Swords, Plowshares and Guns in Church

[1] The oracle in Isaiah 2:1–5 presents a vision of what life will be like when Zion is established as a worship place, and all the nations of the world follow God’s teaching.1 It is a picture of the world as it should be, as opposed to the world as it is. For Isaiah’s original audience — a people in the midst of the uncertainty of war, turmoil, and complicated military alliances — his is a message of transformation and the possibility of peace.

[2] Isaiah uses a graphic and poetic image of instruments of war — swords and spears — morphing into instruments of agriculture. Like Isaiah, we also live in a world where swords have not yet become plowshares. Even a quick glance at news headlines reminds us of the violence in the world as it is. Even places of worship are not immune.

[3] This summer, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed House Bill 1272, which would allow people with a permit to carry concealed weapons in churches, mosques, synagogues, or other houses of worship as part of a security force.2 This does not necessarily allow a bring-your-gun-to-church day, like one Kentucky congregation hosted.3 Those carrying weapons would be pre-screened and trained; the presence of armed individuals would be announced, either verbally or in bulletins or newsletters.

[4] This is a multifaceted issue. On one hand, Christian sanctuaries are places where people expect to feel safe. On the other hand, Christian sanctuaries are places where people expect to feel safe. It becomes a fine balance between providing a sense of security and perpetuating a culture of violence.

[5] In the quest for peace, how might your congregation become what the ELCA social statement on peace describes as a “presence for peace that disturbs, reconciles, serves, and deliberates?”4 This vision from Isaiah, if lived to fruition, would certainly disturb our society and culture by calling us to trust God’s promises instead of the security of our own ingenuity.

[6] As Christian people, we realize that we can worship God in places other than the temple in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, we gather to encounter God’s instruction and teaching. The decision whether to allow firearms in a worship space is one that congregations will have to determine. The result of this deliberative process would be impacted by how seriously you want to take scriptural passages (like this) that speak of peace and how much of a head start you are willing to take in living out God’s reign.

[7] I recently heard a local clergy colleague quip that it would be nice if the ELCA made some sort of statement allowing people to own firearms. The reasoning behind this is that, in the wake of conflicts regarding human sexuality, it might be helpful, especially in our South Texas culture where gun ownership is a part of many people’s lives, for the ELCA to have a stance on some issue that might be perceived as more conservative, rather than liberal.

[8] The ELCA has not quite done this. Though its public policy stance does not prohibit people from owning weapons for hunting purpose, it does advocate in favor of gun control.5 However, the ELCA Message on Community Violence admits that “possessing a gun is viewed by many ordinary citizens as their last line of defense against the chaos in society, or at least a means by which to get some respect.”6

[9] Instead of using this Isaiah passage as simple fodder in the gun control debate, it could be used as an invitation for imagining what living into this vision might look like in our communities. In the spirit of living in an ecologically sustainable way, perhaps a weapon could be a better sign of peaceful living than an agricultural implement. For example, providing a family with venison as food from a local deer might be a better way of living in anticipation of God’s reign than farming practices that cause soil erosion and put dangerous chemicals into the groundwater system. In this way, a weapon might be more peaceful than an actual plow.

[10] The issues of weapons and violence should not be seen as conservative/liberal or Republican/Democrat issues. It is an issue of how we live in anticipation of God’s reign. The realities of violence, fear, and war, when combined with the vision of God’s peace, invite us to ask ourselves and our communities some challenging questions:

How might you live in hope of the day when swords are beat into plowshares?
What might it look like to have armed individuals in your midst during worship? Would you feel securely comforted or dangerously threatened?
What signs of transformation from violence into peace do you see in your community?
How do you walk in the light of the Lord?
To what or to whom do you really pledge allegiance?
[11] It could be tempting to use this Isaiah text as an opportunity to preach a sermon that is critical of United States foreign policy or perhaps a sermon that invites the assembly to think introspectively about their own habits of violence. Such a sermon might also lament the violence and brokenness of the world in which we live, pointing to our need of a Savior.

[12] However, Lutheran preaching proclaims what God has done and is doing, rather than telling us what to do. The swords only become plowshares because the nations respond to God’s instruction. The transformation of weapons into agricultural instruments is the result of God’s action, rather than human skill. Preaching Isaiah’s vision as Advent begins calls the assembly into expectation of God’s peaceful future and invites us to come and “walk in the light of the Lord.”7

1. An almost identical oracle appears in Micah 4:1–3.

2. http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2010/07/gov_bobby_jindal_signs_bills_a.html

3. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/26/us/26guns.html

4. http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Social-Statements/Peace.aspx

5. A 1993 Churchwide Assembly resolution called for “passage and strict enforcement of local, state, and national legislation that rigidly controls manufacture, importation, sale purchase, transfer, receipt, possession and transportation of handguns, assault weapons and assault-like weapons and their parts, excluding rifles and shotguns used for hunting and sporting purpose, for use other than law enforcement and military purposes.” http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Messages/Community-Violence.aspx

6. http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Messages/Community-Violence.aspx

7. Isaiah 2:5.

Paul Bailie

Paul Bailie has degrees in geography and religion from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, and a Master of Divinity from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He is pastor at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas.