Guns and Idol Worship

Once again, our nation is reeling from senseless and tragic shootings.  This week the victims were at a Wall Mart near Denver and a small church in rural Texas.  Last week they were in Las Vegas.  While the locations may shift, the basic details are familiar and rapidly becoming routine.  A lone gunman – usually a white male with anger issues and easy access to high-powered weaponry indiscriminately shoots into a crowd of innocent bystanders.  Whether it takes place in a school, movie theater, store, concert or place of worship, the bloodshed and carnage caused by military-grade rifles in the hands of alienated men has been swift, effective and deadly.  These attacks have become relentless and commonplace. According to the Gun Violence Archive, the Texas church shooting was the 307th such incident in 2017[i].  For those keeping track, that is more than one such shooting each day.

Invariably, in the aftermath of a gun violence incident, angry voices from all sides of the political spectrum shout their talking points:

  • From the anti-gun forces we hear calls for sane gun laws.
  • From the NRA and other gun lobbies, we hear about protecting the second amendment with calls for more “good guys” with guns to prevent the “bad guys” from carrying out their plans.  Instead of curbing gun sales, we should instead ensure that every American is armed ready.

Politicians call for thoughts and prayers.  Police and first responders are praised.  The dead are buried.  The wounded are treated and those who were not directly impacted by the tragedy go on with their daily lives.  Those in the line of fire, or whose loved ones are victims, however, suffer irreparable physical and psychological damage.  Nothing changes.  We move on and wait until the next tragedy occurs.

This cannot continue.

It is time to acknowledge the fact that when much of the discourse around these tragic events revolves around legislation and personal freedom, we are missing another underlying cause of this national crisis: that of Idolatry.

Let me explain.  In Jewish tradition, Idolatry is not merely praying to objects.  It is a state of mind.  It is a way of perceiving our relationship to the world around us. Idolatry creates a belief that human beings are the ultimate arbiters of meaning and purpose in life. An Idolater believes that his or her own creation is more powerful than the natural order.  To worship a “thing” is to override the mystery, beauty and meaning of our relationship with God and community.  The Bible opposes idols because they isolate us from the holiness that surrounds us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that Shabbat is the antidote to “thingness.”  Judaism does not find holiness in things, but rather in Time.  When we focus on the physical, on objects of our own creation, we engage in acts of hubris that block out the potential for Godliness to enter our lives[ii].  It also removes us from community — the central value of Jewish identity.

Much of the discourse around gun control seems to revolve around the questions of personal freedom and individual rights. Restricting access to firearms is perceived as limiting our access to power.  Guns protect us.  Guns keep us safe.  Guns make us feel better about ourselves. The also isolate us from one another and to the values that strengthen community. The myth of the rugged individual who stands above the fray and maintains peace through strength is the bedrock of our national consciousness. The Gun Lobby would have us believe that placing limits on gun ownership is a form of emasculation that will ultimately not only remove our ability to defend ourselves in times of danger, but also is profoundly anti-American.  To take away our guns is to take away our freedom.

As each violent incident occurs, the rhetoric ramps up.  The NRA and its partners are spending millions of dollars on advertising campaigns that suggest that attempts to limit access to firearms is a threat, not only to liberty, but to human rights.  Anti-gun forces are portrayed as “elites” who want to impose their beliefs on a nation that is defenseless – save for their own personal protection.  The gun lobby appears to be warning its supporters to prepare for an epic, apocalyptic battle between the forces for good (pro-gun) and the forces of evil (gun control)[iii].

Through its lobbying efforts, the NRA has also made it practically impossible to measure the impact of gun violence on society[iv].  Attempts to discuss the issue of gun violence on a rational level are impossible.  Politicians are beholden to the money and power exerted by the gun lobby in Washington. Working for sane gun legislation is akin to blasphemy and political suicide.  As such, the only form of discourse available to us is polemical.  This creates a climate where guns can become not only tools, but sacred objects worthy of veneration.  Those who perish in gun-related tragedies can be seen as sacrifices to the gods of Freedom and the 2nd Amendment.

I am not opposed to firearms, per se.  I know many good people who own them. I am, however, strongly opposed to the idea of hiding behind the false god of personal freedom in order to worship at the cult of death and destruction that has been unleashed by the NRA and its allies.

[i] http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/reports/mass-shooting

[ii] Cf. AJ Heschel’s seminal work, The Sabbath

[iii] Cf. this recent ad published on NRA TV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qaYFc1_GQM

[iv]The 1996 appropriations bill, known as the Dickey Amendment declared that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” C.f.http://www.newsweek.com/government-wont-fund-gun-research-stop-violence-because-nra-lobbying-675794

About the Author
Joe Black serves as Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanuel, a large Reform synagogue in Denver, Colorado. He also is a husband, a father, a musician, a limericker and a skier. You can follow Rabbi Black's congregational blog at http://rabbijoeblack.blogspot.com/ You also can find out more about his music at www.Rabbijoeblack.com Rabbi Black's latest book - There Once Was A Man From Canaan: The Five Books Of Limerick - is available at www.the5booksoflimerick.com
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