Shortly after the Dec. 15, 2012, massacre of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., I began to notice the appearance of the intriguing phrase “gun idolatry” in the media. Jim Wallis used it in his God’s Politics blog on Sojourners online (Dec. 17, 2012).
A quick Google search of “gun idolatry” as a phrase (on Dec. 20) brought up about 1,170 occurrences of the concept; today, there are hundreds more — Internet blogs and editorials that challenge us to think about how our culture elevates guns to “divine right” status.
If you are like me, you probably had not previously thought much about idolatry in relation to guns. Curious about when the concepts first were linked, I did a Google “advanced search,” this time limiting the date to pre-December 2004. It suggests that the first published occurrence of “gun idolatry” as a phrase was in an editorial by Gordon Matties in Vision: A Journal of Church and Theology (June 15, 2004, online at www.mennovision.org). It’s not surprising that the Mennonite Church, known for its espousal of pacifism, would host and be leading a discussion of this topic.
Matties wrote: “Idolatry today has as many names as it did in the ancient world. And for the most part we make up our idols. All — from private gun idolatry [emphasis mine] to militaristic nationalism, from the ubiquitous claw of the market to American Idol — echo the King of Babylon, whom Isaiah quotes as saying, ‘I will make myself like the Most High’ (14:14).”
Indeed, associating the ancient sin of idolatry with modern guns, in the wake of Newtown, has begun to engage some of our most perceptive thinkers. Garry Wills pointedly titled his article in the New York Review of Books (NYR Blog, Dec 15, 2012) “Our Moloch.” He reminds us that the god Moloch was one to whom living children were sacrificed in ancient times.
“Few crimes,” Wills writes, “are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch.” There’s a steely dark photo of a handgun beneath the title of his article.
Wills waxes passionate when characterizing the Newtown massacre as something far graver than the work of one disturbed young man. He casts a wider net, pointing his finger at us — at American society:
“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.”
It is important for people of Biblical faith, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian, to revisit, in the light of what happened at Newtown, the sin of idolatry. We need to ask ourselves: What matters most to us? What do we put our trust in? Is “In God We Trust” merely lip service? Are we not fooling ourselves?
Where is our treasure (for there is where our heart will be)? Indeed, do we love one another? Do we treasure our brothers and sisters, young and old? Or rather, do we lust for ultimate power — the power of life and death over anyone who challenges us? The power, at the flick of a finger, to kill whomever we will, whenever we wish?
Worshipping sources of power is as old as humanity. The Ark of the Covenant, so we read in Joshua 3, was able to dry up the Jordan River, so that the people of Israel could enter the Promised Land. And at the Battle of Jericho, after the priests carried the Ark around the city’s fortifications for a period of seven days, and seven times on the seventh day, the walls collapsed.
Biblical history teaches us also that hiding sources of power away — shielding them from the sight of the people — is human nature. The Ark of the Covenant was always kept behind a veil, or in a tent (tabernacle).
It only takes a moment of reflection to realize that we Americans have a tendency to revere power, too. But unlike the ancient monotheists, we have many gods — many idols, both big and small. And — no surprise — we hide them away.
We stash our big gods, our ICBMs, in missile silos and Trident submarines, out of sight and out of mind. Our small gods (handguns) are confined to our bedside tables, purses and shoulder holsters. We guard them with our lives.
If this is not idolatry — if these guns are not our household gods — then what shall we call them? Let’s try euphemisms like “lifestyle enhancements,” or maybe “personal security devices”! How about “ironclad insurance policies”?
Honestly, do any of us realize how closely our nation follows the teachings of the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom the “will to power” was fundamental? He also famously preached the “death of God.”
When will we ever learn? When will we challenge the industries of death? When will we stop worshipping guns?
Perhaps with the coming of the season of Lent, we can take to heart the need to identify clearly and put away firmly our false gods. We in the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes will try to take the call to repent seriously during this season. We invite you to do the same.
— Thomas Heck is the music minister and Web-keeper at the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes, which meets at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. Click here for more information, or call 805.252.4105. Click here for previous columns.