After another person used guns to murder American children, we’re back to outrage and defense, a swirl of adrenaline-raising memes and heartfelt posts.
But if you’re like me, you don’t believe our leaders will act, if acting means limiting access to guns.
As a friend posted, we’ll set aside the rights of some citizens if they could possibly harm another:
But in a strange irony, we then elect people like Trump, hoping that he’ll limit access to pills that can also either preserve or end a human life*:
As conservative thinkers, we step in to ensure other citizens discern when human life begins the same way that we do, but don’t limit the market for weapons which kill children already in the world.
I know. It’s not a new discussion. And there are so many sides to this, so I’d like to hone in on two tensions.
The first is the tension between how we value human life when it conflicts with the rights of women vs. men. And I think we can err in either direction.
The second is the tension that Christians face between following a God of peace who had his companions set aside swords… and our pursuit of safety through serving the gods of self-defense. I realize these Christian values may not resonate with all readers, but bear with me.
I know. I’m writing this quickly—so that it doesn’t sit in my drafts for ten years—and that means it’s not fully thought out. That’s what a blog is for! I’d welcome your reflections.
Balancing Rights and Life
In America, we talk about rights a lot, yet we realize the value we place on rights is in tension with the value we place on respecting others’ lives, wellbeing and needs.
Many of us believe that every stage of prenatal life is a full human person deserving of protection. If you believe this, you hope the government steps into the intimate space of a womb and limits women from accessing pills that could prevent or end a pregnancy–a human life.
You support this federal intervention into personal life even if it would harm an adult’s freedom, wellbeing, rights, moral dignity, physical health, or the well-being of her existing children.
Life trumps rights. And you believe so strongly in life from the first unfolding of cells that… you really don’t trust a woman to seek wise counsel or discern the best path, knowing that the weight of life may hang in the balance.
But somehow, we think differently when it comes to the rights of men to bear arms. Bear with me.
In the tradition of English law, we protect the privacy of spaces in which men love or harm the women and children in their lives. We support them in acquiring killing tools–the ones that could kill their own wife and children, and often do–and trust them to use them appropriately. We don’t intervene to impose restrictions that would clearly protect the lives of vulnerable women and children.
And we even accept that if a human enters this man’s space or threatens his well-being, they might lose their right to life.
It’s curious, isn’t it?
Conservative folk don’t trust her sense of self-preservation as fair and measured, but we trust his. And vice versa.
Liberal folk don’t trust his discernment, caution, and emotional balance in using the tools of life and death, but we trust hers. And so on.
What are you feeling here?
I’m not trying to argue for abortion and against guns, which seems a weirdly inconsistent position. (Hold on for a critique of pro-choice later).
Instead, I’m trying to tease out a tension. We always balance life across these ligatures, or tensions, between freedom and responsibility, self-protection and self-releasing, life and death.
So how do you balance potential or prenatal life with a potential parent’s needs and well-being?
How do you balance citizens’ right to bear arms with the lives of their children and other children in the neighborhood?
If you move your head fast enough, you might just glimpse how we step in with laws to guard life in the hands of a woman—but sit on our hands when a young man holds a gun to the same child’s head.
Our Most Important Things
I almost didn’t write this.
First, I’m tempted to check out when I hear about a mass shooting. What can I do?
And second, it’s political. I don’t like messy things that could have folks up in arms (cough).
But as I was reflecting, I had another thought:
If we treat the right to own guns as more sacred than human life, aren’t we allowing our countrymen to sacrifice our children to idols?
In the Hebrew Bible, God warned his people not to sacrifice their children to a rival god called Moloch.
Since then, people have pointed to our social tolerance of widespread abortion, car accidents, slavery, loss of life for the sake of profit, and war as all serving Moloch. We could say that protecting guns while exposing children is also serving this false god.
When I looked around, others had picked up on this connection.
