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It’s August that really should be named January, after the two-faced god.

The month can come on like a blast-furnace, scorching everything dry, but all its heat cannot hide the reality that the sun is setting earlier, day after day.

August says that it’s still summer, but every kid sees the rising specter of a new school year while parents are assaulted by the feverish sales connected thereunto. Pastors gulp at plans left unfinished for the whirl soon to begin, while academics feel a clutch in the gut over the article unfinished, the books unread, and the oncoming wave of customers formerly known as students whose demands and happiness college administrators insist must be met. What doctors and lawyers, techies and gig-chasers, business operators and line-workers feel about this time of year I don’t know. Maybe same old, maybe also a sense of lowering doom.

Fevered Nations

The behavior of nations comes down on the latter side. Barbara Tuchman’s great work, The Guns of August (1962), decided me on history for a career, and ever since reading it I can’t help but note guns going off in more Augusts than just Tuchman’s 1914.

To be sure, Americans like to start their wars in April—all that rising sap of nature’s spring, called testosterone in males. There was 19 April 1775 at Lexington and Concord, 25 April 1846 along the Mexican border (who’s “invading” whom?), 12 April 1861 at Ft. Sumter, 21 April 1898 along the coast of Cuba, and 6 April 1917 when the United States formally joined in the fun of World War I.

But August has had its innings too. Besides the start of World War I, we can look at the last evening of the month in 1939, when 1.5 million German troops prepared for a pre-dawn invasion of Poland, kicking off World War II. Adolph Hitler fabricated a story of Polish aggression to legitimate the attack. Four years later the Americans chose earlier dates in August to unleash atomic warfare upon Japan (Hiroshima on the 6th, Nagasaki on the 9th) on top of even more lethal fire-bombings of Tokyo etc. in the weeks before.

In my life-time it was on 4 August 1964 that Lyndon Johnson fabricated an incident off the coast of Vietnam to push the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through Congress, insisting ever after that it gave him a blank check to prosecute no end of war there. Similar plans on false pretenses were buzzing in Washington during August 2002, though the propaganda mill for an American invasion of Iraq did not gin up until early September. “From a marketing point of view,” White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card infamously explained at the time, “you don’t introduce new products in August.”

Fevered Men

Is it the heat that drives people crazy, or an urgent sense of time slipping away? Not just governments, either. Single gunmen (and males it is 99.9 % of the time) act up too. Of that we were all reminded again last weekend. To be sure, Santino William Legan, a 19-year-old loner and reader of anti-Semitic literature, jumped the gun, so to speak, by shooting up the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California on July 28, killing three and wounding thirteen. Observers and commentators, including legislators, were shocked and horrified and quickly offered up thoughts and prayers for the victims.

The following Saturday afternoon Patrick Crusius, 21, ended his trip of 660 miles from suburban Dallas to shoot up a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. He killed twenty-two and wounded twice that many more. The store was filled with mostly Hispanic customers, including eight Mexican nationals. Crusius’s grandparents, with whom he had been living, were “devastated” at the news and offered up prayers for the victims. Lots more observers and commentators and politicians joined the thoughts and prayers chain too.

The final big score of the weekend came early the next morning when Connor Betts, at age 24 a virtual senior statesman in this rogues’ gallery, opened fire on a late-night entertainment venue in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine and injuring 27. Among the dead was Betts’s younger sister, Megan. Double thoughts and prayers for that family, I guess.

Making Sense of the Senseless

From a quick scan of news-feeds, the carnage seems to have triggered outrage on the Left and uneasiness on the Right. Progressives point the finger at the white nationalism evident in Logan and Crusius as stoked by the White House. They renew their calls for gun control, especially of the “military style” (conservative PC forbids calling them “assault weapons”) rifles used in all these killings. After all, what rational society would allow a macho malcontent who used to compile “kill lists” of various males and “rape lists” of females in his high school to legally possess a weapon that could fire off 40 shots in 30 seconds? Would allow any civilian, for that matter?

More sensible conservatives (we’ll leave to the side such luminaries as the Ohio state representative who blamed the weekend on homosexual marriage, drag queen advocates, violent video games, recreational marijuana, and Barack Obama) respond that, yes, yes, an anarchic market in guns might be part of the problem and political extremism too, albeit (in Betts’s case) on the Left as well as the Right. But the real problem, they add, is a moral and spiritual vacuum spreading across society, particularly alluring to febrile young males but most perfectly incarnate in the hollow heart of Donald Trump himself.

