Recently I took time to examine a sculpture speaking to the tragic gun deaths we hear of all too often. It has a fascinating backstory. The sculpture is stunning no matter where you examine it — whether on the streets of Washington, D.C. — where many of the guns were once in the hands of both good citizens and would-be killers, or at its current home at Eastern Mennonite University.
Created by artist Esther Augsburger and her son Mike, both were college classmates of mine in the ‘70s. Mike’s father and Esther’s husband, Myron, was the college president at Eastern Mennonite College when we were in school, and Esther was completing her art major.
Then in the 1990s, Mike was watching a TV news report on boxing champ Riddick Bowe, who proposed that he would fund a gun buyback program in Washington, D.C. Persons turning in guns received $100 per firearm, no questions asked.
Mike told his mom: “Why not turn those guns into a huge sculpture to serve as a reminder of Isaiah’s prophecy?”
Isaiah 2:4: “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.”
Esther contacted D.C. police and persuaded them to donate the weapons — safely disabled — to them for a sculpture that would serve as a statement on the streets of our capital city. She and Michael spent months welding the guns onto a massive metal sculpture shaped like the blade of a plow. It was moved to Washington, D.C., in 1997.
For a 4-ton piece of artwork (19-by-16 feet), it has been moved around more times than you’d think. The sculpture was first placed in front of police headquarters in downtown D.C. near Judiciary Square and the Capitol. Then sometime before 2008, it was surreptitiously moved to a vacant lot without even telling the artists about the move. (All parties had agreed that Esther would be notified if there was a need to move it.)
So it sat rusting for a while in a vacant lot near a sewage treatment center. In 2011, there were plans to place the sculpture in front of a new state-of-the-art evidence control facility for the city’s police department. According to the project superintendent, the police had come to truly appreciate the sculpture and felt like it helped “the public see a message coming from us.”
Esther and sponsors decided to at least move it back to the city of Harrisonburg, Virginia, to refurbish it (where it was originally made) near the grounds of Eastern Mennonite University. Donors and interested parties helped with that endeavor. It was reinstalled next door to the university in 2017 and remains there at present for all who pass by or stop in. Esther is now 91, and she and Myron are still very active. Sadly, their son Mike died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 63.
This is not a political column or meant to criticize gun owners. I look at it as a religious statement and goal given to us in the Bible as quoted above: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Perhaps not in our lifetime, but a promise for the life to come. Jesus told Peter to put down his sword (both in the Matthew and John Gospels): “Put your sword away. Anyone who lives by fighting will die by fighting,” the Contemporary English Version puts it in Matthew 26:52.
One friend, Daryl Byler, formerly director of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at EMU, said Esther and her son Mike “dared to imagine a day when, rather than destroying enemies with guns and weapons of war, humans would find the God-given strength and courage to feed their enemies with the produce tilled and grown in our fields.”