Ethics & Christian living, Politics

Jesus and guns: faith, politics & polarisation

It would be hard to find a more succinct summary of the polarisation of religion and politics than the campaign bus of Kandiss Taylor who is running for Governor in Georgia.

Three starred bullet-points tells you all you need to know about her core commitments: Jesus. Guns. Babies.

When I first saw this picture, I assumed it was satire, a not-so-subtle pastiche of American political theology. Perhaps it would have been 20 years ago. But in 2022 people are campaigning like this for real. This is where American culture has got to.

Tragedy

This week has again seen the appalling tragedy of yet another mass shooting in a school in Texas with 19 children and 2 teachers being murdered by a teenager armed with two AR-15 assault rifles.

Predictably, the responses to the massacre simply expose again the deep polarisation in American politics, faith and culture. Franklin Graham contributed to the discussions via twitter:

Graham constructs a straw-man argument of the weakest kind: who is suggesting that guns are dangerous when left alone in a pile?

Individualising and spiritualising

He then individualises the problem ‘It takes a human being to plan and execute such brutality’ and spiritualises the solution ‘Only the power of God can cleanse the human heart and transform it’.

Neither of these emphases are surprising for political and religious conservatives.

But Graham does identify a more corporate target. The manufacturers and marketeers of firearms? The NRA and the gun lobby who fund so many politicians? No, he blames the entertainment industry for the violence:

Christian activist Shane Claiborne responded to Graham:

Holistic theology

In Bryant Myer’s brilliant book Walking with Poor, he shares this model. The green circle illustrates the endless sociological debate about how people are shaped by society, or how much people shape society.

The important theological point the diagram makes is that sin affects both individual people and social structures. Both human hearts and political and economic structures are twisted by the failure to love God and love our neighbour.

Polarisation and tribalism means that often people only want to acknowledge one side of this truth. But both are a problem when it comes to gun violence. Angry and violent individuals should be constrained by laws which limit the destruction they can inflict.

The good news of Jesus’ kingdom is holistic and radical. Yes, it has power to change human hearts and help people become kinder, braver and more faithful. But it also seeks to transform social systems: for poverty to be addressed, for racism to be challenged, for climate change to be reversed and for sensible gun control.

Faith that is transformative always fuses the personal and social.

The idolatry of guns

Large parts of American culture has become possessed by a cult of gun ownership. It is an idolatry that is killing thousands.

Americianity twists Jesus into a religion far from what we read in the gospels. As Shane Claiborne also said this week:

“We really are at a crossroads where we’ve got to choose: Are we going to follow Jesus or the NRA? And literally, you couldn’t come up with much more contrasting messages. The gospel of Jesus — turn the other cheek, love our enemies — stands in direct opposition to the rhetoric of the NRA — stand your ground. The gun and the cross give us two very different versions of power.”

As with slavery and racism, the Christian religion is part of America’s gun problem. But, as with those other social evils, faith in Jesus and his kingdom will also be a key part of the solution.

12 thoughts on “Jesus and guns: faith, politics & polarisation”

  1. Most social problems stem from the idolatry of power, money and sex. So many Americans see guns as not just a tool for self defence but a symbol of power. It’s so disappointing when Christians fail to call out this idolatry (of whatever kind) and the result is always child sacrifice, just as it was in OT times whether that is children in poverty or killed in classrooms or the womb.

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    1. That is an interesting point – the link between social problems and idolatries of different kinds. I wonder how we can open up discussions around the concept of ‘idols’ when many people don’t connect with the idea of ‘worship’ at all. But the link to child sacrifice (both before and after birth) is striking and powerful.

      I think ‘Americianity’ fuses the key aspects of national identity (the flag, the ‘sacred text’ of the constitution and the status the ‘founding Fathers’) with Christianity and this produces the synchronism of Christian nationalism.

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    2. What you guys miss, but what screams out from “between the lines” of your gospels is that Jesus of Nazareth was an atheist. He saw that the enemies of his people were NOT the Romans but the Temple of Jehovah. Meanspirited and brutal oppresors who demanded tribute from the people and favoured stonning for even the slightest deviation from their rules. Hardly surprising if you consider that Jehovahs favoured tool to influence humanity was slaughter on an industrial scale. Book 1, chapter 5 of the old testament, Noahs flood, where he killed virtually every one & everything, the guilty and innocent alike. And on and on, god’s favoured methodology is slaughter and genocide. Never help or assistance. Just “my way or the highway” rules followed by more killing.
      Jesus said look within yourself for that which you call god. And he meant it.
      The problem is that Saul of Tarsus took the life of Jesus of Nazareth and created a Marvel superhero style charachter called Jesus Christ. Jesus the Lord, and through the implausable “Holy Trinity” linked him back to the temple – for whom Saul was previously working to arrest and murder early Jesusites. His motive was obviously to keep people paying their tythe to the Temple. Its all about the money, as is most of the evil that men do. Jesus claimed over & over NOT to be god, or Lord, or indeed anything other than an ordinary man. He would be revolted by what Saul (later St Paul) did to his teachings, in the same way Sidharta (who also claimed to be just a guy) would be disgusted with Budhism. I say again look within yourself for that which you call god

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      1. Religious hypocrisy was Jesus’s main enemy, yes. And his teachings were essentially esoteric, unlike the [common interpretations of the] teachings of the Pentateuch and Torah, as in “the kingdom of heaven is within you”. In an extremely exoteric age, nearly all religions are populated by “practitioners” who neglect the “one thing needful”: to sit still and attentively listen for the word of God.

