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Rabbi Gil Steinlauf Headshot

The Idolatry of Guns

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"Guns don't kill. People do." I keep hearing this phrase repeated by gun-supporters. It sounds so reasonable. Even wise. In fact, it's a misuse of a truth in the service of a dangerous set of beliefs and principles. People indeed do the killing, but this idea implies that more handguns are the only answer to the fact that people kill. If you take this philosophy to its conclusion, this means that the only safe society is one where the maximum number of people are armed. If only all school-teachers were trained and could carry armed weapons in classrooms, more tragedies wouldn't happen. If only the streets were filled with reasonable people carrying loaded weapons, the killers wouldn't win. There's a human pathos to this philosophy, a yearning for a safer world. Behind this mindset, there's a heartfelt effort to address the deepest of human longings -- not to live in fear, to be safe.

In the Torah, the Israelites who receive the Ten Commandments are a group of former slaves. Their lives, for generations, have been defined by oppression and fear. The Voice of God rings out, "You shall have no other gods before me ... you shall not make for yourself ... any likeness of what is in the Heavens above..." (Exodus 20:3-4). Despite the undeniable clarity of the Divine command, the Israelites fashion the Golden Calf because they are afraid. They fear they have lost Moses, and when the calf is completed, they say "This is your God, O Israel..." (Exodus 32:4) to lead them in the wilderness. Their fear has brought them from holiness to idolatry. The Golden Calf stands as the symbol for all idolatries that are so bitterly scorned throughout the Bible. Time and again, God demands the total annihilation of idols in all quarters of the Land of Israel. All graven images and statues, all objects invested with magical power are a direct affront to the Divine who exists beyond any form or limitation. The Israelites must shoulder the difficult burden of being a people who live without seeking talismans, gods and objects to relieve their existential dreads and uncertainties. The salvation of the world lies in resisting the urge to find reprieve or escape in "things," objects, concretizations that get in the way of a deep faith in the possibility of human goodness and justice.

In our time, centuries away from the biblical epoch, we feel that we are long past idolatries. But we are mistaken. Ours is a society with many idols: wealth, fame, power, alcohol, consumerism and countless others. What these latter-day idols all share are the mistaken belief that they in some way can "fix" some lack in our human condition. Whenever we believe that any object or concept can totally heal our psychological pain, remove our fears, or relieve our anxiety, we participate in idolatry. Like the Israelites before us, our idolatry originates in innocent confusion, even as it results in destructive behavior for which we must remain accountable.

For many, guns have become a dangerous idol in our time. Like all other idols in human history, they have been invested by some with a power they do not possess: to keep us safe in the "wilderness" of life -- safe from all the unknown dangers and unquantifiable threats of life's journey; from all the murderers, rapists, maniacs and terrorists who represent the always-uncontrollable truth of our fragile existence.

But all the guns in the world will never "fix" the problem of fear. They will not rescue gun-supporters from a cynical view of humanity, of a need to live in constant hyper-vigilance against our fellow human beings. In fact, they will result in the opposite of the intentions of gun-supporters: They will only increase violence, threats, fears and cynicism. Idols have a way of doing that. They tempt us with their promise of providing the long-sought answer to our problems, but they always turn destructive in the end. Like all addictive substances, idols warp and twist our perception of goodness and justice. Guns seem to be the way to a life of liberty, free from fear. In truth, they are born of fear and can lead only to more fear.

Guns are, indeed, here to stay. They're a necessary evil. They can, indeed, keep people safe from threats. But we must uncouple the discussions about gun-control from an emotional, irrational idolatry of guns that lurks behind so many gun-supporters. Only when we agree to accept, together, the burden of life's uncertainty, will we find our way through the wilderness, into the true Promised Land of goodness and justice.