John Thatamanil quotes Paul Tillich on faith as “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern,” and adds that we each seek our most important things. And to get to whatever our heart believes is most valuable, we’ll serve whatever person or path can get us there. In red-state America, Thatamanil says,
“We know that the gun has become a sacred object because it commands unquestioning reverence. Interrogating its sacral status triggers anger and even death threats…
“Only by recognizing the gun as an idol can we explain why we stand in helpless thrall to it even though more Americans have been killed by it, children included, than in all of America’s foreign wars combined. Idols are bloodthirsty; they are never satisfied…
“For the 3% of the American population who own 50% of America’s guns, and others who read the Second Amendment as holy writ that sanctifies the inalienable right to individual gun ownership, something more primal is at work…”
Similarly, Garry Wills quotes the epic Paradise Lost (1.392-96) in which Moloch joins Satan’s war against humankind, before saying that school shootings:
“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…
“We sacrifice children to him daily… by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets… blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings… sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).”
We know this is idol worship, Wills says, when we’re told not to question the rule of guns or to limit it. In fact, second amendment advocates believe that a gun:
“guarantees life and safety and freedom… its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill… thwarting the god is what kills… 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… Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will.”
I’m not saying it’s wrong to own guns. My folks had a BB gun that could be used to scare off aggressive animals from intruding on our farm.
But our intense protection of mass-killing weapons amid the continued shootings of children is wrong.
Not guns and abortion, but what they represent
In the end, it’s not the protection of guns or abortion that we’re worshiping. It’s the thing it represents.
While an owner may use his guns to enjoy hunting and to care for his community, many of us—whether or not we own a gun—worship what the god of guns represents.
Guns represent freedom to us. They represent being able to protect our loved ones. Self-defense. Being able to provide for ourselves.
And they represent being the hero of our own story, the warrior who redeems himself without needing to collaborate or depend on others.
We could also say that while some women use abortion well, to prevent their own death in the case of a non-viable ectopic pregnancy, to care for their health or the well-being of their family, many of us Americans already serve what a god of abortion represents.
Abortions represent freedom and autonomy. They can represent exploration and having the mental space and energy to give fully in our callings and to our existing children. Control over reproduction can represent opportunity, and choice, the hope of a better life. Being able to provide well for the families we choose.
But they can also represent self-sufficiency and not being hurt again. Abortions, like the male hero’s quest, can feed into being the hero of your story, the warrior who won’t be stopped even by a person in need, who doesn’t need to collaborate or depend on others.
So at their best, abortion and guns can both preserve life,* and ensure your ability to be there and care for others. But at their worst, both can start with you protecting yourself… and end with not trusting that God and those around you will be there for you to help you and your family flourish.
This fear of vulnerability, I think, is more common on all sides than we like to admit.
Love and Fear
As humans, we fear conflict, tension, death, and loss. So we turn to what can protect and save us.
As Benjamin Corey writes, Christians in other countries are astonished at how much American Christians honor and protect guns:
“Instead of trusting in God for our safety, we trust in guns. Why? Because we’re scared. Because the way of Jesus seems too illogical to actually be true, and that’s frightening. Because we’re afraid of giving up our rights, afraid of being vulnerable, and afraid that putting our faith and trust in God might actually cost us something.”
We use legislation to protect ourselves and block others from stepping into our territory and our rights.
But the more we serve guns, the more we feed fear, and the less we trust. Corey describes a debate in his rural church, where:
“Some of the church wanted to make the church space a gun free zone, but encountered immediate pushback, one person even going so far as saying they would quit the church if they couldn’t bring their gun inside. What’s even more sad is our geographical context: rural Maine. Living in Maine is probably one of the safest places you could live… what would possess people to bring guns to church is beyond me.”
What does it mean if a Christian feels safer alone, with a gun, than in her community and in the presence of her God?
I’m not sure how to end this, except to point to pain and discomfort as productive. What do our feelings about guns and abortion say to our hopes and fear? Who do we think we are with access to them, and why do we feel alarmed without them? What do we hope that access to both guns and abortifacents will get us?
And most of all, which most important thing are we serving, and whose path are we walking to get there?
*(So I didn’t mean for this to become about abortion as well as guns, but as soon as I reflected on life and rights, I came into the related tensions–and high emotions!–around both. Above, I refer to abortion as preserving life when it’s used to end ending ectopic, nonviable, or high-risk pregnancies which can kill a woman yet never produce a living child).