As we talk about the number and effects of guns in our midst, a cluster of concerns arises: public safety, constitutional rights, and policy decisions, among others. These topics, though, live and breathe in the air of our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. It may be helpful, then – despite the gallons of ink already spilled in this debate – to consider a political theological perspective that seems largely missing.
In his December 21, 2012 press conference, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre called for armed security at schools, claiming that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” LaPierre assumes that the gun is simply a tool, subservient to the purposes and moral-psychological makeup of its bearer (the satirical call for the regulation of hammers made by Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas works from the same assumption). Thus, the “unknown number of genuine monsters” dwelling in the shadows of our society – presumably growing from the ranks of people with mental illnesses, whom LaPierre wants the government to document and track – use what would be a harmless object in the hands of someone not “so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.” In this statement, LaPierre’s world seems populated only by these “good guys” and “bad guys”, with little room for a more diverse cast of characters: the “sick guy”, “desperate guy”, etc. This simple distinction is necessary to create space for describing the gun as simply an extension of its bearer: rather than enable new horrors, the gun merely actualizes the potential for evil among a troubled few.
These assumptions – the bifurcation of social history into good and evil and the contest between them fought with mere tools – also lie behind the abundant historical and counterfactual speculations to which gun rights advocates help themselves. If only the “good guys” were better armed, they could stop the “bad guys” from committing their horrible evils. In this vein, Larry Ward, organizer of “Gun Appreciation Day” and president of Political Media, Inc., suggests that if only slaves had guns, the United States might have avoided one of the ugliest chapters in its history. Stalin and Hitler came for the guns, we are told over and over again, and perhaps had their first victims been well-armed, millions could have survived their murderous intentions. Aside from the impossibility of confirming or falsifying them, these counterfactuals have the virtue, for those who employ them, of appealing to sympathy for the genuine victims of horrific evils, reinforcing both the “good guy”/“bad guy” conflict and the hope that our weapons can save us.
We can see that this hope is misplaced – in fact, disastrous – from at least one perspective opened by 20th century political theology. This is the tradition of retrieval of the Pauline language of “principalities and powers”, prefigured by Aulén and exemplified by Berkhof, Barth, Yoder, Wink, Stringfellow, and others. Within this conversation, to read in Ephesians that we struggle “not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,” is to displace the friend-enemy distinction from its position among groups of people (“good guys” and “bad guys”) to an opposition between humanity and the fallen “structures” or forces that constitute our lived reality (6:12, NRSV). That is, these “powers” represent the collective effects of human capacities – capitalism, communism, and the economy, ideology, religion, family, among others – that take on a life of their own and are inexplicable with reference to single human actors. Without them, life is not life, but bare potency. The powers give patterned and ordered rhythms to our life together. Yet, in their corrupt form, the powers not only support and nourish but also threaten and ravage human life. Our own capacities become alienated from our conscious intentions. For example, “the economy”, the sum of human productive and consumptive activity, seems to act on us in ways with which no single group or actor can simply be identified, and rains down suffering as much as blessing.
From this perspective – and here, I echo in a different register much of what Thomas A. James wrote in this space on December 21 – we can better understand the hold that guns have on our collective imagination and practice. When the human capacity to kill reaches a certain dizzying height, it seems that the only safe path is to surrender ourselves to that same capacity in hopes that it will befriend us, rather than destroy our children. Thus, in the name of self-defense or defense against possible tyranny, we have armed ourselves to the teeth with guns that number in the hundreds of millions and yet fall victim to previously inconceivable levels of violence. The proposed solution is more: more weapons, more armed guards, more fighting violence with violence. It is as if our weapons have developed an independent strategy for their own self-perpetuation; a kind of protection racket without any single person pulling the strings. Of course, these weapons themselves are metal and not mind. Yet, to us they become something more than mere tools. They become representations and means of our power over each other, and in the struggle to expand and secure that power – even in the name of seemingly innocent ideals – these weapons become unrelenting masters.
If this perspective on the power of guns illustrates part of the story, then the gun control debate ought to occur on different terms. Whatever its particular implications may be for questions of constitutional protections and policy decisions, it tells us that any view that treats guns as simply subordinate to the purposes of those who wield them only partially describes their effect on us. We have to take into account that the expansion of human power – in this case, to wound and kill – itself draws us into certain situations and logics that may render us the subjects of our ability and technology. Looking at gun control through the lens of “the powers” enables us to see how the actions we take contribute to a living and dynamic culture in which personal responsibility of the sort that allows us to demarcate “good guys” from “bad guys” is not eradicated, but complicated. Each one of us benefits from the protection assured by the threat of guns; each one of us could be the next life they claim as recompense, without regard for personal rectitude. This perspective would require us – all of us, though in different ways and to different degrees – to see ourselves as both complicit with this power and the victims of it.
In the end, the irony of the term “gun control” is that it is far less clear than we usually assume just how much we control our guns, and how much guns control us.
Rick Elgendy is a Ph.D. candidate in political theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is writing a dissertation on power and the concept of “the powers” in 20th century thought.