Friday, August 9, 2019

With God on Our Side

A version of this piece was published in the Concord Monitor 8/19/19

That's me up the Mekong River in Vietnam, February 1967
With God on Our Side

The best argument for gun safety is not political but theological, according to James Atwood in his eye-opening book, America And Its Guns; he argues that the tens of thousands of gun deaths in American each year cannot be understood apart from our national myth that God has appointed America as “the trustee of the civilization of the world.”

I believe his argument provides the missing ingredient to understanding our gun violence problem. In part, Atwood is repeating the refrain from Bob Dylan’s song. “With God on Our Side,” as we see in this representative verse:

Oh, the history books tell it
They tell it so well…
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh, the country was young
With God on its side

I would go one step further and contend that to those, who live by the gun, no longer insist that the gun is an agent of God’s will; they see the gun, in and of itself, as naked power to be used as they want. No longer is there any pretense about appealing to a higher power!

That’s the message of the perpetrator of the recent Gilroy Garlic Festival mass killing, who wrote a post before starting shooting, directing his audience toward an novel, glorified by white supremacists: “Might is Right.”

Laissez-faire capitalism has lead our country down the path toward extreme individualism to the point where morality and ethics no longer seem to count. We are becoming the nation of Trump where everything is a transactional exchange. The goal is to come out on top: to win by any means possible.

If our world is truly a dog-eat-dog world where we must fight those around us just to survive, then having a gun gives us the edge. If the philosopher Thomas Hobbs was correct that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, the gun would be his god.

Today, we are driving people into Hobbs’ arms, like the mother, who, after surviving the El Passo massacre, has given up hope of justice: she told reporters that she is buying a gun and and will take lessons to learn how to use it.⁠1

Fear walks  the land.

If you are on the road to Jerico, you might encounter a stranger who will rob you, beat you, and leave you as half dead. You might be walking home from the convenience store eating candy and meet George Zimmerman, who shots you dead because he is “standing his ground.” You might be a black teenager who is shot because he knocked on a neighbor’s door asking for help, after his car broke down.

Luckily, for the vast majority of us – especially white, straight Americans – none of these traumatic outcomes will ever happen to us. Instead, the chances are, in our time of need, we will meet a good samaritan who will help us, not the evil other of our over-active imaginations.

For sure, mass killings have increased, in part because of increased bigotry and resurgence of white nationalism. But we must resist shrill voices, seeking to stampede us even further into the cult of the gun.

Crying wolf creates fear which attracts eye balls to mass media and makes money for stockholders, and fear mongering can result in victory for unscrupulous politicians who promise to deport those who allegedly cause all our problems.

Yes, screaming that the sky is falling has been an effective tactic: Surveys consistently show that American voters believe crime is sky-rocketing. In reality, the polling of all reputable organizations, such as the Pew Research Center, show the opposite: Violent crime in the U.S. has plummeted  over the past quarter century.

It is heartbreaking to see that ideology has trumped reality in the country I love. We are not – and were not meant to be– isolated individuals thrown into a cage fight with each other. Our evolutionary history is a better guide to who we are.

Throughout our evolution, humans have been – and still are –  vulnerable and incomplete as individuals. On the savanna, predators were faster and stronger than we were. Only by trusting each other enough to band together and cooperate could we survive. The strong community we built became, in essence, a greater organism, allowing us to negotiate our way forward, prospering while building great civilizations.

This social consciousness, based on love, compassion, and trust, is the essence of who we are. It is what, I think, some call God. 

Or we could call it perennial wisdom, an ancient pedigree that philosophers, like David Bentley Hart, value above all else: “I tend to believe that goodness, love and moral beauty are substantial and eternal realities that attest to themselves quite immediately to any rational nature.”⁠2

James Atwood is 100% correct. The solution to America’s problems, including our gun problem, is spiritual, not political.


1 From Los Angeles Times, 8/6/19. “Gilroy shooter’s target list prompts domestic terrorism probe by FBI.” By Hannah Fry, Richard Winton