Forging weapons into pickaxes to protest the violence culture (5)

Activist Shane Claiborne believes that a form of nationalism has developed that camouflages as Christianity, but becomes an obstacle for people to meet Jesus.

03 JANUARY 2023 · 10:20 CET

Katie Jo Brotherton and Erich Kussman collaborate on turning a weapon into a practical tool. / Photo: Tore Hjalmar Sævik.,
Katie Jo Brotherton and Erich Kussman collaborate on turning a weapon into a practical tool. / Photo: Tore Hjalmar Sævik.

Author and activist Shane Claiborne believes Christians astray are a bigger problem than secularization in the United States.

Guns are forged into agricultural implements, with a smelting furnace, hammer and anvil. That’s how concrete the demonstration against the free flow of weapons is on the program when I meet the tireless activist Claiborne.

The place is Trenton, the capital of the state of New Jersey. It might sound nice. But it doesn’t look very nice.

The pavements between the train station and the meeting place are strewn with rubbish and overgrown with weeds. Plastic packaging, crumpled beer cans and empty bottles float along the street. A holey mattress leans heavily against a lamppost, worn out from heavy use.

A group of men have set up a ladder and are repairing the roof of a house. The neighboring houses yearn for similar supervision but seem to be waiting in vain.

“Jesus saves” reads a faded blue sign shaped like a cross. It hangs on the road between the train station and the church where Claiborne is supposed to be found.

Beneath the sign, people are in line and accepting juice bottles and food from the open door of a white van.

“When I grew up, society was more family-oriented. Now there is one parent in a household, or none,” says David Broach, who is responsible for the food distribution.

The car is empty. Until the next distribution, the aim is to get as many new products as possible that have passed the “best before” date from local stores.

Forging weapons into pickaxes to protest the violence culture (5)

  A mattress is among the items placed on the street in Trenton. No one seems to have plans to move it further. / Photo: Tore Hjalmar Sævik.


27% of the population in poverty

Broach is a volunteer and brother to the pastor of the Pentecostal church based here. Previously, their father was a pastor in the same place.

The people in the queue have a Hispanic background. Several of them appear not to speak English.

Broach does not hide that the city was tidier and more well-kept in the past. Unemployment and crime are challenges in the city.

In Trenton, over 80% of the population is either African American or Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Over 27% of the population lives below the poverty line.

“If you work for God, He will work for you,” it says on Broach’s van.

We try to do what we can. We love people, no matter what ethnic background you have,” he says.

“The good Lord” gives him hope, he says, and smiles.


Camouflaged nationalism

A few minutes’ walk away, Shane Claiborne and a number of employees are setting up a “Beating Guns” event. It takes place outside another church, St. Bartholomew Lutheran Church.

The fight against gun culture and against the death penalty have been two of his passions for a number of years.

For many of the Christians, these are incomprehensible priorities. The right to bear arms and the possibility of punishing particularly serious crimes with death are defended on the basis of both the Bible and the Constitution.

To be honest, I don’t think the biggest problem is secularization, but Christians,” Claiborne says and laughs.

He believes that a form of nationalism has developed that tries to camouflage itself as Christianity — but which becomes an obstacle for people to meet Jesus.

Forging weapons into pickaxes to protest the violence culture (5)

  Shane Claiborne shows off a semi-automatic rifle. He believes Christians should become more critical of what weapons do to society. / Photo: Tore Hjalmar Sævik.


A Red Letter leader

Claiborne is the leader of Red Letter Christians, which places particular emphasis on Jesus’ own words in the Gospels. In some Bible editions, these are reproduced in red font.

He has been to Norway on several occasions, including at the Korsvei festival. He has also published the book “The Irresistible Revolution” in Norwegian.

Describing the presentation of a Christianity he sees as harmful, Claiborne says, “Trump is more a symptom than the problem itself. He didn’t necessarily change America, but exposed America.

“Many of the cultural values that are characteristic of America stand in opposition to the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes and the fruit of the spirit. There is a collision between faith and allegiance to America. There is a struggle for power.”


The US is changing color

Claiborne believes this is also about race.

“This is important: 80% of White evangelicals supported Trump, while 80% of non-White Christians opposed him,” he says.

The composition of the American population is changing. By 2050, the majority of Americans will be non-White, according to projections from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Significant changes are also taking place religiously. If current trends continue, less than 50% of the population will identify as Christian, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center. In 1970, it was 90%.

Claiborne believes that these developments have created a backlash that is summed up in the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

What does it mean for people of color? What era do we want to return to, he asks. He believes it is about white people wanting to have power again.

“It is disguised as if we are taking America back to God.”

