I first posted this essay in 2013 on the Denver Post’s religion blogsite “Hark.” I post it again (with minor corrections and additions) since we are again in a seemingly fruitless discussion about gun control. Please make replies below (on this site) and feel free to share with others if you find it helpful. John
First, a short version:
In trying to understand the passionate outrage of some folks at efforts to pass gun-control legislation, I have come to think of “the gun” as an “anti-sacrament” – not so much the actual gun one might possess or want to buy, but the symbolic gun that pervades thinking and provokes passions. (Yet we should not underestimate the significance of holding the actual weapon, of its sense of weight and power for the owner and user.) For Christians, sacraments are ritual actions involving physical things like water, bread and wine – actions which evoke a sense of safety and salvation because they embody a narrative about what really hurts us (evil and sin) and what really heals (God’s love, grace, and assurance). Their ritualized repetition, in other words, enacts a story about what we should fear and resist, and also about what we most need for help and hope. In the contemporary gun debate, it often seems that those resisting any infringement on gun rights are held captive by a different story about fear and hope – fear of governments and other threatening powers, of criminals and intruders and strangers, of the dangerous and unexpected; and hope in self-reliance and self-defense, in “our way of life” and the possession of guns. In this latter narrative, perhaps especially by ritualized repetition at rallies and protests, the gun becomes a kind of sacrament – a symbolic or sacred object that embodies a pervasive sense of what threatens and what protects and saves. I call it an “anti-sacrament” because its narrative distorts realistic fears and hopes to such a degree that it produces an illusory but absolute sense of both evil and salvation – and thereby contributes to even more real evil and much less actual safety.
Now a longer, more nuanced version:
I am writing this essay in an effort to understand the passions of many gun-rights folks in this country – passions I find quite terrifying.
I write as someone who has never owned a gun, but once had a typical American boy’s fascination with them. (I allowed my son to indulge that fascination at age 13 with a pellet gun – something he himself chose never to touch again after he killed a chipmunk with a lucky shot.) Thus I write from ignorance about the hunting culture which grew from the necessity of food to become today an ecological necessity. I admit as well to some ignorance about our cultures of security – the world of police and military and others recruited to “serve and protect.” I have no insider understanding of these cultures. I accept their necessity, yet view them with wariness and studied skepticism.
I write as someone who thinks that most proposed gun control legislation simply makes common sense, that the 2nd Amendment’s meaning has been distorted beyond recognition by its supposed defenders, and that the most powerful opposition to gun control comes from those who profit most – manufacturers and dealers and the propaganda they hire.
I have little interest in these contemporary gun-runners other than to expose the deceit of their proclamation of principle which really serves to mask their far more fundamental pursuit of profit. Yet I do want to try to understand the ordinary folks – a term I intend here as a title of respect – those who are whipped into fury by the NRA and other propagandists. I want to understand their fear and resentment, as well as their anger and righteousness.
My title’s description of the gun as an “anti-sacrament” tries to suggest both the roots of such fear and the dangers of such anger.
The idea of a “sacrament” is, of course, a traditional Christian one, especially favored by Roman Catholics and Orthodox, but also affirmed by Protestants, and found as well in different ways in most other religions. At root it expresses the belief that certain rituals (like baptism and communion) are sacred ways whereby we are opened to God’s healing presence. More specifically, it is the belief that life-sustaining material things like water and wine, bread and bodily touch, can become vehicles for such opening and healing. In traditional language, sacraments are earthen vessels that mediate God’s grace, assurance and salvation.
By extension, sacraments are found widely in human experience – in special places (like holy mountains or sacred springs) or in special moments when the ordinary (like a glass of wine, a sunset, or a song) becomes extraordinary. Writers of good fiction of have helped us imagine such extensions of the sacred into everyday experience. Admirers of Andre Dubus, for instance, know not only his stunning reflection on the sacramental peanut butter sandwich infused with parental love, but his even more remarkable ability to evoke sacred presence (without naming it as such) in his stories about ordinary and mundane events. The same, of course, can be said about many other good writers. It can also be said about much good cinema and television, where writers and actors, cinematographers and directors, at times conspire to evoke the sacred in secular settings and stories.
Yet it is also painfully evident to most of us that contemporary cinema and television, as well as much fiction, is filled with repeated and ritualized presentation of what I am calling “anti-sacraments.” For if sacraments are objects and actions that evoke real healing and protection, anti-sacraments are objects and actions which, while pretending to protect and heal, actually achieve the opposite. They mislead our fears, misdirect our hopes, and actually increase our hurt and insecurity.
What, then, does understanding the gun as an anti-sacrament tell us about the passions manifest in the present gun-control debate?
It tells us that people have important fears about real dangers – the danger of crime and violence; the danger of strangers in our midst; the danger of political and economic systems over which we have little control; the danger of change happening too fast and also beyond control. It tells us that people rightly resent forces that intrude with great power, yet with too little care. It tells us, most fundamentally, that we fear hurt and death.
Yet the idea of “gun as anti-sacrament” also reminds us that legitimate fears and resentments too often grow beyond all relation to reality. Fear alone can do this, but the disproportionate and illusory effect happens mostly when our imaginations are manipulated – by sensational news and propaganda, by deliberately distorted and exaggerated stories and cinema and television.
And the idea of “gun as anti-sacrament” should remind us that thus-distorted imaginations and fears have real and very dangerous effects, in individual lives and in the shared life of society. They are anti-life, not protective of life. They drive us into defensive postures that cut off healing contact with others, and with the real. They drive us to anger and violence both in imagination and, too often, in reality. They thus pollute our lives and our politics.
Of course, in saying these things, I may be indulging my own distortion and exaggeration. Yet I actually fear that, if anything, I err on the side of understatement. For the narrative embodied in the gun as anti-sacrament is today pervasive in our culture and our politics. It has, for too many hearts and minds, replaced not only the once honored (even if only rhetorically) religious narrative about evil and safety, but also the kind of common sense reasonableness we used to count on finding among ordinary folk – in our towns and neighborhoods, among parents and elders.
And, to repeat, this replacement and pollution of once sane and shared stories has not happened by fate or accident. It has happened because of the power of money – that most fundamental anti-sacrament we are forced to live with these days.
Of course we need money for all sorts of exchanges, just as some need guns for various legitimate purposes (from hunting to policing). Yet like guns, money so easily becomes “sacramental,” part of a narrative about security and power, and “anti-sacramental” when that narrative nurtures illusory fears and hopes. The result, in the case of guns and even more in the case of money, is a culture and society dominated by illusion and violence.
Which, I submit and urge, is very much where we are today in this country and around the world.