Sunday, December 30, 2012

Human Sacrifice and the False Idol of Firearms

In his 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman wrote that

the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make life worth living. (p. xii)

Postman introduced the term technopoly to refer to a culture in which the growth of technology is unchecked and unrestrained, and comes to dominate all aspects of society.  As he explains

Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology. (p. 71)
Writing over two decades ago, Postman suggests that the United States is the only technopoly in the world, although others are aspiring to that state. Whether we are still alone in our culture's total surrender to the technological imperative is an open question, but even if we are not, we are certainly unique in being the first, and furthest along.

But I want to modify Postman's argument slightly, to say that technology is not so much a deity as it is a religion. And as a religion, it is not a form of monotheism, but rather presents us with a pantheon of gods of the machine, some of which are openly worshiped with great enthusiasm, others not so much. For example, the automobile is one of our most cherished deities, a god to whom we give enormous love and devotion, for whom we build numerous altars  and indeed alter the entire landscape, and to whom we sacrifice an enormous amount of our resources, and beyond that,
some 30,000 lives every year.  In contrast, the locomotive is a god that once enjoyed great respect and admiration in this land, but whose worship has been in sharp decline for many decades now.

A similar example is the technology of the printing press, which is enshrined in the first amendment to our constitution, and still enjoys great prestige, but in regard to  its places of worship, attendance and affiliation has been in a downward spiral (much as it has been for traditional churches and synagogues), displaced by younger gods who prefer the title media rather than press, most notably television, computers, the internet, and the pocket gods we call cell phones.

And getting to the main point now, the second amendment, in language so convoluted that it requires almost as much exegesis as biblical passages written in ancient Hebrew, seemingly deifies another technology, arms, which is interpreted as firearms, the gun as god. How else can we explain the inexplicable response on the part of the National Rifle Association to the tragic shooting of 20 children and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, by which I mean the absolute refusal to consider that guns may have had anything to do with the event, and the absolute refusal to consider that any measure of limits, even the most modest, on gun ownership might be called for?

How else to explain the fact that, in the wake of the tragedy, gun worshipers rushed out to buy even more guns, especially of the sort used in the Newtown shooting? Is this not the power of belief, of faith, of worship?

Let me be plain about this. Guns do not represent freedom. As technologies specifically designed to cause injury and harm, to maim and to kill, they are a threat to freedom. Guns do not represent safety or security. There are alternatives to firearms that can fulfill that function. What do guns mean, what do they symbolize? Freud would point to their phallic quality, a point that no doubt would be open to ridicule by many, and that I'm not putting forth seriously here, although let's not forget that almost all gun violence is caused by men. But many critics of Freud have argued that what he interpreted as sexual is really about power. And while I am not in the habit of drawing on the French cultural critic Michel Foucault, in this instance I think his emphasis on power relations as something that permeates culture, beyond the power of the state, is relevant. Knowledge is power, yes, but in practical terms it's know-how that is power, in other words it's not just science, but applied science, technology.  Technology is about power, the power to get things done by the most efficient means available, and guns provide the power to cause damage and death more efficiently than any other method available to the average citizen.

The meaning of the gun is power. The worship of guns is the worship of power, the belief that this divine power will be bestowed upon the worshiper. The concept of deities is of beings that are supernatural, above nature, and therefore of much greater power than human beings. In monotheism, God is often referred to as the Almighty, which is to say all-powerful. Technology, being a form of polytheism, the gun is not almighty, but it is worshiped for the less than absolute power that it grants. Traditionally, the power of divine entities would be invoked through rituals, through sacrifice, through prayer, and the worshiper could never be certain of whether the deity would respond in any way. But our technological gods do respond, immediately and effectively, in granting us the power we seek.

As a religion, technology delivers. But only in regard to the utilitarian, the pragmatic. When it comes to traditional religions, and I would venture to add religions that are genuine religions, there are many other things individuals pray for aside from power: guidance, wisdom, compassion, forgiveness, peace. We pray for the souls of the dead, we pray for the healing of the wounded, we pray that survivors may be comforted in their grief and mourning, we pray for the strength to carry on through adversity. Individuals may pray for the ability to do God's will, or may meditate as a way of listening for God's voice, or simply to open themselves to the sacred dimension of the world, and seek communion with the divine.  Perhaps most importantly, traditional religions include prayers for mercy, expressions of respect, awe and even fear  of divine judgment, an understanding that there are requirements for right conduct, moral behavior, as a precondition for divine providence, and against the possibility of divine punishment.  Technology makes no such requirements of us. Holding aside the validity of religious beliefs, it is clear that traditional religion plays an important role in providing a foundation for ethical behavior, and from a sociological perspective fulfills a positive function. Technological religion, on the other hand, does not, and that is the key idea to keep in mind.

