The sound of skidding tires filled the air as the car spun around, the window rolled down, and an arm reached out. It wasn’t until the third shot that I realized that I was staring down the barrel of a gun. With nowhere to hide, a man within 10 feet of me getting hit, and the gun turning my direction, I immediately fell to the ground as multiple shots went above my head and the car sped away. Thankfully, we all survived.
A few years later, I was in the parking lot at my pizza delivery job with my manager when a man armed with a machete ordered us into the store. I slowly walked away, called 911, and talked with the dispatcher as the armed man robbed three stores.
Then when my wife was 38 weeks pregnant, I woke up one night to hands touching my feet. Initially, I assumed it was my wife walking through the dark. But then I turned to my left and noticed that she was still in bed with me. When I looked back to the foot of my bed, there was the outline of a man staring down at us. I lunged at him while yelling for my wife to turn on the lights. And when she did, we saw that the man had stripped down to his underwear. Two days later when the intruder knocked on our door to apologize after being released by the police, I told him, “If I had a gun, you could have died.”
America and guns: It’s complicated
The relationship in America between weapons, violence and self-defense is complicated. Guns are used every day to threaten or take innocent lives. Yet even when guns are not involved, other weapons can be utilized. While there are many Americans who use weapons for self-defense, using those weapons to kill may lead to unnecessary deaths.
In the case of my intruder, I let him use the restroom and gave him a blanket to wrap up in so he could sleep until the police arrived. Automatically shooting him for being at my bed in his underwear at 3 a.m. may have made logical sense to many but would have been totally unnecessary. Yet, if he had a weapon and was dangerous, my wife and I could have been killed.
To complicate these scenarios even further, we have the Second Amendment that has allowed “a well-regulated militia” from more than two centuries ago to be interpreted as a guarantee for individuals today to carry AR-15s with total animosity for any talk of regulations.
It is no wonder, then, that Americans are deeply divided over how to process these complex scenarios and priorities.
363 mass shootings already this year
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there had been 363 mass shootings in the United States in 2021 as of July 17, with a “mass shooting” being defined as at least four people other than the shooter being injured or killed. There have been 24,049 gun-related deaths during this time, including 1,166 verified unintentional shootings.
The Washington Post recently reported that 2020 was “the deadliest year of gun violence in at least two decades” and that 2021 is outpacing 2020 for the number of people killed by guns.
Unprecedented increase in gun sales
Our collective fear of one another combined with the hopeless levels of inequality and the continued spread of police violence in the midst of the pressures of the pandemic have led to an unprecedented number of people purchasing guns for the first time. According to data from a survey taken by the University of Chicago, gun ownership in America went from 32% to 39% in 2020. The Washington Post reported the stories of people who had been against guns for many years suddenly buying them for the first time. They quoted one woman saying: “I never felt like I would want to own a gun because of the damage I thought they do to people. But when I started feeling unsafe, all of that changed.”
“I never felt like I would want to own a gun because of the damage I thought they do to people. But when I started feeling unsafe, all of that changed.”
Despite these unprecedented levels of gun violence and the growth in gun sales, Americans are sharply divided over what to do about it. According to a National Tracking Poll taken by Politico June 18-20, 2021, 43% of registered voters trust Republicans while 41% trust Democrats in handling gun policy. The most pronounced differences are related to ethnicity and religion. Regarding ethnicity, just 37% of white voters and 41% of Hispanic voters trust the Democrats compared to 62% of Black voters. While 48% of white voters and 38% of Hispanic voters trust the Republicans, just 17% of Black voters trust the Republicans.
Regarding religion, atheists trust the Democrats to handle gun policy better than Republicans by a margin of 63% to 25%, while evangelicals trust the Republicans over the Democrats 58% to 30%. And while 49% of atheists believe that passing additional gun restrictions should be a top priority, just 23% of evangelicals do.
Due to our extreme divides along ethnic, religious and political lines, arriving at policies that unite us and solve our problem is going to be nearly impossible, although still necessary to move toward.
In addition to discussing where and how we purchase guns, we need to begin asking why we are purchasing so many.
