I am always happy when I can find myself in agreement with my former MSU colleague Dr. Winfield Rose. For the past several weeks, I have been pondering his recent column on gun violence and I am pleased to find myself in agreement about the scope of the problem.
Friend Winfield made the point that gun violence is a multi-faceted problem that calls for more attention to things other than guns themselves. In particular, he wrote, we need to pay attention to the prevalence of mental and emotional illness in our society as well as to the substance abuse problems we face.
These are good points to consider, even if they do not diminish our need to keep guns out of the hands of unstable people. Dr. Rose noted that one could buy a gun and later become unstable. True enough, but we are selling guns with fewer checks than some agencies require to adopt a dog. We need to keep large magazine weapons out of in appropriate civilian hands.
I would suggest even expanding our view of gun violence beyond Dr. Rose’s broader view of this problem. Such an expansion was suggested in a recent article by New York Times columnist Tish Harrison Warren (2-26-23). In her essay, she noted that our culture is bedeviled (pun intended) by idolatry, a term usually reserved for people worshiping a golden calf in ancient times.
When I was young, idolatry was defined as treating something other than God as our god; a recent definition I found on Google reduced the meaning of idolatry to “extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone.” That says much about our increasing secular culture these days.
Idolatry, Warren believes, “describes a devotion even to good things that is excessive” and she quoted Reformation leader John Calvin who said that “the human heart is an idol factory.”
One website I found listed ten modern day idols “we still worship.” The list included the usual suspects: physical appearance, job or status, money and material things; it also added phones (technology), sex and comfort and even our own identity or self-image as other entries on the list.
I would add guns in America—and the power that they represent—to the list of modern idols. Despite our ready denials, we have in the United States, “a profound devotion to guns,” Warren notes. We have more guns than people, a situation not found in any other nation.
Politicians have their pictures taken proudly holding guns; one Kentucky representative even included his gun-toting family in a Christmas picture sent to constituents.
“The false gods of power promise to keep us safe,” writes Warren, and that is why we so love guns, the tangible agent of our power. Misuse of guns may be an individual sin, but it is one supported by “a broader cultural idolatry that makes any individual sin easier to commit.” It is a communal sin that we do not have gun control laws to protect our children and other citizens
It is also true, Warren reminds us, that idolatry is bipartisan. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have been known to put their desire for power ahead of reason and common sense.
“Understanding our hearts as idol factories invites us to the difficult work of honesty and humility,” in Warren’s words. This realization could make us more tolerant of those who differ from us, those we want to call enemies instead of opponents.
So the bottom line is that gun violence is a personal, systemic, political, social, and moral malfunction in our lives. Reducing the numbers of guns would help but, as colleague Winfield would doubtless agree, this is about as likely to happen as the arrival of little green men from Pluto.
The problem of too many guns, like many others confronting us, can be addressed when we stop worshipping idols. Our history suggests this will not happen any time soon.
Maybe we’d have better luck attacking illegal drugs and mental/emotional illnesses. That would address far more than just the problem of gun violence.
A stronger, safer nation for all of us could be the result.
Ken Wolf is a Democrat and a retired Murray State University history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinion of the Murray Ledger & Times.
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