        Re: your statement that Jesus was an atheist, I’d be careful not to confuse God with the Temple. It should go without saying that to oppose religious hypocrisy is NOT the same as to oppose or disavow God. If anything the opposite.

        As for Jesus’s claims about himself, these are amply documented. “Ordinary man” doesn’t make a showing.

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  2. Very helpful Jon. I sometimes watch YT vids on God & Guns and see the logical twists and turns people in the USA will make to convince themselves that gun ownership is implicitly Biblically mandated.
    A few years ago I met an American who had opened up a coffee bar in Southern Cambodia. We had a perfectly pleasant chap until he got onto how he wanted his children to learn to shoot. When we asked him about the link between guns and the deaths of innocents, he told us, with complete confidence, that the incidents of mass shootings were faked by the media.
    He believed what he wanted to believe, and then found the reasoning to support it. We all do it I believe but when it comes to the ownership of AK47s etc. this is where it ends up.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Paul. These kind of personal stories are powerful – and I have had a number of these experiences too and they have left me frustrated and troubled.

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  3. We benefit from a certain amount of both connection and distance when reviewing the cultural and faith scene of our American ‘cousins’.
    The thing is, whenever faith is incarnated in a place, the cultural shibboleths get interposed. Tis inevitable in any place and at any time around the globe.
    And yet this is a key tenet of evangelicalism – that the faith SHOULD adapt and fit in: that it is MADE to fit into each society, and that each has cultural keys to receive the Word. (I note it is also supposed to redeem each as well.)
    NO surprises then that there are different takes on what is OK to accommodate, and what should be shunned, rejected, transformed. I think you and I can only be convinced in yourself and pursue God.
    And btw, the expression and implementation of our convictions should be changing too: If I believe and act the same as I did 25 years ago, there’s something wrong!

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    1. thanks Matthew. I agree that its easy for us to critique the US Christian scene and I know it really winds up a lot of Americans. You are right that we all have ‘cultural shibboleths’ and blind-spots of our own. If I was a Christian in the late 18th century would I have been calling out Britain for its imperial excesses?

      I guess this is why we need good quality debate and discussion – and we avoid the polarisation which simply demonises the other.

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  4. Jon, many years ago you asked me whether I’d write a post here on guns in America. I didn’t feel qualified… I feel even less qualified today!

    But I did respond to an Intercept article this week, and I’ll post part of my reply. The article was called “The AR-15 Was Designed to Explode Bodies”.

    My objection is to the focus on “assault-style” weapons. It’s a red herring that helps politicians create dramatic soundbites while avoiding meaningful action.

    I look forward to seeing this reply picked apart – really. Maybe I’ll learn something.

    “The focus on the “style” of the gun may accidentally serve to distract from the real cause of mass shootings, which (I suspect) is the mental breakdown of a large number of our fellow citizens. Let’s assume only a small percentage – certainly less than 1% – of destabilized Americans (i.e. people who *could* become mass shooters) in fact *do* become mass shooters. Far more commit suicide, become alcoholics, or destroy their lives in some other no less disruptive but still more localized fashion. Would you agree that mass shooters may be the most visible symptom of a disease that grips much of our nation? It’s sufficiently plausible to warrant discussion.

    I know you and your colleagues at the Intercept report on factors that lead people to destructive behavior: growing income inequality, a sense of political powerlessness and voicelessness, loss of employment opportunities… the list goes on.

    Stories about a gun model may really miss the point. The Uvalde killer could have gone in with two handguns and a few spare cartridges and done no less damage. If we outlaw every model of gun, someone is going to see how many people he can kill with a bow.

    I’m not saying guns are not a problem. But they’re not *the* problem. They’re a means to an end. The end is what matters. Why are people doing this?

    The data I’ve seen show that the “deadliness” of mass shootings (number of people killed per incident) fell by only 10-15% during the decade-long ban on AR-15s. That’s not a huge drop.

    The number of shootings fell though. Why might that have been the case? The decade was 1994-2004. What else happened during that time? Eastern Europe opened up, the first Cold War was won. A ubiquitous sense of foreboding lifted. Escobar died in 1993, after which the “war on drugs” became a less violent affair for several years. After Kuwait, there was no major military activity until late 2001. The government decreed housing for everyone. A 15% annual price increase was typical, in case you wanted to flip. Stocks went up only. It was a good time. Could this have anything to do with a reduction in mass shootings?

    What happened after 2004, besides the expiration of the AR-15 ban? Two major wars (one “justified” by lies about yellow uranium cake), the mortgage crisis, bankruptcy for late (middle- and lower-middle-income) buyers, bailouts for the banks that approved their loans (i.e. a breach of public trust), a huge increase in wealth inequality, the introduction of dissatisfaction-inducing social media, etc etc etc. Not the best time. Could this have anything to do with an increase in mass shootings?

    I don’t think focusing on the gun model is the right approach. I’d love to see a deeper inquiry into true causes.

    Anyway, enough of my rant. I welcome your correspondence, should you wish to dive into this with me.”

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