Turning back now to gun worship, I'd like to introduce the comments of Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, former president of the Union for Reform Judaism, taken from a Huffington Post essay dated December 18, and entitled Gun Worship Is Blasphemy. Rabbi Yoffie begins by framing the issue of gun control within a religious context:

Above all, let us remember this: Sensible gun-control is a religious issue.

The indiscriminate distribution of guns is an offense against God and humanity.

Controlling guns is not only a political matter; it is a solemn religious obligation. Our gun-flooded society has turned weapons into idols, and the worship of idols must be recognized for what it is: blasphemy. And the only appropriate religious response to blasphemy is sustained moral outrage and focused moral action.

There is not a single word in the sacred Scriptures of the Christian, Jewish or Islamic traditions that either opposes commonsensical gun control or supports the idea of some God-given right to automatic weapons that fire 100 shots in a single minute.

Yes, our constitution gives us certain guarantees when it comes to gun ownership. But there is nothing in the constitution that says we are entitled to own weapons with a magazine of more than eight to 10 bullets. There is nothing that obligates us to go along with what the NRA has long advocated: the right of almost any terrorist suspect, deranged person, wife-beater and crook to buy almost any weapon at almost any time, no questions asked.

At this point, I want to repeat the point I made in my previous post, On Guns and More, that the second amendment is not scripture, that the Bill of Rights is not the Ten Commandments, that the constitution can be amended and that includes the amendments themselves, and that amendments can be repealed, and it's time to start talking about repealing the second amendment. But let me return to Rabbi Yoffie, and his plea for a response from the faith community:

When these terrible tragedies occur, our nation looks to its religious leaders and its places of worship to provide comfort to the victims and solace to a stricken nation. And it is important that we should do so; we have the capacity to mobilize communities of the faithful, to provide love and caring to those in distress, and to hold our fellow Americans together when anguish and fear are driving us apart.

But at this moment, more is needed of the religious community. As men and women of God, we need to take the moral offensive and demand that something be done.

My plea to every pastor, priest, rabbi and imam in America: This is not the time for the usual platitudes. And yes, we need programs for troubled teens and fewer bloodthirsty movies and hideous video games. But we also need to take on the gun nuts, a single-issue minority too often motivated by intolerance and filled with hate.

When it comes to guns, Americans have learned to be cynical. They have learned that no matter how great the outrage, the entrenched gun interests are always triumphant. But as religious leaders, we know what this leads to. We know that when good people back down again and again; when the gun worshipers are rewarded with ever-more radical pro-gun legislation; when the corpses of the dead, lying bloody before us, are ignored; and when the zealotry and folly of the pro-gun lobby are not confronted by the forces of sanity, the result is fatalism and despair, undermining faith in government and faith in God.

To echo the words of the great sage Hillel, if not now, when?  The problem, though, is politics:

I understand that gun control is not a simple matter; that compromise will be necessary; and that honest, well-intentioned people will differ on exactly what measures are required. But we must make a start. Surely this is the moment to create a coalition of sensible citizens, willing to come forward and say no to the deadly toll that guns are taking on the lives of our children. Surely this is the time to reach out to politicians, of all persuasions and all parties, and ask them to put the welfare of our children and the safety of our citizens ahead of petty, partisan concerns. And surely religious leaders and institutions -- obligated to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with their God -- should lead the way.

If this massacre of innocents in Newtown will not rouse the nation's conscience, then nothing will. Therefore, this is the moment to mobilize the idealism, energy and anger of the American people.

And a word to President Obama: Nothing will happen without the national leadership that only you can provide. You have been a voice for hope and change, but if truth be told, in this area you have been mostly silent. I believe -- although I can't be sure -- that Americans are ready for a leader with the sense and the guts to tackle the abuses of our gun culture. We need to hear from you a voice of moral clarity and a practical plan that you will be prepared to fight for. Your tears about the murdered children were genuine, but they were not enough. No excuses and no dawdling. If Americans are to stop the slaughter and find their higher selves, religious leaders have a critical role to play -- but they can only do so much. The President of the United States must lead the way.

The trouble with compromise is that it only works when there are two sides willing to compromise. But how do you ask gun-worshipers to compromise on the worship of their god? I realize that Rabbi Yoffie is trying to be reasonable, indeed that approaching problems rationally is part of the Enlightenment orientation that gave birth to the Reform Judaism movement that he once led. And he is absolutely right in calling out President Obama on his abject failure to address this issue in any substantive way. We'll see what the Biden Commission that Obama appointed to come up with proposals to deal with this issue comes up with. But how do we compromise on matters of health and safety? What's the compromise on drinking and driving? What's the compromise on seat belts and airbags in cars? What's the compromise on second hand smoke? What's the compromise on radioactive fallout and toxic waste?

