Like many parents yesterday, both shock and relief flooded over me as I heard the news about the school shooting in Florida. I am ashamed to admit it, but it’s true. Shock is obvious, we all felt it. Relief came in the selfish solace that it wasn’t my child’s school. My local school sent out a letter to parents about safety measures they were taking, and they asked the community to keep the kids and parents in Florida in their thoughts and prayers. I read it with all seriousness, but I still couldn’t shake that sense of relief that my child was safe. Me. Mine.
Of course, my relief was short-lived. Unlike 17 other parents in Florida, my son came home, and his questions about the shooting made me realize that his worry and concern made my self-concern look asinine. We turned on CNN later that evening, and as the TV flickered to life, shots rang from its speakers. Anderson Cooper wanted to world to hear and see the horror recorded on a cell phone in one of the classrooms. The shock returned, but this time I wasn’t alone. My son stared at the screen. He looked at me, and here I admit my failure again: I had nothing to say to him. Now I can’t get his staring face out of my head. That he is 13 years old and must contemplate being mowed down in a classroom is something no child should endure.
Today, most of us are still trying to understand what happened. There are the standard calls to action. I was heartened to see a student at the school, David Hogg, take the mic from the CNN reporter at 8:22 am on February 15, 2018 and declare that he wasn’t afraid, and he wasn’t going to sit by and let this happen again. He demanded action. He is right. We won’t remember David Hogg by this time tomorrow.
What David hasn’t quite realized, and what I want to deny even within myself and my initial reaction to the shootings — the reaction of “me” and “mine” — is that we have already witnessed the end of our beloved community (our nation and society, our polis), and we will continue to watch this decline progress into madness in the coming years. We will do this because we are a society of self-made individuals, all with inalienable “rights” who owe no obligation to another. We, each and every one of us, would be all-in-all. We are a cluster of black holes, and we will consume one another in the end.
Here I owe an incredible debt to my colleague who re-posted a 2012 article by Gary Wills entitled “Our Moloch.” Written in the days following the Sandy Hook school shooting, Wills makes the basic point that we, as a nation, have not and will not take action in further restricting gun laws because we have turned the gun into a modern day Moloch. For those unfamiliar with the term, Moloch was a ancient near eastern god that required child sacrifice, and is mentioned and condemned at several points in Hebrew Scripture. False worship of gods like Moloch is both an act of idolatry (infidelity to God) and poison because Moloch demands we place our own future on the altar for immediate, self-centered gain.
I agree with much of what Wills writes, but I think his fundamental thesis is wrong. No, the gun isn’t our Moloch. We are Moloch. Yes, we sacrifice our children to Moloch when we refuse to reign in gun sales, but we also sacrifice to Moloch in countless other ways. Hundreds of thousands of children in this wealthy nation of ours wake up every morning unsure of where their next meal will come from, but we have no money in our coffers to feed them. Many of those same children have no access to basic medical care that may save their lives. Millions of children around the world will be killed in conflict, starve to death, or die from lack of clean water, meanwhile we increase defense spending at a rate many times the number necessary to solve these ills.
In every instance of sacrifice, you can hear the eldritch refrain behind our many refusals to act justly. Our incantation is “rights” talk. We say we have a god-given, inalienable “right” to have access to guns. We have a god-given, inalienable “right” to property, financial gain, and not to be forced via taxation to share with the needy. We have the “right” to defend ourselves, and moreover, to project our military might so as to preemptively deter aggressors both domestically and abroad. Our “rights” are our prayers to Moloch, and we pray to ourselves because we see the world and all that fills it as the basic guarantor of our “right” to freedom, enjoyment and gain. Me. Mine.
The problem with our liturgies of “rights” talk is that having a right only makes sense within the context of a beloved community (a society). What this means is that in order to affirm and guarantee those rights for individuals, our rights talk must inevitably give way to the language of love.
The right to bear a weapon is the right, yes, to defend yourself, but also your family, and as the Second Amendment suggests, your beloved community through militias sworn to protect and serve neighbors. Such a right warrants restriction when the community we love comes under attack. The right to property and pursue economic prosperity is indeed the right to own things and put them to good and constructive use, but this right is exercised within a larger society from which we derive many benefits (like the permission to form a corporation) and to which our economic pursuits are called to service born of love. Such a right must have limits so that all might have a level playing field from which to both compete and derive benefit from our social arrangements. The right to defend the nation through the establishment of a military is a good that allows us to provided for a common defense. Such a right, justly exercised, is always aimed at the goal of peace, and certainly not perpetual war.
Using language from an older day and time, we used to refer to this love for the community as responsibility. Living in a beloved community necessarily entailed the responsibility to care for it and maintain it. I can’t quite name for you the time and place this concept was lost in our national conversation, but I think in light of our inability to act responsibly on such pressing matters as gun, health care and spending reform, we can effectively pronounce our community is beloved no more. There is no room for service in love to something higher than ourselves and our rights when we are Moloch, when we and our individual desires are all that matter.
If we are to have a future, and I want to hope that we can, all our rights talk will have to revisit the question of what it means to both belong to a community that we love, and in which we are loved. In short, we must repent of our idolatry, our cult of self, and turn towards worship and love of life in all its intimate connections of love. I think it is time for us to take a closer look at those first three commandments.