God, Guns, and the Gospel

Is God pro-gun?  President Trump seems to think so.  This week Trump attacked Joe Biden, saying that Biden is going to “take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment, no religion, no anything. Hurt the bible, hurt God. He’s against God, he’s against guns.”

Trump gives voice to a prototypical American myth of a land that loves God, guns, and the gospel.  You can see this mythic complex in cowboy movies and elsewhere.  WWII gave us a song with the lyrics, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition and we’ll all stay free.”  In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album called “God & Guns.”  The title track (covered recently by Hank Williams, Jr.) says, “God and guns keep us strong.  That’s what this country was founded on.”  The song seems to respond to something Barack Obama said about “bitter” and “frustrated” Americans who “cling to guns or religion.”

Of course, religious liberty and gun ownership are protected by the First and Second Amendments.  But the subsequent case law is complicated and contentious.  These complex Constitutional questions are not easily reduced to the simplistic idea that to be an American is to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.  The First Amendment gives you the right to worship God in your own way.  It protects pacifists, atheists, and militant Christians  The Second Amendment affirms the right to have a well-regulated militia and bear arms.  It does not, however, help us interpret the Bible.

We live in a country where over a quarter of Americans (28%) believe that the Bible should take precedence over the will of the people, according the Pew Center.  So, it is important to note that the Constitution allows Americans to disagree about the Bible.

The Bible is not a useful guide on the question of guns anyway. There is nothing in the Good Book about guns, which didn’t exist back then.  The Bible talks a lot about swords.  But to say that the Bible is pro-sword ignores those passages that suggest turning swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4).  I’ve pointed out in my book on the Bible that for many issues, ancient Biblical texts are indeterminate and uninformative.

Of course, guns and swords are part of a larger question of self-defense.  But the Bible is not a useful guide here either.  Some texts show the Jewish people fighting for their survival.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that the political authorities use the sword to execute justice.  But Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.  And Christian martyrs often followed Jesus’s model and submitted to execution.

Some Christians are pacifists.  Others are not.  And the Bible is ambiguous.

A recent book by Michael Austin, God and Guns in America, reminds us of the diversity of Christian belief about guns.  Austin suggest that some Christians hate guns and love God.  But others love guns and love God.  I would add that even atheists disagree: some hate guns others don’t.

That’s why we ought to keep these issues separated, just as the First and Second Amendments are distinct.  On the one hand, religious liberty permits us to interpret the Bible any way we want.  On the other hand, there is the question of self-defense and the “well-regulated militia.”  The issues of legal self-defense and justified violence are complicated enough on their own, without conflating them with unanswerable questions about the Bible. 

But most public argument about this stuff lacks subtlety.  Political slogans, popular music, and prophetic preaching are typically not bastions of critical thinking.  Art and politics pull emotional levers by using affective language and making vague gestures.  Religion does that too, much of the time.  But critical thinking asks us to analyze arguments and carefully excavate the historical sources. 

Smart people continue to debate the Bible and the Constitution while reaching divergent conclusions.  That’s why it is hard to take Trump seriously when he says Biden will hurt God and the Bible.  The Constitution prevents any President—whether Trump or Biden—from taking unilateral action on any of these issues.  And if there is a God, He can probably take care of Himself. 

Nonviolence and Naked Power

Nonviolence exposes the brutality of naked power.  By responding to violence with courage and grace, nonviolence provokes the conscience and inspires solidarity. 

When organized and mobilized, nonviolence can change the world, as it has in many cases.  I discuss this in my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion.  Nonviolence has been used to overthrow colonial regimes, to oust oppressive governments, and to transform unjust social conditions.  Some of the strategies of nonviolence are quite forceful, involving marches, boycotts, and protests. 

But there is also the startlingly subtle power of unarmored, unclothed vulnerability.  We’ve seen this in recent protests in Portland, Oregon.  One lasting image is of Christopher David calmly withstanding the assault of security forces who beat him with batons and sprayed gas in his face.  There has also been a “wall of moms” who turned out in yellow shirts to challenge the brutality of federal authorities.  And then there was the so-called “Naked Athena,” a woman who danced nude in front of the camouflaged troops.

These techniques have a history. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. included terrifying images of police beating unarmed people. One famous image is of John Lewis, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee being beaten by cops in Alabama. This image changed minds. Lewis himself went on to become a Congressman and an influential advocate of racial justice and nonviolence. Lewis died last week.

John Lewis beaten by police in Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7, 1965)

Images such as these demand that we pick sides.  Violence muddies the waters, making moral judgment more difficult.  When fists fly on both sides, it becomes hard to tell who is right and who is wrong.  But nonviolence is edifying and enlightening.  When armed forces assault vulnerable and exposed bodies, clarity dawns.  When bullies beat and gas defenseless people, moral judgment crystalizes.

By exposing themselves to violence, these activists enact what Vaclav Havel called “the power of the powerless.”  Havel demonstrated how simple acts of defiance were used in resistance to Soviet-backed totalitarianism.  In the background of his account is the parable of the emperor’s new clothes.