Let me turn now to an essay published in the New York Review of Books on December 15th, written by Gary Wills, a leading Roman Catholic intellectual.  The essay is entitled, simply, Our Moloch, and I thank Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz of Congregation Adas Emuno for bringing it to my attention.  The title is in reference to one of the false gods who are the subject of idol worship in the Hebrew Bible, the most often cited passage being in Leviticus 18:21 which reads, "And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch." In this instance, seed refers to offspring, and the prohibition against the sacrifice of children, which is the main lesson of the story of the binding of Isaac (as I discussed in my previous post, Appearances), is reinforced just a little further on in Leviticus in 20:1-5, which reads

1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
2 Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Moloch; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.
3 And I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed unto Moloch, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name.
4 And if the people of the land do any ways hide their eyes from the man, when he giveth of his seed unto Moloch, and kill him not;
5 then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go a whoring after him, to commit whoredom with Moloch, from among their people.

Harsh stuff, indeed, but a strong polemic against a practice that was considered acceptable, desirable, and demanded by the gods in the ancient middle east (as it has been in other cultures in other parts of the world). The powerful prohibition against human sacrifice appears elsewhere in the Hebrew bible, in Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Second Chronicles.  And, after all, are we not to this day filled with disgust at the thought of such practices, and of sacrificing children in general? With this context in mind, let's turn to what Gary Wills has to say:

Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there. Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind:

First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The analogy is entirely apt, in my opinion. Of all the false gods that we worship within our technological religion, none are more vile, more horrific, more evil than this one. Some have made reference to the existence of evil in respect to the act of mass murder that occurred, and to the shooter as a person, and in some instances this has been used as a tactic to deflect attention away from the role that firearms have played in this and so many other needless, senseless deaths. What Wills makes clear in this essay is that gun-worship itself is sinful, is evil.

Wills continues by arguing that the gun is more than a technology, but in a way that is consistent with Postman's view that our technologies have become deified:

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.

At this point, I want to note that Wills is not the first to find a false god in a machine, or to call that god Moloch. One of the most dramatic scenes in the 1927 German silent film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang, depicts industrial machinery as a Moloch idol devouring workers. The film portrays a future society where there are two classes, the capitalists who live above the city in privileged luxury, and the oppressed workers who live below.  Freder, the son of the city's master ventures below to see how the other half lives, and upon viewing the workers reduced to automatons servicing the industrial engines, he has a vision of the machinery as Moloch. I'm going to include a clip here, and if you're not familiar with silent film, you might find this stylized depiction a bit hard to relate to, but try to understand the powerful statement being made here about human beings placed in servitude to technology:

This Moloch is consuming adult workers rather than children, but the reality at that time is that children were victimized by the industrial revolution, and women as well as men. It was exactly this Moloch that Karl Marx inveighed against in The Communist Manifesto, with the clear understanding that the inhuman working conditions of the industrial factory and the exploitation of impoverished men, women, and children was intolerable, and it would only be a matter of time before the workers rose up in rebellion against the ones oppressing them. But you did not have to be a leftist, radical, or anarchist to see that, as the fascist movement of the early 20th century also was fueled by the alienation of the working classes.  In fact, the screenplay for Metropolis was written by Lang's wife at the time, Thea Von Harbou, who was a Nazi sympathizer. Lang himself was on the liberal side of the political spectrum, and half-Jewish, although his mother  converted to Catholicism when Lang was a child. 

The point is that if there is a religious belief that Americans have clung to along with the belief in technology, and that goes hand-in-hand in many ways with the belief in technology, it's the belief in free enterprise. And that faith in free enterprise suggested that any kind of legislation or reforms regarding how businesses conduct themselves would be unwarranted. And yet, we did pass child labor laws, and all manner of regulations regarding safety in the workplace. Of course, it took organized effort on the part of working people, especially through the labor union movement, for this to come about. It was important, it was necessary, and if not for this process, there might well have been some kind of massive revolution here. In Metropolis, a negotiated solution is reached at the end, the kind that Rabbi Yoffie would recognize as reasonable, but even there it's only after a violent upheaval, and only to avert any further violence and disruption.

So this is a bit of a digression, but one that brings me to the point that the comparison that Wills makes between guns and Moloch not only makes sense, but has good precedent. And the fact that we were able to overcome the Moloch of the industrial machine through organized effort, political action, and legislation, with the support of religious organizations, shows that it is also possible to overcome the Moloch of firearms. And it begins with identifying the god as a false idol, which Wills proceeds to do in his essay:

The fact that the gun is a reverenced god can be seen in its manifold and apparently resistless powers. How do we worship it? Let us count the ways:

1. It has the power to destroy the reasoning process. It forbids making logical connections. We are required to deny that there is any connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands and the greatest number of deaths from them. Denial on this scale always comes from or is protected by religious fundamentalism. Thus do we deny global warming, or evolution, or biblical errancy. Reason is helpless before such abject faith.

