Calling an Idol an Idol

Our nation’s relationship with guns is a hot topic right now. So much is being said in so many places that I hesitate to add to the noise. I don’t want to parrot others. I do want to amplify a theme that is critical for people of faith. The issue has been raised, but not nearly loudly or widely enough. For people of faith, the issue in this discussion isn’t merely “Constitutional rights”. It’s idolatry. I believe that idolatry is the most basic form of human sin. Very simply, idolatry is putting anything or anyone (including ourselves) in God’s place. We commit idolatry whenever we give to anyone, anything, or any idea the ultimate loyalty (worship) that belongs to God alone.

Idolatry began with Adam and Eve. Genesis 3 tells how God gave them unlimited access to the fruit of every tree in the Garden–except the one at the center. Naturally, that’s the one they wanted. So they did, encouraged by that wily serpent (hiss if you wish). We talk about that incident as “sin” and “temptation”. But I suggest it’s also the first example of idolatry in the Bible. Adam and Eve wanted to taste that fruit and “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). They valued their desire to have godlike powers more than their relationship with God. So they declared themselves gods (small-g)–with catastrophic results. It may have been the first time, but hardly the last.

Idolatry is a prominent but little-mentioned element in the current gun-control debate. Over the last few decades the National Rifle Association has moved beyond its original mission of promoting safe and responsible gun use. It has become the high priesthood of what it claims is the absolute right to own unlimited firepower. This recent article traces that evolution. On May 20, 2000, NRA President Charlton Heston (yes, the actor) told the national NRA Convention that “Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blue steel…” (Click to view the entire speech.In  America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose`, James Atwood quotes former NRA executive Warren Cassidy: “You would get a far better understanding [of the NRA] if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world.”

“Sacred stuff”? “One of the great religions of the world”? The god this new religion worships bears no resemblance to the God we know in Jesus.  The way of Jesus is absolutely incompatible with every cultural idolatry from the first century to the twenty-first. This particular idolatry is merely the latest episode in a struggle that’ started even before Jesus’ death. The NRA religion may call itself politics, patriotism, freedom, whatever. People of faith correctly call it idolatry: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Exodus 20:3-5 NRSV)

Jesus taught us to love God and love our neighbor. “Neighbor” includes everyone within our reach and influence. By contrast, the “religion” of Heston, Cassidy, and LaPierre exalts an absolute right to shoot one’s heart out with all the firepower one desires to possess, regardless of how that “right” impacts our 30,000 neighbors killed by guns in this country each year. Jesus’ twelve closest followers included at least one violent revolutionary, but he consistently rejected violence as a means to achieve change. The NRA’s answer to gun violence is more guns. But Jesus told the disciple who drew his sword to protect Jesus from arrest, “’Put your sword away. Anyone who lives by fighting will die by fighting.’” (Matthew 26:52 CEV)

BEFORE YOU STEREOTYPE ME, PLEASE LISTEN: I don’t support taking everybody’s guns away. I don’t own a gun, never have, and never will. I don’t hunt. I don’t target-shoot. I don’t feel a need to have a gun for self-defense. But I support the right of those who choose to have guns for those purposes. I believe responsible gun use has a legitimate place in our society. Learning that skill has been an important part of growing-up for millions of boys and girls. They’ve learned from their parents, from other adults, and often through NRA-sponsored classes.

But guns are not “sacred stuff”. Guns are powerful tools designed to kill. They need to be treated with great respect—but not worshiped. Our society needs to find a balanced approach that keeps these powerful tools available to those who will use them responsibly, yet denies access to those likely to misuse them and harm themselves or others. We will honestly differ about the best way to strike this balance. Ideally it will happen through public-private partnerships. It will include changes in the mental health field, improved security at schools and other public places, gun regulations, and broader cultural changes. Gun owners who value and respect their lethal tools are an essential part of the conversation and the resulting change. Many have already spoken up to say that those who worship the “Sacred stuff…in that wooden stock and blue steel” do not speak for them. Responsible gun owners respect their tools and reject the idolatry that values one’s gun more than one’s neighbor. They are the first to affirm that the “…wooden stock and blue steel…” is a tool—a deadly tool—but nothing more. Let’s not stereotype them either.

The emerging gun debate is an opportunity for our democracy to work. People of faith who are also citizens of this country have both a right and a responsibility to be involved. Let us enter vigorously into this debate as people of faith. Let us do so respectfully civilly, boldly, and assertively. Let us love our neighbors by listening as well as sharing our own views. Above all let us never forget that we are first and foremost followers of the Prince of Peace.


30 Responses to “Calling an Idol an Idol”

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    Thanks, Bob. Pun intended?


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