I’m wondering why we can’t do a both-and rather than an either-or here. In the long run lethal violence by young sociopaths might at least be constrained by some fundamental changes in the culture. But—as conservatives are wont to say—that’s not primarily a job for government and such a change takes a long time to gain traction. Meanwhile, there are things that government can and must do, as progressives maintain. A ban on assault-style weapons and universal background checks and waiting periods for any type of gun purchase would seem apt places to start.

It Is Religious Problem

By all evidence, such proposals face long odds. The reason for that is a spiritual problem indeed—and not from a lack of religion but from bad religion. Historian Garry Wills identified the syndrome seven years ago in the wake of the murder spree at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. His summary can hardly be improved upon:

“That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year [2012]), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

“The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?”

Read Wills’s entire article. Perhaps your shock of recognition will be matched only by despair that so little has changed in the seven years since Sandy Hook—or will change, probably, in the wake of last weekend.

Our frames of meaning, the deep tides of religion, tend to morph slowly, and such a change is rendered even more difficult when the high priests of our supposed Christian religion, like Jerry Falwell, Jr., celebrate the cult of the gun, spread it in their institutions, and urge a righteous display of firepower should any rise up against it.

A Christian Voice?

It’s time, as I’ve said before, for a true Christianity to arise amid the shambles of Falwell’s false Evangelical sort. And I suppose I’ll have to keep on saying it till my death because—to repeat—this kind of cultural change tends to evolve slowly.

But never fear, gentle reader, I’ll not be saying it again for awhile on this site because my wife and I are off for a semester of teaching abroad. Our internet access will be spotty, so I thought it best to leave this slot in The Twelve rotation to someone else.

Meanwhile, August seems to be a good time to get out of this country. Do not doubt, however, that it will remain, ever, in my thoughts and prayers.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

21 Comments

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Surely Wills is right. Thanks for making these connections.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    In the US, references to Moloch are reserved for abortion. I have to insist on that.

    As far as Falwell is concerned, he’s the pragmatic one in the room – even if you discount for his cavalier attitude. Wishing away guns is downright sinister.

    • Jessica A Groen says:

      Wishing away the implements of war is at the heart of the prophetic imagination from Isaiah/Micah to “Down By the Riverside.”

    • Matt Huisman says:

      You’re right, swords will be beaten into plowshares. Eventually. But not until the terror of the Lord shows up. Isaiah has zero prophetic imagination that anyone’s gonna lay them down before then.

    • Jessica A Groen says:

      The terror of the Lord has already showed up, didn’t you hear the good news? The day was signaled by a great earthquake, daytime darkness, and the Lord’s own willingness to let God’s life be taken away due to violence instigated by human terror. God’s excruciating wrath/writhe phase is over. The Christian announcement in response to Resurrection day is that the curse is obsolete, death has been defeated, the Pit no longer has the upper hand. Humans stay unwilling to believe that announcement and to enter in to the Way that has already been transformed from terror to relief.

      “Lay them down, fear not, enter into the Peaceable Kingdom” is the quieter voice we are invited to trust and follow. Falwell’s pragmatism is an unwillingness to replace a dependence on authoritarian violence with a hope in resurrection promises. It is symptom of US christendom’s widespread rejection of Jesus’s reminder that living by the sword is the tired, overused, and hope-less cycle that leads to dying by the sword.

    • Matt Huisman says:

      Falwell relies on violence in the same way he relies on hospitals. He’s quite content to see both rust away from lack of use. You accuse him of promoting authoritarian violence, while you’re the one recommending giving the authorities a monopoly on violence.

      And if you’re going to quote Isaiah, pick a lane – don’t swerve back and forth between the cross and the end times. They’re not the same thing.

      • Jim says:

        But giving the state a monopoly on the use of violence is the very definition of ‘sovereignty.’ Democracy exists to make that monopoly transparent and accountable to the people whom the state is to serve. (Cf. Romans 13 on the latter point.) Are Japan, England, the Netherlands and other nations w/ extremely low levels of gun deaths abject tyrannies?

      • Matt Huisman says:

        When it comes to sovereignty, I’m more of a ‘We the People’ guy. But that’s beside the point. You can’t accuse someone of authoritarianism and then recommend authoritarianism.

