Demythologize the Gun

A man and woman attend a candlelight vigil after a mass shooting Nov. 5 at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A lone gunman entered the church during Sunday services, taking the lives of at least twenty people and injuring several more. (CNS photo/Sergio Flores, Reuters)

There is something soul wearying about the responses to yet another mass shooting in the United States. We know the script. Politicians and religious leaders call for prayers in the wake of the “senseless tragedy.” A new round of debates flares up over gun control legislation and mental-health treatment. Opposing sides retreat to their corners, hunker down, and shout across the widening chasm. The cycle repeats again with each new slaughter, leaving us both horrified and strangely numb.   

The fact that the latest carnage in Texas took place in a church only intensifies the pain and forces a more profound existential reckoning. When sanctuaries become killing fields, we must not blink when confronting a diseased American culture that makes an idol of guns. But that’s not what is happening. Instead, up is down and down is up. During an interview with Fox News, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called for more armed security guards in churches, or “at least arming some of the parishioners so they can respond to something like this.”

Prayer alone isn’t enough. Justice requires action.

When politicians think bringing more weapons into places of worship is the answer, they not only offer absurd reasoning—they are calling for the desecration of sacred spaces. Jesus didn’t get angry often, but he became enraged when the money changers defiled the Temple by mingling the holy and the commercial. Jesus wouldn’t just weep about guns in sanctuaries—he would likely shake his fists and scream. And he might wonder if such a fanatical embrace of weapons violated the first commandment: thou shalt have no other gods before me. In a New York Review of Books essay, “Our Moloch,” written after 28 students and teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Garry Wills captures our country's religious devotion to firearms:

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.

How much more blood will be shed before we finally demythologize the gun?

I’m sympathetic to those tired of more calls for prayer in the face of these killings. Prayer alone isn’t enough. Justice requires action. The prophets are never satisfied with mere lip service to God. If mouths move and feet stay in the same place, hypocrisy reigns. But that giant of twentieth-century theology, Karl Barth, reminds us that “to clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorders of the world.” We need sensible gun laws. We also need a deeper discernment, a collective examination of conscience that attempts to heal the disorders of a society that imbues the gun with mystical power.

Only when we strip that metal god of its supposed invincibility can we face reality with clear eyes.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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