2. It has the power to turn all our politicians as a class into invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine. None dare suggest that Moloch can in any way be reined in without being denounced by the pope of this religion, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, as trying to destroy Moloch, to take away all guns. They whimper and say they never entertained such heresy. Many flourish their guns while campaigning, or boast that they have themselves hunted “varmints.” Better that the children die or their lives be blasted than that a politician should risk an election against the dread sentence of NRA excommunication.

3. It has the power to distort our constitutional thinking. It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter. Moloch brooks no dissent, even from the highest court in the land.

Though LaPierre is the pope of this religion, its most successful Peter the Hermit, preaching the crusade for Moloch, was Charlton Heston, a symbol of the Americanism of loving guns. I have often thought that we should raise a statue of Heston at each of the many sites of multiple murders around our land. We would soon have armies of statues, whole droves of Heston acolytes standing sentry at the shrines of Moloch dotting the landscape. Molochism is the one religion that can never be separated from the state. The state itself bows down to Moloch, and protects the sacrifices made to him. So let us celebrate the falling bodies and rising statues as a demonstration of our fealty, our bondage, to the great god Gun.

What a marvelous suggestion, the intent being of course to shame our political leadership into acknowledging the truth of the situation, and taking action. To understand what we are up against, let's listen to the words of Moloch's prophet:

The false conflation of national defense, a function now served by our professional military and police forces, and the private ownership of firearms by gun-worshipers is unworthy of the actor who once portrayed Moses, the Lawgiver. Professionals will generally tell you that they do not want all of these weapons in the hands of private individuals, but that's besides the ponit. For a better understanding of Charlton Heston, let's turn to the following except from Michael Moore's film, Bowling for Columbine:

While I don't completely agree with Moore, who insists on linking American gun-worship to our foreign policy and numerous military interventions in the world, and doesn't distinguish between Canadian ownership of hunting rifles and shotguns, and American worship of handguns and assault weapons, but his interview with Heston is revealing in the simple truth that there is no rational argument to be made for our policies towards firearms. When there is no argument, no rationale, it all comes down to blind faith, to religious belief, to unquestioning worship. And of what? Of the technological religion, of the gun as as American god, of the false idol of firearms who demand of us human sacrifices, the sacrifice of children. 

How much more can we bear?


John Gridley said...

What do you say about the murder of 50 million through abortion? What god is worshiped by those who kill innocent life?

Ernie said...

Great stuff.

Joshua Bentley said...

My father recently retired from the pulpit and after much urging has finally started to blog. He has done plenty of writing over the years, but it has mostly been chapters, articles, and letters so the idea of a blog was a bit alien to him.

I told him that your blog would be a good model since you post on a variety of issues and on a variety of formats. This article is a perfect (though REALLY long) example of why I think he’d enjoy your blog even more than I do.

In case you're interested, here's a link to what he wrote on the topic


Lance Strate said...

Joshua, thank you for your kind words, and for sharing that interesting post. And I do realize that some of my posts are long, at least for being blog posts, but they are still shorter and less formal than the equivalent print articles and chapters would be, and I do want to deal with the topics as well as I'm able to, given constraints of time and the medium itself.

Thank you, Ernie.

John, you pose an interesting, albeit loaded question. I don't accept your characterization of abortion as murder, as the longstanding tradition is that life begins with birth. And going back to prehistory and oral/tribal cultures, women had methods of ending unwanted pregnancies, albeit methods that were less than reliable.

So what made abortion an issue over the past half century is in fact modern technology, not only in providing safe and easy procedures for terminating pregnancies, but also in giving us a better understanding of prenatal development. So both sides are products of technology, but I will say that the idea that a woman has a right to choose is based on technology providing her with that choice, and that is part of the worship of medical technology that almost all of us engage in in one way or another.

And while I don't consider abortion murder, I do think that it is a moral issue, and a morally questionable activity, that there most definitely should be limits (the distinction between fetus and embryo seems very relevant in this context), and that the anti-abortion movement has a valid argument that needs to be attended to, as long as it is presented in a rational and respectful manner. I know that is difficult when you believe that you are trying to prevent 50 million murders, and I think that goes back to seeing abortion as something less than murder, but something more than just another medical procedure.

I think the pro-life movement would gain a great deal more legitimacy if they came out vocally against gun violence, because if you care so much about embryos, you should care much, much more about the murder of children. And if you also were vocal in opposition to the death penalty, and to war and any use of the military, and made "pro-life" a consistent position across more than the single issue of abortion, there would be much more sympathy for policies that place limits on abortion rights.