Prayer and Justice, Guns and Garden Trowels
October 16, 2022
I’m holding up a garden trowel. Its blade was fashioned from the barrel of a gun, its handle from a gunstock. Yesterday, a group of us heard from Shane Claiborne, author of Beating Guns. He has taken his vision of re-enacting the prophetic call to beat our swords into plowshares across the country. At a forge and anvil, he and others forge the metal from hand guns and assault rifles into gardening implements. One gun so repurposed makes little difference. There are more than 400 million guns in the USA. 41000 people were killed by gun violence last year in the US. It’s one more staggering statistic in a litany of suffering that can lead to despair as we watch the various crises unfold in our community, nation, and world.
We have heard a great deal about the crises in and around our judicial system. Trust in the Supreme Court is at an all-time low; the federal court system seems intent on turning back rights, negating regulations that protect us and the environment. There was a news story last week about an appellate case that had been before a court for around a decade with no resolution.
We’ve also heard about the injustices in the criminal justice system; the way people of color are targeted; rape kits that have gone un-analyzed; people on bail committing violent crimes. There’s a sense that the scales of justice are weighted toward the powerful and wealthy, and that the weak and vulnerable are left to themselves. The stories of doctored evidence; of forced guilty pleas go on and on.
We’re also facing a crisis of democracy with election deniers poised to take over important positions in state governments and gerrymandering that disenfranchises voters and voting regulations that are intended to keep turnouts down. At the same time, policies with widespread popular support—like the right of women to make reproductive choices, and reasonable limits on firearms—are held hostage by vocal and powerful minorities.
Yesterday, we heard stories from women who were crying out for justice and change. As part of our Beating Guns event, two African-American women shared stories of the loss of their sons to gun violence and the trauma caused to themselves and to their other family members as a result. Their voices broke as they spoke of the pain and loss they felt: a mother who lost her best friend and closest companion, a child who would never know their father. Such stories are all too familiar. We have seen the tears and anger of parents after school shootings so often that we hardly take note of mass shootings any longer.
So when we hear a story like the parable in today’s gospel, something about it rings very true. A widow seeking justice approaches the court. We don’t know what her concern is. What we do know is that in 1st century Palestine, as in many places today, widows were especially vulnerable people. The mosaic law made special provision for widows and orphans, commanding that they be cared for, provided for by society as a whole and especially by those with wealth and power.
In other words, this judge, by refusing to hear her case, by ignoring her was breaking the law of Moses. In the end, he relents—not because he sees the justice of her cause. We’re told that he neither fears God nor respects people. Instead, he relents because he’s tired of her coming in front of him repeatedly. In the original, their encounters are described rather more colorfully than in the translation we heard: the woman’s repeated appearances before him are giving him a “black eye.” Not only does she cause him physical pain; she is embarrassing him publicly.
Now here’s the thing. Jesus is telling the parable not to rant about the powers that be; the injustice of it all, the different treatments of the haves and the have-nots. He is telling it in order to say something about prayer. The parable is told to the disciples “about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”
Prayer and justice. The parable and its setting open up a number of interpretive possibilities. The most obvious may be the least helpful-comparing our experience of unanswered prayer with the widow who seeks justice. Unhelpful because in this approach, we would also likely interpret God on the lines of the unjust judge—a God disinterested or uncaring for us, and responsive only because we are persistent in our requests and annoying.
In fact, Jesus makes quite the opposite point. If even an unjust judge eventually relents to persistent complaints, how much more likely to respond is a just, righteous, and compassionate God? Of course we get that many people would give up if their prayers remained unanswered, if their calls for justice remain unheard. For us, too, it may seem easy to lose heart, to abandon our cause.
But this parable is powerful testimony to the importance of not giving up. It also challenges us to center our cries for justice in prayer itself. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great rabbi, mystic, and theologian who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. from Selma to Montgomery, said as he reflected on that experience, “I felt my legs were praying.”
There was something futile, even absurd yesterday as we gathered in the courtyard here at Grace, around a small forge and anvil and watched as Lutheran Pastor turned Blacksmith Jeff Wild cut up the barrel of gun and reshaped it into a gardening trowel. There was something futile and absurd about those who stepped up to the anvil and struck the hot iron with a hammer, slowly transforming that metal into a usable tool.
Such actions do not effect meaningful change. To many they might seem less than helpful, worthy only of spite and ridicule. But to those who were present and participated, what we did was more than gesture. It was prayer. It was also a powerful demonstration of faith that the God in whom we believe, the God we worship is a God of justice and peace, bringing into existence, forging, if you will, a new world in which God reigns triumphant in justice.
What we did yesterday was try to imagine the vision of the prophet Isaiah as he looked around the destruction and suffering in his world and offered an alternative:
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
We may be fearful; we may lose hope. As we watch the news and worry about what is to come, it may seem that the world that is emerging is a more dangerous place, that the future bodes ill with climate change, war and violence, the rise of fascism across the world. It may seem that the actions we take, whether by voting, or protesting, or beating hot iron into a gardening trowel make little difference, cannot stem the tide of hatred and evil.
It may even seem that our prayers for justice, for peace, for equality fall on deaf ears or are empty words that mean nothing and are powerless against the forces of evil and death. The two women who spoke yesterday, Lashea Jackson and Wendy Thompson, didn’t give up hope. In the midst of their trauma, they helped to create a support group for other victims of gun violence, helping others like themselves to cope with their pain.
Rooting our cries for justice in prayer is a profound act of faith. It is an expression of our belief that the God who created us and the universe is a just God. It is a proclamation that death is not the end but that the one who died on the cross to show us the way of salvation and to save us, conquered evil and death, was raised, and reigns eternally.
To pray with our feet, to cry for justice as we persevere in prayer, deepens our relationship with God. Like the apparent futility of beating one gun barrel into a gardening tool, prayer bears witness to our faith that God is a God of justice. It proclaims that we believe God hears our prayers, and the cries of all those who suffer, that God is making things new, that God’s reign will come. Thanks be to God.