The act of pointing out that the emperor is in fact naked exposes the false reality of the power structure.  It soon dawns on us that what we are seeing is a mere show of power, camouflaging its cruelty beneath titles, insignia, flags, and guns.  And once naked power is revealed as such, it appears as flaccid, shameful, shriveled, and puny. 

Guns, gas, and truncheons can do real damage.  But when they are exposed in their pathetic nakedness, they lose their legitimacy.  They can kill us but they can’t convince us.  They can harm us but they cannot dominate our thinking.  They can enforce conformity but they cannot destroy the spirit of liberty.

Which brings me back to the Naked Athena who exposed her body and did so while dancing.  This brave woman transfigured vulnerability into strength, power, and grace.  She revealed a moment of beauty and freedom in the face of brutality.  She thereby transformed the power structure.  The unclothed body is typically seen as a symbol of vulnerability.  Consider the cruelty of forced nudity, as seen in images of naked bodies that come from the Holocaust or from the techniques of torture employed by American forces in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison. 

But in affirming her nakedness, the Naked Athena forces us to choose sides.  On the one hand, we have guns and uniforms.  On the other, we have vulnerable human bodies—mothers, dancers, and unarmored men.  Which side are you on?

The advocates of nonviolence have always been on the side of the vulnerable.  Jesus offered praise for those who clothed the naked, fed the hungry, and visited the sick.  The Catholic priest John Dear explains, “we come into this world as a vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless baby, and we live in that same vulnerable, nonviolent, powerless state.  In our vulnerable humanity is the power of nonviolence, compassion, and love.”

It is our shared vulnerability that unites us.  The forces of domination want to create unity through violence.  But the advocates of nonviolence aspire to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the beloved community.”  The recently departed icon of nonviolence, Representative John Lewis put it this way: “We are one people, one family, the human family, and what affects one of us affect all of us.”

When brutality is unleashed upon “the least of these,” as Jesus would put it, we see the shame of violence.  This opens the door toward solidarity.  It pricks the conscience.  And in moments such as these the nakedness of power lies indicted before the power of nakedness.

Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion

I am please to announce the publication of my new book, Nonviolence: A Quick Immersion.

I was invited to write this book in 2019, with the goal of producing a short, readable introduction to nonviolence. Nonviolence is a perennial and important topic. But with the way things have unfolded in 2020, following protests against police brutality and the backlash against these protest by security forces, the topic has become even more important. The publisher agreed to speed up the publication process in light of the unfolding events of 2020. And with substantial effort, we were able to bring the book out in July of 2020.

The book provides an overview of nonviolence. It offers answers to the questions of what nonviolence is, how and why it ought to be used, and who ought to employ it. The book discusses examples of successful nonviolent social protest, from twentieth century movements for civil rights and colonial liberation to the Arab Spring and contemporary Black Lives Matter protests, and considers recent research that explains the power of nonviolence. It also explores philosophical and religious sources of nonviolence, while discussing key historical figures including Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Malala Yousafzai. This book offers insight into the link between nonviolence and democracy. It reminds us that nonviolence gives us the power to build a better —more just, truthful, and loving— world.

The Blame Game

When bad stuff happens, we want someone to blame.  But blame assumes a kind of agency that most of us lack.  Luck is as important as intention.  And culture and nature matter more than the choices of individuals.

Recent events show us how the blame game works.  The White House has blamed the Covid-19 pandemic on China.  White House trade adviser Peter Navarro recently claimed that China “spawned” the virus and deliberately spread the disease. Meanwhile, Trump’s critics blame him.  One recent article carried the headline, “It Really Is Trump’s Fault.”  Another said, “Covid 19: Blame Trump.” 

All of this oversimplifies the causal reality of the pandemic, which involves the complexities of microbiology, economics, and the daily choices of billions of people.  Policy and law can have some influence.  But there are more fundamental forces at play in the pandemic.

If we want to blame something for the explosion of the pandemic in the U.S., we might blame American individualism, libertarianism, and consumerism.  Trump did not invent these forces.  Nor did he (or China) cause the pandemic to blow up here. 

That explosion involved the choices of governors, mayors, businesses, and ordinary citizens.  Lots of people ignored the need for social distancing.  The virus did the rest, moving according to its own logic.

Trump cannot save us from the pandemic, by the way. That’s up to us.  To be critical of the blame game is also to be critical of hero-worship and the cult of leadership.  A leader can only take people in a direction they are willing to go.

When we understand the power of culture and nature, the blame game fades in importance.  For example, some blame the victims of hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes for building their homes in danger zones.  But economic forces create conditions in which some people have no other viable places to live.  And destruction or survival in a storm or an earthquake is often a matter of luck.

A fuller account of causality offers a more convoluted picture of our choices.  Blame (or praise) assumes a myth about free choice in these matters that hearkens back to the myth of original sin. A more scientific account of causality makes that myth seem silly.

At the level of leadership, the blame game assumes that leaders are free to create policies independently of the parties, systems, and circumstances in which they operate.  In reality, human beings—including leaders—are buffeted by cultural and natural forces that are beyond our control.

