MLK, John Lewis, and transforming guns into plowshares

Over the last two months, I’ve written – then deleted – a half a dozen posts about guns and violence. I just can’t seem to find the right words.

Every day I sit at my desk and see a small piece of metal sitting there. It’s in the shape of a cross now, but at one point, it held a bullet that was fired during the Liberian civil war. I don’t know what happened to that bullet, or the person who fired it, or where it was aimed. For me, this sculpted casing serves as a reminder of the potential for transformation offered by Jesus. But, to paraphrase Dr. King, even if you’re not religiously inclined, if you believe in the idea of justice, then you believe in some kind of transformative power. [1] Cross made from a bullet casing

I spent part of the day yesterday reading some of the essays, sermons, and speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s become an annual tradition for me to focus on the words of the man whose life we claim to celebrate, but whom we often reduce to sound bites about race. It helps me remember a philosophical man who engaged with the ideas of Nietzsche and Hegel and Sartre, but also a practical man who kept careful count of the number of lunch counters that were successfully integrated. It helps me remember the theologian who found answers in practice even when he couldn’t work them out intellectually. [2]

The one word that jumps out at me over and over again in King’s writings is “synthesis”. King was acutely aware of strengths and weaknesses, of the capacity for both good and evil that pervades everything related to humanity. And he strived to find ways of transforming competing ideas and practices into something new, something that promoted the good.

As Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) reminded us yesterday during President Obama’s inauguration, Alex Haley’s motto was, “Find the good and praise it.”

And I think you can argue that a theme of Dr. King’s life was this: Find the good and the bad, and then make the good part stronger.


Over the last couple of weeks, at least two high-profile conservatives have asserted that guns could have or should have played a role in the Civil Rights struggle in the United States.

The other day, I mentioned Larry Ward, the Republican media consultant and promoter of “Gun Appreciation Day”, who told CNN on January 11:

“I think Martin Luther King, Jr. would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history.”

I’m not even going to try to get into the alternate-history argument about slavery here.

But I will point out that King (with help from Bayard Rustin) explicitly refuted the idea that guns were a viable response to violations of civil rights. Robert Williams, the head of the Monroe, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, advocated “armed self reliance” and organized the Black Armed Guard. Williams debated King over their difference in strategy, with King arguing that nonviolence was more efficacious than carrying weapons:

Mr. Robert Williams would have us believe that there is no effective and practical alternative. He argues that we must be cringing and submissive or take up arms. To so place the issue distorts the whole problem. There are other meaningful alternatives. [3]

(Williams’ book, Negroes with Guns, would later influence Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton.)

King would later link violence with “a desire for self-destruction, a kind of suicidal longing” [4], and write more about the self-defense delusion:

Furthermore, it is extremely dangerous to organize a movement around self-defense. The line between defensive violence and aggressive or retaliatory violence is a fine line indeed. When violence is tolerated even as a means of self-defense there is a grave danger that in the fervor of emotion the main fight will be lost over the question of self-defense. [5]

So for Dr. King, the decision to eschew guns was a practical one, but also a moral one. It was a message he took from the New Testament, that “darkness cannot put out darkness,” and that physical force must be met with soul force. [6, 7] It was part of his conviction that love – agape love – was the most powerful, durable, and life-changing force in the universe.


A week after Larry Ward invoked Dr. King, radio host and de facto head of the Republican party Rush Limbaugh invoked Civil Rights legend and Congressman John Lewis:

“Try this. If a lot of African-Americans back in the ’60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma? I don’t know, I’m just asking. If John Lewis, who says he was beat upside the head, if John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?”

John Lewis was attacked and beaten by police for leading a march across the bridge in Selma in 1965. He suffered a concussion in the attack, and bears the physical scars to this day.

And that wasn’t the first time he was attacked for standing up for civil rights. In 1961, John Lewis – along with another Freedom Rider – was beaten while attempting to enter the “Whites Only” area at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Lewis issued a statement responding to Limbaugh, re-asserting the role of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement:

“Our goal in the Civil Rights Movement was not to injure or destroy but to build a sense of community, to reconcile people to the true oneness of all humanity,” said Rep. John Lewis. “African Americans in the 60s could have chosen to arm themselves, but we made a conscious decision not to. We were convinced that peace could not be achieved through violence. Violence begets violence, and we believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means. We took a stand against an unjust system, and we decided to use this faith as our shield and the power of compassion as our defense.”

For Lewis, the commitment to nonviolence and compassion extends beyond words, and beyond even putting his body on the line. In 2009, Lewis met with Elwin Wilson, the man who had attacked him in Rock Hill almost 50 years prior. Wilson apologized, the two men embraced, and Lewis extended his forgiveness.

Lewis said of the encounter, “It says something about the power of love, of grace, the power of the people being able to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and move on. And I deeply appreciate it. It’s very meaningful for me.”


