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“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21
In the Bible it was very often the case that various idols did not replace worship of the one true God but rather nestled in alongside it. Seldom was it an either/or proposition so much as a both/and. Sure the Israelites visited the Baal altars to pray for crops during the week but if they showed up in the Temple on the Sabbath and (as Jeremiah depicted it) danced around and sang “This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, hey-hey, cha-cha!” often enough, God would not notice their larger religious syncretism and other failures to lead just lives. So also in the short verse from 1 John cited above: John was not writing to people who had left faith in Jesus. It is pretty obvious he is writing to devoted believers who had a little something else spiritually on the side. Double-mindedness aside, the fact is that whenever this happened–to Israel of old or to Christians along the ages since the founding of the Church–the idolatry on the side corrupts the faith at the center.
There are no historical exceptions.
It has been clear to me for a long time that there is a form of idolatry in the United States and its god is the Second Amendment. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Short and sweet. And now very deadly. Never mind the obvious connection to the young nation’s need of a volunteer Militia being connected to bearing arms. Never mind that when this was written the “arms” in question were mostly muskets which took even skilled persons the better part of 20-30 seconds to load just once. The most highly skilled eighteenth century soldier might manage to fire three balls in one minute, not accounting for the frequent jams typical of muskets and the need to clean out the powder residue with some regularity. AR-15s or deer rifles with bump stocks they were not. Muskets were not meant for grand-scale assaults but defense (and ideally you’d better have a bunch of armed comrades at your side so you can take turns firing at the enemy). And yes, you could take down a deer or buffalo with a musket too.
But again, never mind all that. Times change but principles abide. A gun is a gun and no one can tell anybody else they cannot have one. Or a hundred. And no one can suggest certain kinds of guns do not belong in the hands of anyone beyond soldiers. This is our sacred RIGHT, the NRA proclaims from its secular pulpits. It is more important than most any other right. It is more important than anything in, say, the Christian religion that might sensibly lead one down a path where guns should become not only relatively unimportant but in fact as the thing we are most eager to see disappear from God’s earth (not to mention that the Bible does not celebrate individual liberty so much as the corporate Body and what is good not for the one but for all. My #1 “right” in the New Testament is to serve the other, not myself.)
But in the USA no matter what happens, no matter how many children are slaughtered in Sandy Hook or Parkland, no matter how many people are gunned down in Las Vegas or in any of the now nearly weekly mass shootings in the US, the response of many is to cast their eyes to the Second Amendment to cry “Hosanna! Save us! More guns! Save us! Looser laws! Save us! Arm the teachers! Save us! Hosanna to the Second Amendment–something in you, dear god, contains the answer for you are our very salvation and ever present hope.”
I am no fool. I do not live in a bubble. Ours is a fallen world. We need police. We need the FBI. We need soldiers. We long for the day when we don’t need those things, but longing for it does not yet make it so. Still, I am writing about what the apparent idolatry of the gun culture, of the Second Amendment, of the NRA is doing to our souls, especially since its adherents number so many professing Christians.
The way I figure it, you can spy idolatry fairly easily. It has a few characteristics:
1) You want more of what you worship. The NRA and its adherents cotton to no idea that might reduce the number of available guns, gun types, high-capacity magazines. Gun shows and catalogues are a veritable iron and steel pornography and the eye is never tired of seeing.
2) Otherwise sensible lines of reasoning go out the window. “Sure we could ban assault weapons” a member of Congress said over the weekend “but that won’t affect the criminal but only the law-abiding folks.” Never mind the question “Is it the right thing to do?” No, the skewed line of reasoning is that it is unreasonable to have laws that are only kept by already good people. Look, I live on a side street between two relatively busy roads in Grand Rapids. The Speed Limit on my street is 25 MPH and that is sensible–we have many little children in my neighborhood and, alas, they do not always look both ways before crossing the street as carefully as we parents might wish. But every evening–trying to shave 15 seconds off that homeward commute–people tear down my street going at least 45 MPH. True enough, that 25 MPH law is followed mostly by me and my neighbors and by other thoughtful drivers. We have to drive slower while the careless idiots still push 50 MPH. But is that any reason to dump the 25 MPH law? Laws are ALWAYS ignored by criminals–that’s what makes them “criminals” (look it up in the dictionary). But this law serves a greater good–protecting children, reducing accidents. But with guns such things are not the greater good. No, the greater good–indeed the greatest good–is the god of the Second Amendment that says any law that keeps an assault weapon out of MY good hands is offensive to my larger religious commitment to guns.
3) When you are religiously devoted to an idol, you fear losing it. Anxiety and fear become the bass note of your life lest your god die or be taken away from you. The use of fearful manipulation was on huge display in the sermon preached by the NRA’s Wayne Lapierre last week: “They hide behind labels like Democrat, left wing and progressive to make their socialist agenda more palatable. And that is terrifying. That should terrify every citizen who values the American ideal in this country of individual liberty.”
4) Finally there is that whole syncretism specter when elements of the idol’s values supersede or subtly distort more obvious teachings of what you claim to be your primary faith. The Christian vision is to beat swords into plowshares, Howitzer tanks into John Deere garden tractors (Neal Plantinga), AR-15s into fence posts in the planting of a vineyard. “Put up your sword” Jesus told Peter. He does not now say “Lock and load.” The Fruit of the Spirit include kindness, gentleness, goodness, patience and other things that are seldom displayed on the faces of people with assault rifles slung over their shoulders or pistols attached to their hips. You view the world and your role in it differently when you carry a gun and when you advocate that more, not fewer, do the same. And none of the traits guns draw out of people are terribly Christ-like.
All of this was rattling around in my head this past weekend when my friend Shane Claiborne Tweeted a quote from one-time NRA executive J. Warren Cassidy when he said of the NRA: “You would get a far better understanding of the NRA if you were approaching us as one of the great religions of the world.”
Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.