathering “Jesus and Justice,” a nonpartisan event designed to draw attention to gun violence and pressing social justice issues.
Blacksmiths Fred Martin and son Mike, are the founders of RAWtools, a grassroots initiative whose mission is to “disarm hearts and forge peace” by turning guns into garden tools.
RAWtools draws inspiration from the Hebrew bible, in the words of the prophet Isaiah who spoke of turning “swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.” In the course of an afternoon, the they transform weapons in to mattocks–simple, pick-like garden tools.
But they don’t believe it’s enough to simply make tools from guns. They partner with 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.
Their Sword to Plow program offers a free garden tool in exchange for a gun. Through its disarming network, RAWtools facilitates connections between gun owners and others who have the knowledge, resources, and safe spaces to legally disable guns according to Federal ATF guidelines.
Springing from 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,” the initiative’s Vine and Fig program encourages people to look inward and address the–triggers–such as fear and hate, that lead to violence.
“By using weapons to make garden tools and other hand tools, we are creating a symbol for change and we’re asking you to participate,” the Martins explain on their website. “We are asking our communities to dare to use our imaginations to change our impulse. Beating swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and guns into garden tools creates a dynamic shift in our investment in time and resources. If we are no longer training for war, what else would we be doing? It doesn’t mean we are all to become gardeners, but it does mean we can invest in providing life sustaining resources for our communities.”
Storytelling is integral to the Martins’ efforts. RAWtools collects “stories of magnificent transformation as well as the deep trauma of grief and loss.” Owners can contribute an online narrative of their tool’s new purpose, a story of peace over violence that will travel with the new tool.
Both Christian activists, Michael Martin and Claiborne co-authored Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence, a book that cites alarming statistics and case studies to document the pervasive danger guns pose to a civil society.
Claiborne is a co-founder of Red Letter Christians, a movement of evangelical Christians that doesn’t embrace current conservative politics they believe has aligned white evangelicalism with the Republican Party of Trump. Their mission aspires not “to create a religious left movement to challenge the religious right, but to jump-start a religious movement that will transcend partisan politics.”
He is a longstanding critic of white evangelicals’ support for unrestricted gun ownership and the death penalty “despite having an executed and risen savior.” Clairborne has been arrested for protesting in front of the Supreme Court and wrote a book using biblical and theological arguments in opposition to capital punishment.
His efforts extend to organizing political opposition to Trump, whose politics led roughly 80% of white evangelical voters to cast their ballots for the president in 2016. Claiborne believes politicians have failed to hold the president accountable and have also not addressed social justice issues like systemic racism, poverty, police brutality and gun violence.
“If our Christianity doesn’t include welcoming immigrants, then we shouldn’t call it Christianity,” he told Urban Milwaukee. “If it doesn’t include making sure that the poor have healthcare and that the hungry are fed, we shouldn’t call that Christianity. And I think what’s happened is a version of American nationalism that came up calling itself Christianity — but it doesn’t look much like Jesus at all.”
Gun violence is not the only form of violence touching people’s lives says Claiborne, referring to Oxfam’s 2018 report that 26 billionaires have as much wealth as 3.8 billion people, half the world’s population. He attributes this wealth disparity to “policy violence,” a term the Poor People’s Campaign uses to describe the negative impact of legislative decisions affecting people living in poverty. “We think of the kids that are separated from their families, children and families in detention centers. So all of these forms of violence are what we are naming today. And the gun is just one symbol of that violence and suffering that we want to see transformed.”
Like RAWtools, Guns to Gardens, a grassroots initiative created in 2013 by New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, partners with local law enforcement to buy back guns and transform them into usable art and gardening tools.