“Gundamentalism and North American Culture”
Many (including myself) have taken a run at the “gun thing” in recent days in the wake of the terrible shootings in Connecticut. The questions have been largely pragmatic (will more or less guns keep us “safer”?), political (what can or will the Obama administration do about guns?), constitutional (what, in fact, is the significance of the 2nd Amendment?), or comparative (what have other countries done and would what they have done work for us?). All these are, of course, valid and valuable questions.
Fewer responses have been genuinely theological. Perhaps the responses from the Religious Right have seemed so wrongheaded and headed in a wrong direction that others have chosen to stay out of that part of the discussion. One, however, has not. And he has offered as bold, abrasive, and even more extreme a response as James Dobson or anyone else. He is Garry Wills, the eminent historian of American culture and religion, now Emeritus professor, at Northwestern University. A Catholic Christian, Wills penned his prophetic indictment (for that is what it must be called) of the place of “the Gun” in American life for The New York Review of Books (http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/dec/15/our-moloch/).
Wills contends that “the Gun,” with its patron saint Charlton Heston, is the deity worshiped in our culture. And in the slaughter of the children in Connecticut this deity has definitely revealed its identity – it is none other than Moloch, the detestable god who required child sacrifice and whose worship Israel proscribed with a vigor unmatched by any other false worship in the Old Teststament. Wills’ own words say it best:
“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?
“Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.
“Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. ‘It is not the time’ to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.”
Further, this idolatrous worship of Moloch, this “Gundamentalism,” bears all the marks we typically attribute to fundamentalisms. According to Wills, worship of Moloch first destroys our ability to reason. “It forbids making logical connections. We are required to deny that there is any connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands and the greatest number of deaths from them . . . Reason is helpless before such abject faith.” Just like the arguments about evolution, global warming, etc. Secondly, Moloch-worship renders our politicians “invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine.” The power of this deity and its acolytes is such that it is, in Wills’ words, “Better that the children die or their lives be blasted than that a politician should risk an election against the dread sentence of NRA excommunication.” Thirdly, Wills notes, this idolatry corrupts our reading of our sacred document, the Constitution.
“It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter. Moloch brooks no dissent, even from the highest court in the land.”
To summarize, “Gundamentalism” destroys our ability to reason, renders our leaders helpless before its demands, and corrupts our reading of sacred documents.
Wills denounces our idolatry to Moloch and its deforming influence in and over us as a people. Doubtless he will be dismissed as extreme, unpatriotic, and impractical; a troublemaker who best keeps his blasphemies to himself. Just so have they always treated the prophets, to echo another prophet, Jesus the Nazarene. I want to suggest that another, related way to understand the idolatrous and iconic place of “the Gun” in our culture is demonic possession. And there is a story in the gospels that might just help us see this and bring Wills’ point home to us in a different way.
In Mark 5:1-20 we read of Jesus’ encounter with a demon-possessed man who live among the tombs (what better place for a “Gundamentalist”?) in the region of the Gerasenes. Extraordinarily strong, the people had never been able to contain or control him. When he spies Jesus at a distance, however, he hustles over to the Lord and pleads with him not to torture him. Jesus clearly has the authority and power to deal with “Gundamentalism” as a demonic possession.
When Jesus asks his name, the demons within him answer, “Legion is my name, because we are many” (v.9). This term is a Roman military term, and the Roman military was responsible for the famed “Pax Romana.” Underwritten by the superior military might of the empire, “peace” was secured (imposed) on all the empire’s inhabitants. It promised them “safety and peace,” on condition of (idolatrous) allegiance to the Emperor, payment of taxes, and no rabble-rousing. Surely this is but another name for “Gundamentalism”!
Jews, in particular, would have seen that such first century Moloch-worship carried with it the effects Garry Wills outlined above. To speak of “peace and safety” established on the fear of the empire’s crushing military reprisals for noncompliance distorts reason in the direction of the propagandistic imperial double-speak so well known to us in our own time. Local and regional leaders had little choice but the support the empire’s policies and ideology. It was not good then, as it is not now, to question the wisdom or legitimacy of “Gundamentalism” (at least out loud). And Jews would have instinctively sensed the empire’s effect of covenant distortion, the way Israel read and lived out its sacred document, the Torah.
This poor demon-possessed man can, I suggest, be understood as the personification of Roman “Gundamentalism,” under which the whole region suffered. The demons even confess their own illegitimacy by requesting Jesus to send them into a herd of pigs – unclean! Jesus does so and the demons depart the man, inhabit the pigs and drive them into the lake to their own destruction (v.13). This action surely echoes the Exodus, where Pharaoh’s troops were drowned in the water too. Jesus presents himself here as the leader of God’s new Exodus, possessed of faithful confidence in God’s power at work in and through him, even as he knows that power is of an odd and peculiar sort not easily grasped or embraced by many, including his own closest followers.
This extraordinary exorcism, a portent of Rome’s ultimate defeat by the nonviolent revolution Jesus inaugurated and embodied, and hence the defeat of every empire, every “Gundamentalism, obviously garnered wide attention. Many came to see the erstwhile crazy man of the tombs in good and sound mind and marveled. Those who had actually experienced the display of Jesus’ power were, on the other hand, rather unnerved. With just a word he had disrupted the political, social, and economic systems forged with the “Gundamentalist” empire! And this was more than they were ready to take. They wanted their pigs back and the empire in charge. They knew how to deal with it. This Jesus, however, they were quite sure they wanted more of his meddling.
Wills’ prophetic indictment is theological because it probes into the presence and action of the deity we actually worship and order our lives around (whatever else we may so or do on Sundays). He cuts beneath the other considerations to show that they cannot be properly assessed until we recognize and repent of our idolatry! I have tried to read Mark 5 theologically in a similar vein to the same end. More guns or less guns, we are still responding to the “Gundamentalism” that possesses us. How about we repent of our idolatry as God’s people (and here I mean the church, not the nation) and become again a people who live by the Exodus power of a Lord who rules, not by the usual expressions of military power, but by a world-creating, world-shaking Word! Then, perhaps, if we are not afraid, we may see clearly for the first time the way we need to go as God’s people and even perhaps unexpectedly discover ways to contribute to the issue of guns in our nation.
May it please God that such be true for us this day, tomorrow, and every tomorrow God grants till kingdom come!