And yet, when things feel out of control, we search for someone to blame.  This can lead to scapegoating.  In heaping blame upon a scapegoat, we seek a semblance of power in the face of powerlessness.  It feels good to blame bad things on some person, party, race, or nation.  In older times, the need to blame a malicious agent escalated into claims about witches, demons, and devils.  These days, it manifests as absurd conspiracy theories that imagine some secret cabal of evil geniuses pulling strings behind the scenes. 

A further problem is that blame is retrospective and retributive.  To focus on blame is to dwell in the past and to look for someone to punish.  But this can prevent us from moving forward.  We should learn from the past and avoid previous mistakes.  But the goal should be to study the past in order to build the future.  Rather than focusing on whom to blame, we ought to think about what we need to do next time.  John F. Kennedy once said, “Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past.  Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” 

To avoid the blame game is not to give up on accountability.  Leadership matters.  Incompetent and malicious leaders should be replaced.  And indeed, a larger point of view makes it easier to move on.  If there are no evil geniuses, there are also no saviors or superheroes.  No leader is indispensable. 

Knowledge, expertise, and experience can help us ride through bad times.  But bad stuff is often a matter of bad luck and the larger forces of culture, institutions, and nature.  And often we really have no one to blame but ourselves.  Once we realize this, it is easier to leave the blame game behind and get to work on preparing for tomorrow. 

On Loneliness and Solitude

Solitude

An article in Time describes a “plague of loneliness” exacerbated by social distancing during the pandemic.  But being alone does not mean being lonely.  Some dread solitude.  Others use it to create, think, and dream. 

Loneliness can be caused by social conditions.  The isolation of the pandemic provides an obvious example.  An isolating culture can reinforce psychological pathologies such as agoraphobia and social anxiety. 

But solitude can be inspiring.  Poets and philosophers have often affirmed it.  Emerson said, “people are to be taken in very small doses. If solitude is proud, so is society vulgar.”  By “vulgar” Emerson means “ordinary.”  Emersonian solitude seeks to transcend the ordinary.  Schopenhauer and Nietzsche agreed.  They imagined the great soul rising above the vulgar masses, alone on a mountaintop.   

This is a typically masculine idea, patronizing and condescending.  Men have traditionally been free to indulge heroic individualism.  Women were not permitted the luxury of what Virginia Woolf called “a room of her own”—a refuge for creative individuality.

Freedom and creativity are essential for avoiding the dread of loneliness.  Solitude is not dreadful when freely chosen.  To be forced into solitary confinement is a terrible punishment.  But the mystic chooses silent meditation and the poet retreats to her private room. 

The dread of loneliness is connected to boredom.  Lonely people are isolated with nothing to do.  But solitude can be replete with activity.  Indeed, some activities require us to be alone.

Hannah Arendt explained the difference between the productive solitude of the life of the mind and a more dreadful kind of loneliness.  In loneliness, you exist as a mere object and not as an active thinking being.  But in productive solitude, you keep good company with yourself. 

The novelist Thomas Wolfe once claimed that he was the loneliest person he knew.  He understood that loneliness gives rise to the desire for self-expression.  But he also knew that loneliness lingers as the after-effect of the creative act, an emptiness that remains after your song has been sung.

Wolfe saw loneliness as “the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”  Loneliness, he said, sucks the joy from life, leaving us empty, impotent, ruined, and lost.  Time seems to flow on without us, while we sit “drugged and fettered in the prison of loneliness.” 

One solution is found in religion.  Religious thinkers have plumbed the depths of solitude, retreating to monasteries and sitting in silence.  Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, explained that solitude opens an abyss within that points toward the infinite.  A different religious idea is offered by Dorothy Day who said that we overcome loneliness through service, community, and love.  She explained, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love.”   

This is a common refrain: to transform loneliness into love.  A poem from Charlotte Perkins Gilman (“Finding”) provides a poignant example:

Out of the great darkness and wide wastes of silence,
Long loneliness, and slow untasted years,
Came a slow filling of the empty places,
A slow, sweet lighting of forgotten faces,
A smiling under tears.

Gilman reminds us that loneliness is what allows memory to unfold.  When alone we can enjoy the memory of those we’ve lost.  Later in the same poem, she explores how lost love opens onto a broader love:

Love like the rain that falls on just and unjust,
Love like the sunshine, measureless and free,
From each to all, from all to each, to live in;
And, in the world's glad love so gladly given,
Came heart's true love to me!

Here we get a sense of the strange productive power of solitude.  From out of loneliness grows the urge to communicate and to love. 

The highest human goods—art, religion, and philosophy—require solitude: a quiet and empty space in which the spirit can unfold.  Instead of allowing solitude to devolve into dreadful loneliness and succumbing to boredom, we must find ways to fill the emptiness with meaning, whether in exploring our memories or writing poetry.  This is also what scientists, entrepreneurs, bakers, and gardeners do: they create, build, and explore.  The aloneness of the creative soul is a pregnant at-one-ness, waiting to give birth to beauty, knowledge, and love.