Fueled by fear and anger
The only time I’ve held a loaded gun was once as a teenager. My friend and I were walking through the Georgia woods to go hunting. And while I never went hunting again, I understand that many people purchase guns to hunt for food for their families. Having grown up in Georgia, I also understand that many people purchase guns to hunt for sport. As someone who has moved more into a contemplative mysticism that sees and loves the relationship of all in creation, I do not personally resonate with these motivations.
While I may not resonate with these motivations, I recognize that some do. But these are not the reasons that gun sales are soaring. The top reasons experts say gun sales and gun violence are soaring are fear and anger.
“The top reasons experts say gun sales and gun violence are soaring are fear and anger.”
Bernard Golden recently wrote in Psychology Today that “the desire for mental and physical safety is a core motivational force for all of us.” During this season of sharp disagreements, rising violence and millions of people dying in the pandemic, our mental and physical safety are being threatened at a level that most people who are alive today never have had to process.
Golden explains how fear can cause us to enter into withdrawal in a way that triggers our anger when it becomes excessive anxiety. He says that when we feel the loss of control, “anger can be energizing and empowering.”
While Golden recognizes that anger can be a powerful fuel for the positive pursuit of championing a cause, such as at peaceful protest, he also explains that it can become a way to “create distance in a relationship or exert control, as in bullying.”
Now imagine a country that was built by violence over others, that has seen a rise in vitriolic political rhetoric led by a president who fueled an insurrection attempt, that believes justice is to be enacted through violent retribution, and that has been overcome with fear and anxiety — imagine that country full of anger that feels the need to exert control while having a constitutional right to take semi-automatic weapons out in public.
Grasping for control
This fear-fueled grasping of control over others is a cultural phenomenon rooted in a theology that goes back for centuries.
In a recent interview, Wendell Griffen told me the story of a Black preacher named William Augustus Jones who wrote God and the Ghetto. Griffen said that he heard Jones speak 40 years ago at a pastors’ conference hosted by Arkansas Baptist College. During a sermon, Jones said: “Bad theology produces demented psychology. Demented psychology produces dysfunctional sociology. Dysfunctional sociology always produces oppressive anthropology. And then they always produce oppressive economics and ideologies.”
“It all flows from bad theology. If your notion of God is wrong or flawed, your notion of self and others and power is wrong.”
Griffen reflected: “It all flows from bad theology. If your notion of God is wrong or flawed, your notion of self and others and power is wrong.”
David Bentley Hart spoke of how our theology of God fuels our power dynamics toward others recently, saying that Western Christianity has believed in a “God of absolute sovereign will and power who’s sort of a cartoon of a king on his throne with absolute privilege and potency. And then that becomes the model of the sovereign self because the self becomes a mirror of the God who is most high so that the pure, sovereign God of 16th and 17th century theology becomes a reflection of the absolute sovereign of the emerging nation state.”
In other words, our hierarchical theology of God at the top exerting absolute control over everyone below has been mirrored in the way America has built a nation-state by exerting power and control over everyone white supremacists deemed lower on the hierarchy.
Hart continued, “By the end of the 16th and 17th centuries, it’s gotten to the point where God is a bit of … a bad guy, just a tyrant, a sovereign, just pure predestining … absolute power exercising itself for the sake of power. And then that becomes the paradigm for what it is to be human, to be a sovereign individual self. To be free is to be a little god.”
“We also need to be willing to move inward and reflect on the fear and anger within us that are being harnessed by our theologies of control.”
The gun conversation we’re not having
It is no wonder that our American culture, which has been shaped by a theology of God exercising absolute divine control through the retributive justice of violent anger against all who threaten his power, would interpret freedom as their mirroring of that God toward those who threaten their power.
As we continue conversing about gun violence, we need to be willing to give some room for those who want to defend or feed their families. We need to give space for differences of opinion on gun-related policies due to the complex nature of how violence occurs.
But we also need to be willing to move inward and reflect on the fear and anger within us that are being harnessed by our theologies of control and consider to what degree our claims of “freedom to bear arms” have become the freedom of little gods trying to hold on to lost control by mirroring a God who enacts justice through violence.
Rick Pidcock currently serves as a Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a master of arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five kids and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder.
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