The prophet Isaiah described his vision:

and 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 the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and 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. (Isaiah 2:3–4, ESV)

Kelley Nikondeha wrote about the image of swords-into-plowshares for SheLoves Magazine, and how it calls us “not to a less violent world, but a non-violent one.”

Beating swords into plowshares is hard work–hammering, melting, reworking and shaping new tools. Transformation of this magnitude comes with sweat and sustained labor. Moving beyond hostility and hatred produces calloused hands, sore muscles and bone-deep exhaustion. Welders, after all, forge the lasting peace, a signal that maybe we need the work ethic of a tradesman for the task at hand.

On his Facebook page, Shane Claiborne shared this video of an AK–47 being physically remade into a rake and a shovel.

Claiborne points out that in Isaiah, it’s the people who beat the swords into plowshares and lead the way to peace – not the kings or other political leaders. That’s something that Dr. King understood in a profound way. That’s something that Nelson Mandela understood when he called on the people of Natal to “take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea,” and charged the people with the responsibility to make peace. That’s something that is being tested in the Philippines, where unarmed civilian groups are helping to monitor the ceasefire in Mindanao.


In 2010, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted a report, “Gun Violence, Gospel Values: Mobilizing in Response to God’s Call.” The report acknowledged the failure of the PC(USA) and other churches to address gun violence in a meaningful, effective way over the past 50 years, and looked at various ways to move forward. One section, in particular, jumped out at me:

Ours must not be a grief that immobilizes us or is expressed only in sympathy to victims. Ours must be, instead, a godly grief that calls us to transformation. As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor 7:9–10).

The answer to gun violence is not more people bearing loaded weapons in public. Guns weren’t the answer to the violence of segregation and Jim Crow. Guns weren’t the answer to the violence of apartheid in South Africa. And I don’t believe guns can be the answer to gun violence in our time.

At a press conference last week, members of Faiths United To Prevent Gun Violence demanded action from Congress while calling on people of faith to get involved.

The Rev. Jim Wallis, the evangelical who heads the progressive Christian group Sojourners, took on Wayne LaPierre, the outspoken executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, directly.

LaPierre’s statement after Newtown that the “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is “morally mistaken” and “religiously repugnant,” Wallis said.

“The world is not full of good and bad people. That is not what our scriptures teach us,” but that each individual is both good and bad, Wallis said. […]

The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Washington office said people of faith must reframe the debate on gun control, and support “those of us who would challenge the false choice between guns and freedom.”

I’ve been thinking about how we can best apply the lessons of Dr. King, who wanted people to be “maladjusted” [8] – that is, to be bothered by the things that were wrong with our society – and who knew that our nation must be “born again” into a new transformation. [9] We need a transformation that starts with the people, and one that transcends the old boundaries of geography and political parties and denominations. We need to acknowledge both the good and the bad impacts of policies that address gun violence, and then synthesize new ways of amplifying the good effects while minimizing the bad. To do that, we need to start by lifting the limitations on researching gun violence; President Obama has demonstrated leadership in taking the first steps toward that goal.

There’s no question in my mind that we need to address the problems of gun violence with public policy, but we don’t have to wait on Congress to act. We can, and should, challenge ourselves and our communities to stop sitting on the sidelines. We can volunteer our time and talents to organizations in our communities that resist violence. We can support voluntary gun buy-back programs. We can educate ourselves, pay attention, and give witness to what is going on in our neighborhoods and our cities, both the good and the bad.

And we can hope and work toward a transformation that will allow us “to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.” [10]

UPDATE: Via Spencer Ackerman on Twitter, I see that the fine folks at the Air Force’s Global Strike Command (ie, the people with the nuclear weapons) think that – oh, just read it:

Dr. King would be proud to see our Global Strike team – comprised of Airmen, civilians and contractors from every race, creed, background and religion – standing side-by-side ensuring the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal remain the credible bedrock of our national defense

I’m glad that the Air Force embodies a basic commitment to racial and religious fairness in hiring. But, as the awesomely-named Kingston Reif points out at the “Nukes of Hazard” blog, King repeatedly voiced his opposition to nuclear weapons, although he did reject doctrinaire pacifism.


  1. “The Power of Nonviolence”, speech at UC Berkeley, June 4, 1957.
  2. “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, Christian Century, April 13, 1960.
  3. “The Social Organization of Nonviolence”, Liberation, October 1959
  4. “Where Do We Go From Here?”, speech at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention, August 16, 1967
  5. “Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom”, Ebony, October 1966
  6. Ibid. 4
  7. “I Have a Dream”, speech at March on Washington, D.C. for Civil Rights, August 28, 1963
  8. Ibid. 1
  9. Ibid. 4
  10. “The Current Crisis in Race Relations”, New South, March 1958

Further reading:

To put it another way, for John Lewis the answer to the atrocities of the segregationists was love, not guns. But we didn’t need Friday’s statement from Congressman Lewis to remind us of that eternal lesson of the civil rights struggle. As he showed four years ago, Lewis is its living embodiment.