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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Gun Reform or the Horrifying Norm?

The recent mass shooting of young school children (and some of their teachers) in Newtown, Connecticut, has shocked the world. It is truly horrific. It’s hard to even think about without feeling physically ill or having tears begin to well up.

Somewhat predictably, it has also resulted in the same media frenzy – verging on the obsessive – that usually follows such events, as well as the tired emotive rhetoric that stymies actual discussion and which usually results in the maintaining of the status quo (once the news cycle has moved on to the next tragedy, or some Royal somewhere does pretty much anything).

Much has already been written on these events, and there will be much more to come. Knowing this, I would just like to offer a couple of thoughts that, I hope, might be helpful.

1) Firstly, the noble-sounding calls for making sure that this moment is not ‘politicised’ are code for making sure that the policy status quo remains and ensures that this will happen again.

Now, I’m sure that there are some very well-meaning people who are making these calls (just as there are many who know exactly what they are doing). I’m sure that there is a sense for many (especially with the media obsession with these events) that there just needs to be space for the families to grieve in peace. I understand this. I’m also not a fan of cheap political point-scoring.

But one thing I know for sure is that, if the moment is not seized, if policy change is not set in motion while the horror of it all is still being acutely felt, then policy change will not come and this sort of thing will happen again (and again and again). I think recent history has shown, beyond all doubt, that this would certainly be the case.

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for knee-jerk reactions that are based purely on emotion. That rarely (if ever) results in good policy outcomes. What I am arguing for, however, is for all the policy discussion and debate that has happened in the wake of each of these catastrophic events (and there has been a lot!) to be brought to bear on concrete policy being put forward while tide of human good will can carry it. We know what needs to happen. We know the sort of policy that needs to be put forward. Much thought has already gone into this, but ordinary circumstances do not provide the impetus to disrupt business as usual. If this opportunity is lost now, then (and I really do hate to say it) policy reform in this are might be left on hold until the next ‘unthinkable’ tragedy. The time for action is now – right now – because the power of the status quo is, in normal circumstances, simply unchallengeable.

And this brings me to the second point.

2) Actual change on the issue of gun violence in the U.S. will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve.

The history of the U.S. is written in blood.

Birthed in the Revolutionary War, the nation came of age in the Civil War and reached full maturity with the events at the end of WWII. The history of the U.S. is a history of violence and, I would make the claim, violence is part of the nation’s very DNA. This can be seen, I would suggest, in everything from the decimation of the Native American populations, to black lynchings (usually at the hands of crowds of very ‘respectable’ white folk), to gang warfare and drive-by shootings, to modern U.S. foreign policy and the drone murders of thousands of innocents.

(As a kind of excursus here, is it not obscene that the deaths of dozens – or hundreds, or even thousands – of innocent children in drone bombings doesn’t attract the same media attention as the murder of innocent American kids? I am not for one minute trying to play down the absolute horror of this recent tragedy in Connecticut, but rather trying to get my head around the obscenity of the indiscriminate killing of ‘other’ children whose lives don’t seem to be worth as much…)

In this context, the 2nd Amendment (linked as it is to the very birth of the nation) has, I think, become what some might refer to as ‘structural sin’*. This concept is so deeply engrained in the corporate psyche of the nation that it is almost inextricably linked with national identity. And this structural sin has given birth to, dare I say it, a kind of ‘demonic’ entity that seeks to preserve the structural sin from any watering down or, indeed, from being ‘exorcised’ from the Constitution. Yes, I am talking about the NRA (and others like it). These entities hold an inordinate amount of power, and the whole has become something much more than the sum of its parts. They seem to feed on tragedy and grow more aggressive each time their power is tested.

Now, please let me be very, very clear here: my use of such language does not for one moment mean I am saying that this tragedy is some kind of punishment or judgment from God. I am not saying that. I will never say that. I don’t believe that.

What I am saying is that the natural consequences of ‘structural sin’ are things like oppression or exploitation or destruction or death. The specifics can vary, but the effects are always very similar. The powerful cling to self-serving power and the innocent and the vulnerable are trampled under foot.**

And the only way to break the cycle is an act of corporate ownership of the problem – like a new A.A. member admitting that they have a problem and ‘owning’ it – and an act of corporate repentance (which entails an active turning away from the cycle of sin).

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that the 2nd Amendment needs to be ‘thrown out’ (I’m not sure that this would ever be possible, even though it has all the applicability to the modern U.S. as dietary regulations in the Hebrew Scriptures do for Christians***). What I am saying is that there is a possibility to at least put a fence around this structural sin and to limit its power.

And that possibility is available right now.

Though changing attitudes in the U.S. on these issues is an extraordinary task, though it will mean in part challenging the very identity of the nation, I believe there is an opportunity at this moment. Even through all the similar tragedies of the past there has not been enough utter brokenness to see something change. Even with all the good will of those in the U.S. who have passionately and tirelessly campaigned for these changes there has not been enough recognition or acceptance of the extent of the problem to see that change enacted.

But this time it’s different.

This time, it was kids.

I don’t know why, but something seems to happen to us all when innocent kids are involved in these tragedies (well, perhaps ‘kids of people like us’ might better sum it up, but I don’t want to be too cynical here). Somethings breaks inside. Somehow we are able to understand the horror at a deeper level. Somehow it allows a moment of clarity in an otherwise out-of-focus world. I think this article from The Onion sums it up well (language warning!).

Though the task is very difficult – indeed impossible under normal circumstances – I have hope that something good can come from this horror. This doesn’t change anything for the dozens of grieving families and a community brought to its knees (and all the other families and communities devastated by previous tragedies), but it might just mean that other families and communities are spared a similar fate.

America, the time is now. May God be with you at this time.

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* Sometimes referred to as ‘institutional sin’ or ‘corporate sin’.
** Please let me make it clear here that I don’t for one moment believe that all Americans are ‘evil’. That is not what I am saying at all, even though I’m sure some will accuse me of saying this very thing.
*** I make this comparison because I think it’s particularly well suited. Both situations involve the careful exegesis of ‘sacred’ historical texts in situations far removed from their original context.