“Travel light, live light, spread the light, be the light.”- Yogi Bhajan, photo by Kim Bryant, Fairy Middlin’.
I have struggled and struggled, trying to understand how so much of Evangelical Christianity has gotten entangled with the National Rifle Association. As our country tries to process our latest mass shooting incident, and I watch devout Christians on social media circle the wagons around their guns, all the while offering “thoughts and prayers” to the families who lost loved ones, I am baffled.*
Upon his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, when an apostle cut off the ear of a Roman soldier, Jesus admonished him, saying in the book of Matthew, ” “Put up your sword. All who take the sword die by the sword.” And though Jesus did speak of violence to come, it was the violence of persecution and martyrdom. Not war.
But as I meditated this morning, for some reason I found myself singing an old Sunday School song:
“I may never march in the infantry,
ride in the Calvary,
shoot the artillery. I may never
fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army. Yes, sir.”
There were hand motions, complete with a military salute. And I realized that somehow, over the millenia, we have equated faith with war and violence. There were the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the witch trials. After World War II, and during the Communist scare of the 1960s-1980s, many Christians wove patriotism, militarism, and Christianity into a camouflage fabric. The Constitution, and particularly its Second Amendment, have been granted the same reverence as the Bible, as though both writings, penned by a group of men in the late eighteenth century, are as inerrant and Divinely inspired as the Bible itself. After the Newtown shooting in 2012, English journalist Jonathan Freedland made this observation:
“If you really want to know why the US can’t kick its gun habit, take a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC. You don’t even have to look at the exhibits. Just study the queue. What you’ll see are ordinary Americans lining up, in hushed reverence, to gaze at an original copy of the United States constitution, guarded and under heavily armoured glass. It is no exaggeration to say that for many Americans this is a religious experience.”
I myself have tried to gently discuss the idea that the Constitution is not above needing change, that in the 200 years since it was written, the world has changed and that elements of the document that was written so long ago could use revision. For a Constitutional Believer, that is a non-starter.
And then, there’s this: somehow, many Christians have come to believe that bearing an AR-15 is a sacred right, endowed by God and sanctified by the same Jesus who told Peter to put away his sword.
How did we get to a place where we are teaching seven year olds that being a Christian is equivalent to being a private in the United States Army?
Songs like “His Banner Over Me Is Love” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” reinforce this perception- Christians are here to do battle: battle against the people whose life choices are disagreed with, battle that requires a bump stock. We are an army, and armies need weapons.
The Armor of God that Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesians is this:
“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.’ Ephesians 6: 13-18.
Righteousness, faith, truth, readiness, salvation, the word of God. Paul says nothing about swords, bows and arrows, axes, slings, spears; or the modern day equivalent of handguns, rifles (bolt action or semi automatic), and shotguns.
I became truly aware of this conflation of militaristic patriotism and faith when I took a job teaching in a private Evangelical school in south Texas. I was required to lead my students in the pledge to the “Christian flag” along with the pledge to the Stars and Stripes. And though I had been raised singing about shooting the Lord’s artillery, I was flummoxed. I had never heard of a Christian flag. I felt sick. I began to really encounter this enmeshed belief system in which loyalty to America was synonymous with loyalty to Jesus. I decided not to lead or say that particular pledge, having students do it instead while I quietly stood by. And since my eyes were opened, I have come to believe that loyalty to the Republican party is included there (I learned this when a Christian friend accused me of hating the country because I voted Democrat-the friend was not kidding). In the last two weeks, I have added loyalty to the NRA to the mix. Not for all Christians, no. But for enough.
I have found myself wondering, amongst the money that is spent on guns, how it compares to money spent on feeding the poor. For each donation to the NRA, does the Christian gun advocate donate equally to a relief organization? Maybe.
In her blog “Just a Jesus Follower,” Anna Dimmel cites the New York Times:
“The NY Times recently published an article outlining the top 10 career recipients of N.R.A. The numbers speak volumes regarding the amount of control they have ‘bought’ inside our government.
It’s just gross.” It is, Anna. It really is.
America is not God’s Chosen Nation. That was ancient Israel. We are one of many great nations. God is not wrapped in a robe of red white and blue. Jesus doesn’t wear a camo hunting jacket and red trucker cap emblazoned “Make America Great Again.”
The Divine is greater than jingoism. Jesus would not have carried an AR-15. It’s time for some American Evangelicals to remember whom they profess to serve. Even more, it’s time for the compassionate, loving Christians to speak up. They can change the conversation if they will just gird themselves in that powerful and true armor of God.
Here’s Anna Dimmel’s blog:
*In the interest of full disclosure- I am what some would probably called “lapsed.” Maybe “Lost” or “Fallen.” My frustration with some of the issues I have described here, along with the church’s treatment of women, and other more personal issues, have left me unable to face organized church. But I do love God. Jesus is a friend.