Forging weapons into pickaxes to protest the violence culture (5)

  Volunteers provide barbecue food and activities during the commemoration against American gun culture outside the Lutheran church in Trenton . / Photo: Tore Hjalmar Sævik.


Challenging the TV evangelists

From a Christian perspective, Claiborne sees the situation not only as a political crisis but also a spiritual crisis.

“But I also think there is an opportunity to take Jesus and the gospel back from the TV evangelists and from the religious extremists on the right who have monopolized the narrative and done so much damage to Christianity,” he says.

At the same time, he challenges a perception of Christian faith as a “ticket to heaven and a license to ignore the world we live in.”

“I think we are losing a lot of young people,” Claiborne says. “We promise life after death, but they ask if there is a life before death. Does God care about this world, about the environmental crisis and mass incarceration? This is not an either-or. We can believe in life after death and in life before death as well.”

Claiborne sees a task in showing that Christian faith makes a difference in this life. On a daily basis, he lives and works in the big city of Philadelphia, just a short train ride away. It has been called the poorest of the big cities in the United States.


Smelting furnace

This Saturday he has arrived in Trenton with his wife, Katie Jo Brotherton, who is firing up a small smelting furnace. The couple use it to forge weapons into picks and shovels.

It plays on future promises made by the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament: They will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears.”

The United States is the only country in the world that has more privately owned guns than citizens, according to Bloomberg News.

With iron tongs, Claiborne and Brotherton pick glowing metal out of the furnace. The hammer clinks so sharply against the anvil that it tears the eardrums.

One of America’s original sins is the violence we used to enslave people and take land from Indigenous people,” Claiborne says. It is impossible to imagine that this could happen without weapons. So in some ways guns are as American as apple pie.”

Grills are also fired up and spread the smell of hamburgers and sausages in the neighborhood. Families are invited to eat, play and receive free school bags.

A friend of Claiborne’s who is a DJ spreads bouncy rhythms and pounding bass through large black speakers.

Forging weapons into pickaxes to protest the violence culture (5)

  Katie Jo Brotherton stands in the breach to forge weapons while her husband, Shane Claiborne speaks. / Photo: Tore Hjalmar Sævik.


Mission to spread God’s kingdom

Pastor Eric Kussman is today’s host. He spent 12 years in prison before he came to believe in God. Later he became a Lutheran priest. Shane Claiborne is one of his closest friends.

“I felt the Spirit calling me to Trenton,” Kussman says. “You see the city in the news all the time. It is the capital of New Jersey, but there are also many people who are struggling and unemployed.”

During the event, he strolls around and chats with people, shakes hands and hugs.

As a Christian, he feels he has a mission to spread God’s kingdom on earth.


Offensive rhetoric

Because of the major social problems, Kussman feels that there are many people in the city who do not trust others, not even the church.

“Nationalism and white supremacy, especially Christian nationalism” create distance from the church, he says. “The rhetoric that is used turns many people away from the church.”

Instead of the church appearing as a place of refuge, he believes many have experienced it only as a champion of law and order.

“And that pushes people away, because it doesn't offer any hope,” he adds.

Forging weapons into pickaxes to protest the violence culture (5)

  Erich Kussman wants people in the neighborhood should notice that he cares about them even if they do not set foot in the church. / Photo: Tore Hjalmar Sævik.


Neighborhood as a parish

As a priest, he sees it as his task to dispel this myth by providing practical help and following people through life. That stands in contrast to a Christianity that is about self-help and not about a community.

I see the whole neighborhood here as my parish, whether they come to church or not. I think it has given back a lot of confidence in this neighborhood,” he says.

That is why he stands up for people who are arrested on false grounds, have problems with their rights as immigrants or are exploited by landlords.

While many Christians are concerned that the U.S. is becoming more secularized, Kussman says it has always been that way.

It is one of the biggest myths that this was some kind of Christian nation,” says Kussman.


Monday to Saturday

The priest points out that several of the founding fathers in the 18th century were deists and thus did not believe in a personal god who intervenes in life.

Kussman believes that the church must ask itself what it should actually be.

“Is being a church about coming to church on Sunday morning? No,” he says. “Church is what you do Monday to Saturday.”

And he doesn’t see his background as an inmate as a hindrance.

“It is, after all, a story about restoration,” he says.


Read the first , second, third and fourth articles of this series.

Tore Hjalmar Sævik works as a journalist at the Norwegian Christian newspaper Dagen. Some articles from a trip to the US this autumn were translated and republished by Religion Unplugged. The trip to the USA to write this series was supported by the Fritt Ord Foundation in Norway

Published in: Evangelical Focus - Secularization in the USA - Forging weapons into pickaxes to protest the violence culture (5)