The Second Amendment and (Biblical) Hermeneutics

The most recent (and I do hate that I have to distinguish between so many) mass shooting in the U.S. has reignited fierce debates over gun control and the place of the Second Amendment.

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At this point in time, those who desire change remain deadlocked in debate with those who oppose any such legislation. The NRA has publicly stated that the best way forward is more guns, and the Second Amendment is being used as the ideological basis of much of the resistance to gun control measures.

I have already posted my thoughts about the need for more gun control in the U.S. (and my disgust at the actions of the NRA), and I don’t wish to revisit that conversation here. I want, rather, to talk briefly here about the very interesting ways in which the Second Amendment is interpreted and applied. I think it is actually quite revealing, and the discussion is of great help in regards to thinking about biblical interpretation and application (something about which I am very interested).

Please let me illustrate the link.

A centuries old text, written in a time and situation far removed from modern life and by authoritative authors who codified the pure testimony of their beliefs, is viewed as ‘sacred’ with direct, one-to-one applicability to contemporary life. The text is ‘exegeted’ very carefully, and serious debates ensue concerning its grammar and syntactical structure. Any suggestion that the message contained within the text is either determined or even limited in any way by its socio-historical situatedness is scoffed at, at least by the true believers, and dogmatic adherence to the text becomes the hallmark of ‘keeping the faith’.

Of course, I am talking here about the Second Amendment, but it should be obvious to see the link I am proposing to the interpretation of the biblical texts.

What I see in these discussions about the Second Amendment is exactly the same type of fundamentalism that I see so often when it comes to biblical interpretation—and, perhaps unsurprisingly, sometimes it is actually the same people who belong to both camps. What I find so disheartening about these discussions, in both cases, is the total denial that the situatedness of the texts has any bearing on their interpretation and application.

But let’s think about it for a moment. The Second Amendment was brought into effect in 1791 (with the rest of the Bill of Rights), as part of the rebuilding phase after the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Of course, it makes quite a bit of sense in that context. There was certainly (at least in the mind of the those who came out the other side of the war) a need for militias to be maintained and armed. These militias had helped secure the victory over the forces of Great Britain, and it could have been reasonably suggested that they needed to keep vigilant against the possibility of a British attack to regain control.

However, as time went on, the gap between the original context and the current applicability of the Second Amendment irreversibly widened.

It is now, therefore, at the point where the Second Amendment simply doesn’t have much at all to say to contemporary life in the U.S.A. I know that might be offensive to some, but let me say it again just to make sure I’m being clear: the Second Amendment is not relevant in any way to modern life in the United States of America.

Now, I’m not saying that the entire U.S. Constitution is irrelevant; I’m just saying that at least this Amendment is no longer of any value. It may have been very necessary at the time it was brought into effect, but things have changed and this part is now of no practical use.

Of course this will be debated. And, of course, this same approach, when brought to bear on the biblical texts, will be vigorously challenged. But I think it’s necessary for contemporary Christians to admit that biblical interpretation must take into consideration the socio-historical situatedness of the texts. The worldviews of those writing the texts has a bearing on what was written, and I don’t think it denies any idea of ‘inspiration’ to say so.

Now, I am certainly not saying that the biblical texts are totally useless for modern life. If you think that’s what I’m saying, you are not paying close enough attention. I think they are quite important indeed, which is why I’ve spent so long studying them(!).

What I am saying, quite simply, is that we Christians cannot pretend that these texts are magical documents that break all the rules regarding contextuality and sit, quite unbelievably, suspended in space and time, free from all the rules of responsible interpretation.

To pretend otherwise is nonsense and, I think, harmful.

And, coming full circle, this applies equally to the Second Amendment as it does the biblical texts.

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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

3 thoughts on “The Second Amendment and (Biblical) Hermeneutics”

  1. Thanks for another challenging post. I have also considered the original intent of the amendment and can’t square it off with its current application either. I had not yet thought to push it so far as an example of fundamental hermeneutics. Good call my friend.

    Of course the rebuttal will be more pragmatic in nature. That if we were to open the bible (or the 2nd amendment) up to such interpretation we run the risk of losing everything we have come to value and believe in. This fear is fed by the now polarised debate where we see the ‘other side’ only in its extreme form.

    For me, the thing is that in holding on to what we have ‘come to value and believe’ in has brought us to a point where we are telling the ‘sacred text’ what it means rather than allowing the text to tell us what is valuable. Again this seems true to both the bible and the 2nd amendment.

    Here, I am just going over what you have already said. What I wanted to state we simply that content without context is, at best, misleading. Likewise context with content is misleading in that it leaves us pretty much where we are and leads us nowhere. We need to discipline ourselves to read content taking into account the context as best we can understand it.

    Brian

    1. Hey Brian!

      You are certainly right that the challenge to what I have outlined above is the ‘slippery slope’ argument. And it’s a really hard argument to counter, because if someone can only see things in black-and-white terms it’s the only logical conclusion.

      I really like that final paragraph too; it’s an excellent point!

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