    • Jim says:

      Who says you get to “insist” on this, that or anything? why should everyone else buy your criteria? But while we’re at it, to riff on John’s epistle, how can you love the fetus you have not seen when you disregard the people you can see?

      • Matt Huisman says:

        I insist based on 1) order of magnitude and age of victim; 2) we actually can see the fetus; 3) there is a very low correlation between gun control and regard for others.

  • June HUissen says:

    Thanks Jim. You nailed it once again. I will miss your articles as well as your handshake on Sunday mornings when we wish each other God’s peace. Safe travels!

  • Rodg Rice says:

    Thanks for your insights into one of our culture’s idolatries. False gods enslave. We need an exodus. Where are you, Moses? Enjoy your semester away, Jim. I shall miss your RJ musings. Look forward to your return.

  • Dale Vander Broek says:

    Diane Butler Bass in her book “A People’s History of Christianity “ talks of 2 streams of Christianity developing and being practiced since Constantine’s legalization of Christianity.
    The streams are that of a militant stream based on the great commission promoting a culture wars narrrative.
    The other is that of a generative trans formative approach based on the great commandment promoting a culture cares narrative.
    This has helped me greatly in understanding what’s going on in present day Christianity.

  • Helen P says:

    As a lay person, and as someone who has family members with guns, I really appreciate this.
    I’ve never understood the almost fanatical devotion to them and the (in my opinion) somewhat skewed connection with the 2nd amendment, which was about state’s rights, and state-type militias…with no reference to military-style, automatic weapons.
    But I recently heard an interview with a young man whose sister was killed in the Florida school shooting…he is still an advocate for gun “rights,” and I heard fear in his voice…fear of bad government and a fear that all his rights will be taken away. His lack of confidence was like my own, only for the opposite reason.
    Of course people on my side of the argument also fear a loss of rights – the right to shop safely at a mall, or to go grocery shopping, or gather at a concert venue…or at a restaurant/bar.
    My greatest fear is that my little great nieces and nephews will go to school some morning and not return home. No amount of guns is going to keep them safe if some gun-happy, angry white man decides to go on a shooting spree.

    Thank you as always for your thought-provoking writing. I will miss it very much.

  • Carl Fictorie says:

    On the value-ladenness of technology: “Technological objects are also unique in that to a certain extent they impose on the user the way in which they are to be used. There is frequently some degree of latitude in their use, but obviously there is not complete freedom…. In general, each object is designed to function in a certain way, utilizing certain kinds of inputs and producing certain kinds of outputs….[T]echnological objects both affect those environments in certain ways and impose certain consequences on societies and the natural creation. And those consequences are not neutral.” “Responsible Technology”, S. Monsma (ed.), pp 32-34.

  • David E Timmer says:

    “Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and thy whole mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is unlike to it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor . . . not so much.” Matthew 22:37 (American Evangelical Version)

    • David E Timmer says:

      This appears to have auto-corrected from “LORD thy Gun” to “LORD thy God”! I guess the software on this site has theological sensitivities.

  • Anthony (Tony) Diekema says:

    As usual, Jim, your perspective is sound and solid; and “spot on”. Thanks! Also, please note that I resonate especially with your penultimate sentence. Don’t you need a driver? or an administrative assistant? or someone who will assure your return? Just saying…………….I’m available. 🙂
    Happy travels, brother…………and God bless!

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Gun advocates want definitions of guns that should be outlawed.

    If it can spray bullets, ban it.

  • Tom says:

    Coming a little late to this one – not that I disagree with much of this, but it strikes me again how frequently writers on this blog equate dis-favored opinions on various subjects (gun control, immigration, healthcare, even limited support of Donald Trump, etc.) with “bad religion”. The fact is that there are thoughtful, well-reasoned arguments in favor of gun rights made by thoughtful, sincere Christians.

    Go ahead and make your arguments on constitutional grounds (you’ll lose unless you manage to repeal the second amendment), political grounds (you’re unlikely to win – which does not mean you shouldn’t try), or based on how well the proposed solutions will work (seems unlikely to me, given the history of prevents attempts and shoddy/incompetent enforcement of existing laws, but go for it!).

    But please don’t condemn me as a worshipper of Satan because I support gun-rights.

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