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Bending Witness Into Action

A Review of Beating Guns by Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin

Published on:
July 22, 2019
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5 min.
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America keeps playing a broken record, hoping to hear its favorite song.

A deadly shooting robs us of our neighbors, and before we even know their names we drop the needle into worn-out grooves. Some rush to lay blame. Others think unchanging thoughts and recite rote prayers. Desperate pleas enter the atmosphere alongside warnings to avoid saying anything political. We want to hear a song of freedom or change. But the strains sound more like what the Bible calls weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Shane Claiborne sings a different song. He joins a chorus that started with the Old Testament prophets and stretches into the music of Bob Dylan and Kendrick Lamar. You hear this song in Beating Guns, co-written with Michael Martin, as the author and activist asserts that Americans will never inhabit a safer world until we possess a more dynamic moral and spiritual imagination.

Laying the matter at the feet of the church, Claiborne and Martin call Christians to live out their destiny as society’s chief imagination officers. To faithfully fulfill Jesus’s exhortation to be in the world, not of it, those with the mind of Christ and a different kingdom written on their hearts must envision the gracious rule of God, then live it out.

Claiborne and Martin’s work thrives not through its elegance or economy of words, but on the merits of its embodied imagination. With Martin’s RAWtools organization, the pair tours the country living out the book’s title—and the words of Isaiah and Micah—as they reshape guns into instruments of life, garden tools that cultivate the ground. Their work is incredibly literal, yet tells a better story about who we can become in the hands of a God who refines and reshapes. 

“The prophets knew that with a little holy fire metal can be reshaped—and so can people,” the authors write. “They knew weapons that kill can be transformed—and so can people who kill. The prophets of old were not so much fortune-tellers as they were provocateurs of the imagination. They weren’t trying to predict the future. They were trying to change the present.”

They assign new characters to Cain’s age-old question, counting every victim of gun violence a brother and sister—and the church their keeper.

Early on Beating Guns declares its intent to listen close to the pain of those who have lost loved ones to gun violence. It bears the pain of their stories, then bends its witness into action. Mourning with those who mourn is not a passive pursuit, the authors make clear. Imagination starts in the mind, but courses through the body to animate hands and feet.

The pair set up a staring contest between the letter of the Constitution and the spirit of the scriptures. Anyone can cherry-pick passages from a historical document or book of the Bible to defend their view of guns, but Claiborne and Martin ask readers to consider the whole counsel of God.

They assign new characters to Cain’s age-old question, counting every victim of gun violence a brother and sister—and the church their keeper. Then they supply an answer.

“Every time a life is lost, we lose a glimpse of God in the world, for each one of us is an image-bearer of our God,” the authors write.

Preaching against a distinct violation of the first commandment, they cast guns as the true American idol. We have not melted our gold into giant calves, but handguns and semi-automatic rifles.

“Think of all the promises a gun pledges to its owner—power, control, safety, protection, deliverance, self-confidence, self-determination, ridding the world of evil,” they write. “If a gun were actually able to keep all its promises, then we would be like God.”

Claiborne and Martin ultimately expose an American gospel built on “the right to . . .” Individual sovereignty is an emperor with no clothes if we follow a countercultural lord and savior.

“We remember that Jesus laid down his ‘rights’—he became the victim of violence to heal us from our ‘right’ to kill,” they write. “He loved his enemies so much that he died for them.”

Always more than a set of mere policy papers, Beating Guns recognizes the inherent limits of guns, investing its faith in people and our ability to transcend those limits.

The authors supply a range of strategies to address America’s gun violence epidemic: trading semiautomatic weapons for smart guns that recognize an owner’s fingerprint, amending the Constitution to restrict personal gun use to sport and hunting, abolishing stand-your-ground laws in favor of “sow-your-ground tactics” based on knowledge and love of neighbor, and using elements of surprise, rather than self-defense, to disarm would-be criminals.

Always more than a set of mere policy papers, Beating Guns recognizes the inherent limits of guns, investing its faith in people and our ability to transcend those limits. 

“We can change the foundation of how our society solves problems by training the future leaders that a gun is not a problem solver but a problem creator,” they write. 

With books like Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise and Dominique DuBouis Gilliard’s Rethinking Incarceration, Beating Guns forms a new canon of Christian complicity. These titles call out specific sins, but save their most impassioned sermons for the status quo. They want to reach Christians who have gone along to get along, or never considered guns a gospel issue.

In her poem “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” Kathy Fish applies her own imagination and exercises her Adamic right to name modern species. 

“A group of grandmothers is a tapestry. A group of toddlers, a jubilance” she writes in the first lines. What begins in whimsy ends with a brutal chill: 

Humans in the wild, gathered and feeling good, previously an exhilaration, now: a target.
A target of concert-goers.
A target of movie-goers.
A target of dancers.
A group of schoolchildren is a target.

Claiborne and Martin are incredulous in the face of all we’ve grown accustomed to: our common identity as targets, the talking points we repeat, the clichéd self-defense scenarios we dream up to preserve the possibility of violence. When we look at a gun and only see a gun, our lack of imagination indicts us and resigns us to living out the same tragedies over and over again.

Will we seek first a better kingdom, then see ourselves doing that kingdom’s work?

Claiborne and Martin call us to live in the present with an eye toward our end. A day is coming when the earth will be a garden again, when the blood, tears, and heartache of mass shootings will be no more. Beating Guns asks us what kind of people will we be. Will we participate in restoration and reclamation today? Will we seek first a better kingdom, then see ourselves doing that kingdom’s work? Or will we remain content to feel the sting of death as we live without imagination?

Aarik Danielsen
Aarik Danielsen is the arts and music editor at the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. He is a writer, editor, and curator concerned with the intersection of faith, culture, and human dignity. Follow him on Twitter or read more from Aarik on Facebook.

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