The capture of one of the most notorious drug loads—leader of the Sinaloa Cartel—El Chapo, Joaquin Guzman made global headlines. Guzman was captured without the firing of a single bullet. This was quite a feat given that he kept an arsenal of weapons around him at all times: semi-automatic rifles, hand-grenades, rocket-launchers, and other weapons of mass-destruction. Yet, he was completely caught off guard when police arrested him in his home in the early dawn of 2014. He escaped not five months later by creating a tunnel from his shower. While the media hailed his capture and re-capture in January 2016 as well as his recent trial and upcoming sentencing as huge successes in the fight against drug trafficking, most citizens in Mexico are less sure. There is little confidence that Guzman’s capture will slow the traffic or violence of the drug trade and its cartels, which for many seems an intractable feature of Mexican life.
The moral depravity of the real-life drug cartels has often been fictionalized in television and film. Whether the popular television show Breaking Bad or the 2007 film No Country for Old Men (adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy), the violence intertwined with the illegal drug trade has often been used as a metaphor for exploring the underbelly of evil just below the surface of ‘civilized’ life. Specifically, it is a force that seems to advance without end or solution. The recent news about heroin epidemics and overdoses in typically “middle-American” towns is a chilling example. Given the chaotic elements inherent in addiction and violence, it is understandable how a kind of nihilistic despair can take hold. As the sheriff laments in the film No Country for Old Men:
“I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five years old. Hard to believe. My grandfather was a lawman; father too. You can’t help but compare yourself against the old-timers. Can’t help but wonder how they would have operated these times. The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure. It’s not that I’m afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But, I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He’d have to say, ‘O.K., I’ll be part of this world [emphasis mine].’”(1)
When I read the headlines or encounter some of the ways in which these realities are depicted in film, television, novels, and other artistic media, I wonder with the Sheriff in McCarthy’s novel how to make a difference in the kind of world most would be terrified to enter. Is there any hope for redemption, transformation, and justice that goes beyond simply punishment? As a Christian, I wonder what difference the good news of Jesus can make in a world of drug lords, traffickers, and violence?
In the face of these kinds of questions, I learned about the work of the artist Pedro Reyes. His musical project titled “Disarm,” transformed 6,700 guns that were turned in or seized by the army and police into musical instruments.(2) The guns came from Ciudad Juarez, a city of about 1.3 million people that averaged about 10 killings a day at the height of its drug violence. In 2010, Ciudad Juarez had a murder rate about 230 per 100,000 inhabitants. Reyes remarked of the guns he used that this is “just the tip of the iceberg of all the weapons that are seized every day and that the army has to destroy.” But rather than succumb to the despair, Reyes took the very instruments used for violence and created instruments for music.
Reyes already was known for a 2008 project called “Palas por Pistolas,” or “Pistols to Shovels,” in which he melted down 1,527 weapons to make the same number of shovels to plant the same number of trees. Reyes stresses that his work “is not just a protest, but a proposal.” His proposal is to take objects of destruction and transform them into objects of creation. It is not by accident that Reyes’s creative work hearkens back to the ancient vision of the prophet Isaiah when on the great day of the Lord “they will hammer their swords into plowshares.”(3)
It is not by accident that the gospel of John hearkens back to the chaos of the primordial creation: “In the beginning was the Word…In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep; and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters…All things came into being by Him and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”(4) John’s gospel presents Jesus as the one who brings order from chaos, light from darkness, just like God’s action at the original creation. Out of what was formless and void order and meaning come forth. The light that comes does not simply banish the darkness; it is re-worked and re-ordered by the light. Light transforms the darkness. The creation of music from the violence of the drug cartels takes a similar cue. “To me at least,” Reyes says, “the concept is about taking weapons that are destructive in nature and chaotic and trying to make them for something else. So instead of objects of destruction, they become objects of creation.”(5) Art, for Reyes, is about transformation; about shining light into the darkness.
Could God take the chaos and destruction we often see in our world and transform it with our deceptively simple, seemingly small acts of creative engagement? For those who follow Jesus, that kind of engagement with the destructive forces of the world gives witness to the reality of Jesus Christ, the Creator of life, light, goodness, and love. For the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.