It’s baseball season! And since I live in Houston, the home of the current World Champ Astros, for whom I just bought a new team shirt and am anxiously awaiting the chance to go to a game at Minutemaid Park, I find myself contemplating the concept of sport. Of Competition. I wonder how much we Americans are conditioned to Competitiveness and how much is innate. Clearly, some element of Competition has existed in humanity before there was even organized society. Cain Competed with Abel for Adam’s esteem, spilling blood to be the favorite. The Greeks held magnificent athletic and artistic Competitions in the original Olympic games. Who was Alexander but the most Competitive general to lead an army?
So I don’t really have a problem with Competition. It is a necessary force that pushes humanity to make new discoveries, chart new frontiers, and achieve excellence.
But sometimes I wonder why we have seemingly made everything here in America about being the best. We give trophies and tiaras to four year olds who prance and priss better than the other little girls. We pit students against each other in spelling bees in first grade so that the adept learners can lord it over the ones who are a little (or a lot) behind. We award trophies to kids for being on a sports team, making the trophy the desired end, rather than emphasizing the lessons learned about sportsmanship and personal physical fitness.
It is a mentality that permeates every single aspect of American life. We rate our movies according to top box office gross every Monday morning. We look at the cars next to us at the red lights and either pat ourselves mentally or grit our teeth in envy. We slave endlessly (or pay yard workers to) so that we might put that “Yard of the Month” sign in our front yards. Most women eyeball each other in the mall, comparing rear ends, wrinkles, and wardrobes. We brag about our kids’ grades on bumper stickers. It’s in our schools, our churches, our businesses, our neighborhoods.
Even when the cause is worthwhile we compete. Weight loss competitions abound in businesses. Companies use competition as a marketing tool, cloaking it in contests for charity. For goodness’ sake our kids even compete for medals to see who can read the Bible best (how in the world we American Evangelicals could have imagined that children showing each other up is a Jesus thing is just incomprehensible to me)!
So no wonder we Americans believe we live in THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD! Most of us have never visited any other country, but our Competitive conditioning tell us it must be so. That ideology was a deciding factor in our most recent presidential election. Competition, not competence. Supremacy over alliance.
I don’t think I really am very Competitive by nature, though I think growing up in American culture can impart a pretty fierce dog-eat-dog mentality in all but the the most passive . I could never enjoy the fierce push to win at team sports, it seemed a silly waste of mental energy to me. When we had to shake hands and say “Good Game” I just wanted to make friends with everybody. I didn’t enjoy the All State Choir audition process in high school. I enjoyed the singing, but not watching some girls cry whose names were not called out. When our class elected its top ten most popular senior girls, I was #12. I watched as girls strategized and agonized about getting on that list, and I could not have cared less about that vote. I was surprised I got as close as I did. One of the top ten boys, Kevin R., told me in my yearbook that I could have been so popular if I had just tried a little harder. As a young adult I couldn’t have cared less about having better stuff than my peers. Still don’t.
As a theatre teacher, I found myself immersed in the arts, and Competition was probably one of my least favorite aspects of the job. Year after year I watched my students create beautiful work onstage and backstage. They were full of pride in their accomplishment. They gloried in the story they had told and they knew they had learned and grown in their craft as well as in their humanity. Then the trophies and medals got handed out and the kids without gold sparkly things suddenly doubted everything they thought about the art they had created. As a director, I had begun to start thinking cunningly, plotting for a win rather than for learning. Principals like it when you can set a trophy on their desks.
Irony of ironies, now that I am no longer a full time theatre educator, I serve as a judge at those very competitions. I go into those days with the goal of teaching and edifying the kids. Most of my judicial colleagues do, too.
I did discover that once the competitive element of trophies was introduced into my local community theatre stomping ground, much of my joy in that hobby was lost. I don’t get involved any more. I guess I have had one too many conversations with people who introduce themselves with their number or trophies, or who find ways to work their victories into conversation.
I am all for excellence. Anyone who knows me well knows I do not tolerate laziness or mediocrity. I used to lay that burden on others. I held everyone to my standards. Then I let go, and just held myself to a constant and unrelenting expectation of quality. That exhausted me. Through my practice of yoga, I have learned that winning has its place, but so does failure; that excellence is a worthy goal, but sometimes relenting and just being is just as worthwhile.
I envision a world where kids play on rotating sports teams, drawn by lotto. Everyone works out and plays together and switches teams to make new friends and team parties at the end of the season include the whole league in one great big bouncy castle. The top spellers help the ones who are having a hard time. The beautiful popular girls hang out with the regular girls doing stuff completely unrelated to fashion, makeup, and boys. Neighbors come together to help each other with their yards. Plays are not pitted against each other in UIL, so that students and directors can come together and share their work and inspire each other without worrying about medal count, and Americans take the time to learn about all the beautiful countries and societies that populate our planet, appreciating cultural and religious diversity without feeling somehow disloyal to the States.
I may not be the thinnest or most beautiful woman, most talented performer, best mom, winning cook, or most decorated high school director. Fortunately, I now know (at least 80% of the time) that it just doesn’t matter. What I am is a human being discovering her own path, knowing that her path is not a race track. There is no medal for winning at the end. There is only the love we leave behind as our legacy, and there’s no blue ribbon for that.