Idolatry and the AR-15

Is America’s fixation with acquiring firearms a form of idolatry?

By Bill Leonard

A Dec. 29 headline from Mediaite reads, “Gun Sales Soar Following Newtown as Gun Advocates Rush to Stock Up.” Swamped with orders, one Idaho gun store manager was forced to disconnect his phones, because “We were swamped in the store and online.”

The Associated Press noted that “the demand for firearms, ammunition and bulletproof gear has surged since the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.” AP added that since many fear new firearm legislation, “assault rifles are sold out across the country” and “stores are struggling to restock their shelves.”

The Taunton (Mass.) Gazette quoted a gun store owner in nearby Fall River as saying: “We are selling at about three to four times our normal rate...We sold out of AR-15s pretty quickly.” The AR-15 parallels the military’s M-16 assault rifle.

Gun sales are skyrocketing as Americans debate potential legislation limiting the purchase of semi-automatic rifles and their accompanying multi-shot ammunition magazines.

In a recent New York Times op-ed Bill Keller suggested that, “Research estimates that the mean lapsed time from a high-body-count firearm event to baseline apathy is nine days.” He observed that “this particular event has continued to receive media attention through the Christmas season,” with “poling metrics” indicating continued concern for new legislative responses.

These sentiments no doubt contribute to the long lines at gun stores and shows.

Given the apparent fixation with acquiring firearms, especially semi-automatic rifles, is it time for religious folk -- specifically Christian folk -- to raise questions of implicit firearm-idolatry, if not about general ownership, then about certain obsessive/compulsive demands for high-powered firearms in particular?

What is idolatry? Webster’s says it is “the worship of a physical object as a god,” or the “immoderate attachment or devotion to something.” Whatever we obsess about and think we can’t live without has the potential to become idolatrous. Given those spiritual hazards, isn’t it at least worth asking if and where we might have crossed a line?

The dangers of idolatry are detailed by a diverse array of commentators.

In a 2007 essay titled “Talking About Idolatry in a Postmodern Age,” evangelical New York pastor Tim Keller (not to be confused with the Times’ Bill Keller) writes: “Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry.”

Keller continues: “So every human personality, community, thought-form, and culture will be based on some ultimate concern or some ultimate allegiance -- either to God or to some God-substitute. Individually, we will ultimately look either to God or to success, romance, family, status, popularity, beauty or something else to make us feel personally significant and secure, and to guide our choices. Culturally we will ultimately look to either God or to the free market, the state, the elites, the will of the people, science and technology, military might, human reason, racial pride, or something else to make us corporately significant and secure, and to guide our choices.”

Citing the Romans 1:18-25 text, Keller notes that the “two results” of idolatry (verses 21 and 25) include deception (“their thinking became futile and their hearts were darkened”) and slavery (“they worshipped and served” created things).

These days, should we include firearms, especially assault rifles, among those cultural “ultimates” that can turn idolatrous before we know it? Of course we must.

Mars Hill Church pastor Mark Driscoll extends the discussion with his customary directness, noting that idolatry is often what we see only in somebody else’s culture. Our religio-cultural obsessions are excused as mere “hobbies” or “sports.”

Driscoll asks: “Could it be that desire for a good thing has become a bad thing because that desire became a ruling thing?” Might that description of idolatry relate to the recent long lines at gun stores?

In Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N. T. Wright focuses on idolatry accordingly: “Instead of humans being God's wise vice-regents over creation, they ignore the creator and try to worship something less demanding, something that will give them a short-term fix of power or pleasure.”

Does such an insight have any application to today’s firearm-fixated society? And isn’t that a possibility worth exploring?

Reading these commentaries, we must acknowledge that idolatry takes many complex forms evident in every terrible mass murder. Amid such realities, there is the classic Golden Calf episode from Exodus 32 when Aaron performs a bit of idolatrous metallurgy for the Israelites while Moses is on the mountain with God and the Ten Commandments.

Returning, Moses discovers the peoples’ idolatrous behavior, shattering the tablets of the Decalogue and demanding to know why Aaron became enabler. Aaron offers perhaps the saddest and funniest line in all of Exodus: “So they gave the gold to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Idolatrous obsessions are always someone else’s sin, aren’t they? Moses then makes the children of Israel melt down the calf, grind it into powder, sprinkle it on the water and drink it down.

Should semi-automatic firearms be our idolatrous golden calf, let’s hope for a different penance. AR-15s and ammo clips won’t go down so smoothly.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.