Behold Your god

I have watched with fascination and then boredom
as each mass shooting or attempted mass shooting has unfolded in the USA. There is, of course, horror and anger. Then there are the calls for keep weapons out of the hands of such disturbed (as often proves to be the case) people. Then there are those who argue that what is needed is more guns: more police, more weaponizing of the police, indeed everyone should be armed or at least a lot of people should be armed. It is in having one’s own weapon that security is to be found. Besides, it is a right.In god We Trust

The guns-as-a-right attitude always wins, of course, for it is part of the national narrative. Colonists arrived in the Americas with guns, and that enabled them to enslave, oppress, or outright exterminate the Native Americans as they stole their land. If only those Native Americans had had the weapons . . . but too bad for them. The colonies that eventually formed the USA fought a war over taxes. Whether there is moral justification for a such a revolution (Augustine did not think that there could be a moral revolution) or for a war over what in essence were economic issues (Augustine had said that economics could not justify war) was not at issue, for the victors write the history. In this case it was not who had guns that was the issue, but who could use them more effectively, although the last major battle was decided by the French navy. Ironically, not long afterwards a rebellion over similar issues but within the colonies was put down by – guns. But this time the fledgling nation was the winner, not the rebels; the Whisky Rebellion is hardly remembered. And so the history of the USA goes on. The Louisiana Purchase may have been peaceful (but not the settlement of what was purchased), but not the Texan war of independence (no wonder the USA has some fear of immigrants – look what happened to Mexico), nor a number of expansionary ventures. Violence is part of the history of the USA. The Bill of Rights enshrines the “need” for a “well-regulated (citizen) militia,” which is presently interpreted as each one being their own militia. As it says in the Judges, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” 
 
Of course, the individual grasp for guns and resorting to violence is but a pale mirror of the national belief that security is found in weapons. The Catechism of the Catholic Church questions whether there can be a just war in this present age with present armaments. That question is not a USA question. Neither World War I nor World War II was without its atrocities on the side of the USA and its allies, but “tell it not in Gath.” That is not part of our national narrative. Rather, the narrative is that the USA won by guns, by military strength, and that it won the Cold War that way too. Of course, to say this one must ignore that most if not all of the 70 plus conflicts the USA has sponsored (e.g. in Angola) or engaged in (e.g. Viet Nam) since World War II have been lost, or at least only “won” through spin. Of course, one must ignore the role of Pope John Paul II (and other non-lethal leaders) in the fall of the Iron Curtain. The narrative goes on. Guns win. And now we have smart bombs and precision guided munitions (but not precision enough to avoid killing women and children – they are written off as “collateral damage” – i.e. depersonalized and therefore disposable). The USA is invincible, until it is not. God is on our side, but seems to be giving the victory to the other guys, the “bad guys.” But, then, we forget that God does not like violence – in fact, Genesis 6 indicates that he rather hates it. And we forget that in the Hebrew Scriptures with all of their violent stories, God makes it rather clear that military might is not what “wins” and the size of an army is irrelevant. 
With this national love of violence, there is naturally an individual love of violence. That shows up in the USA’s love of guns. In fact, one would think that somehow gun ownership was a natural right. Rather, it is a national deity. 
 
One form of the deity is well-known from ancient times. Ashtoreth (or Ashtray) was a Canaanite goddess who, while promising fertility, delighted in violence. In need she turned her furniture into armies that slaughtered one another so that she could “wade up to her thighs in gore.” She would have loved modern weapons, for they can kill more people faster. Wait, she does love modern weapons, for she is still present in the myth of national security through violence or threatened violence. 
 
But, of course, violence does not end on the battlefield. There is the violence against the unborn, often motivated by financial reasons (perhaps the modern equivalent of what Ashtoreth promised). There is the quiet violence against the immigrant, so decried in the Hebrew Scriptures. There is the oppressive violence against the poor (Jas 5:1-6 knows something about that). There is the violence of not offering medical care to all. There is the violence of capital punishment. (Did anyone listen to Pope Francis on his recent trip to the USA? He named these things, for he knows the Christian tradition.) And that of euthanasia. Ashtoreth does not care how blood is spilled, so long as it is spilled, so long as there is a death. 
 
And we ourselves in this USA love the service of Ashtoreth. There is a book by C. S. Lewis, “Til We Have Faces, that has a Ashtoreth deity, Ungit, in it. She, too, delights in blood, even human blood. The heroine seems to differentiate herself from Ungit, until in the end of the book she realizes that she has internalized Ungit. She is Ungit. So too many of us USA Christians. We decry the violence “out there” that “they” do, whether the “they” be terrorist groups in the Middle East or a crazed individual on a college campus. But we also trust in Ungit, for we grasp our own weapons and claim that we are thereby secure. This is national security on an individual scale. We cite stories of people who defended themselves (even killed the “bad guy” because he was a worse shot or did not shoot first, assuming that he was armed at all). We cite studies that claim a correlation between high murder rates and cities with significant gun controls (and we ignore the more nuanced studies that show states with stronger gun laws have less gun violence – simple correlations will do for us). We grasp our metal Ungit statue and say, “I am safe.”
 
How different than the New Testament or the first centuries of the church. Jesus destroyed violence by absorbing violence. He knew the “deeper magic” (as C. S. Lewis points out in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe) that Revelation also knows: it is not the one who escalates violence that wins, but the one who absorbs it. Jesus absorbed violence on the cross – deliberately, knowingly – and in the resurrection death itself is overcome and starts to work backwards. In Revelation it is the martyrs who win, who overcome Satan himself by “not loving their lives until death.” In Revelation Jesus reappears with the armies of heaven, but those armies are not said to be armed nor to lift a weapon. Rather Jesus is the only one armed, and he is armed with a Word pictured as the sword from his mouth. He has already won in the cross, and now he speaks the Word of victory, the Word that he embodies. The early church rejected those who killed – those who aborted a fetus or exposed an infant, those who killed as soldiers or who had authority to order the death penalty – rejected them unless they repented. Instead they glorified the martyrs and the confessors (those who refused to recant their allegiance to Jesus as Lord, even under threat of death or imprisonment, but who were not actually executed). They knew the power of the cross and would not trade it for the power of death. Let the authorities keep the sword, for we have the cross. Ashtoreth can keep the sword; we will follow Jesus.
 
I see little of this in the USA. Rather I see an embrace of the Ungit within. We will trust in our weapons. We will trust in our pistol in our purse. We will call this national security or personal security. We will be secure in this way in our schools and in our churches. We will claim “in God we trust,” but the god is Mammon and Mars, the goddess is Ashtoreth or Ungit. Even those who claim Jesus as Lord do this, which appears to be that they have put off any real salvation until “he returns.” But “the Lord has them in derision,” and the losses in war go on while the spiral of violence within the country continues. The pistol becomes the assault rifle and soon the grenade launcher, etc. And people say, “Where is God?” God, or “a god” is right there, there in the pistol in your purse.
 
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About Peter H. Davids

I am Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a professor at Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years). I am also a husband, father, and grandfather.
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