Guns, Blind-spots & Idolatry
In all the similarities and differences that exist either side of the Atlantic it is surely the American fondness for guns that most baffles the British. Probably the majority of Britons have never handled any kind of firearm and find it inconceivable that so many Americans own them. How can a nation tolerate the death toll wreaked by guns that America does? It is the mass shootings that capture the headlines but the day-by-day gun related death toll is truly staggering: in 2016 11,000 homicides and 21,000 suicides. Those are figures that make terrorism related deaths pale into statistical insignificance.
To make any comment on this is to step into dangerous territory. Opinions are polarised, and fierce. But I’ll risk it.
First, I’m going to do the unusual for a Brit and make some ‘pro’ gun comments. I am not a gun owner but have had lots of fun firing guns when visiting the US. I’ve shot firearms that would be legal in the UK with the appropriate licence: shotguns and rifles. I’ve also shot firearms that are illegal in the UK: handguns and assault rifles, even a classic 1930s gangster-style tommy gun. I’ve enjoyed shooting them all - and the bigger, louder, and faster-firing they are the more I’ve enjoyed them. So I get the appeal of guns. There is just something very satisfying about taking aim and hitting a target; about the mechanical, physical precision of the slide of a rifle bolt or clunk of a shotgun closing; about the smell of gun oil and cordite; about the weight of a firearm in the hand.
I’m also sympathetic to the principle underlying the Second Amendment - that the right to bear arms is a guard against the State becoming tyrannical. As that old leftie George Orwell famously expressed it, “That rifle on the wall of the labourer’s cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.” It is tyrannies that keep weapons exclusively for their armies and police. Democracies do not fear the rifle on the wall of the labourer’s cottage.
Stating these things in the way I have would make complete sense to most Americans, but will probably sound bizarre to most of my compatriots. The thing about cultural blind-spots is that we are so blind to them - and that cuts in both directions.
So, I can see the pro-gun arguments but the thing that concerns me for my American brothers is the tendency to gun-olatry. This is obvious in the political sphere with those members of congress who refuse - almost as a matter of faith - any discussion about reducing access to guns. But it is also evident in church leaders who are unwilling to speak into American gun culture because, ‘it is just one of those things you can’t speak about.’ By definition, that is how idols exert their power: no one is allowed to question them. This means, also by definition, that ministers of the gospel should challenge them.
I’m not at all sure what the answer to the American gun problem is but I do know American Christians should be prepared to ask themselves hard questions about guns. It’s hard to see the blind-spots in one’s own culture, but it must be time for Americans to start opening their eyes to this one. It must be time for gospel preaching church leaders - especially gun owning ones - to question whether guns are an idol in their context.
In the interests of even-handedness, what about us Brits then? What is our gun equivalent? It’s hard for me to say, because I have cultural blind-spots; and - thank God - we don’t have an obvious equivalent that is so deadly. But I know many Americans are as mystified by our health system as most Brits are by American gun culture. Perhaps the fact that no politician, of any political party, is able to question the existence of the NHS in its current form is an indication that there is an idol that needs toppling. America clearly has a crisis when it comes to guns; in the UK we keep being told there is a crisis in health care. It might seem crass to compare the two but my point is about cultural blind-spots and idolatry: even good things can become idols if they go unquestioned, and in the end our idols kill us.
The way to deal with idols is to question them. Idols fall when the unquestionable is questioned. That doesn’t necessarily mean that that the thing that has become an idol has to be banished altogether - often it will simply mean putting it back in the place it belongs, so it ceases to be an idol and becomes useful rather than controlling. But not to question an idol is to enthrone it, and sometimes failing to ask the questions really is a matter of life and death. None of us can afford to be blind to that.