Theses on Guns, Apocalypticism, and American Religion


by Donovan Schaefer

“When freedom shivers in the cold shadow of true peril,
it’s always the patriots who first hear the call.
When loss of liberty is looming–as it is now–
The siren sounds first, in the hearts of freedom’s vanguard,
The smoke in the air of our Concord Bridges and Pearl Harbors,
Is always smelled first by the farmers
Who come from their simple homes
To find a fire and fight
Because they know that sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock,
And blue steel,
Something that gives the most common man
The most uncommon of freedoms
When ordinary hands can possess such an extraordinary instrument
That symbolizes the full measure of human dignity and liberty.”

– Charlton Heston

1) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Charlton Heston, the star of post-apocalyptic Hollywood blockbusters like The Omega Man, Soylent Green, and Planet of the Apes became, until his death, the face, the quivering cadence, and the resolute, noble body of the NRA.  Guns and a strain of apocalyptic religion have knitted together in American popular culture, and the first step towards redrawing the landscape on which the conversation about guns plays out among multiple actors–parents, lobbyists, manufacturers, hunters, politicians, victims, owners, survivors, police, and everyone else–is to map the power–the affective pull–of the apocalyptic imagination that attaches to each and every gun.

2) It’s time to talk about the way that the gun has been turned into a religious artifact in American culture.  When confronted with statistics that show that America not only has more guns, but more deaths per gun, than every other highly industrialized democracy, or when faced with the intransigence of the gun lobby on any attempt to advance scientific dialogue about gun control, or when considering the success of the campaign to change the terms of the debate from “gun control” to “gun rights,” we must assess not just the propositional content of the conversation on guns, but its emotional electricity, in particular the way that a latent religious/apocalyptic vocabulary has been used to frame the debate.

3) Someone once told me the reason I’m in favor of the regulation of guns is because I didn’t grow up in a community that saw guns as tools, so I see them as weapons.  When I was in Atlanta, I was at my friend’s father’s property and we spent a happy evening shooting off his various guns at soda cans.  That was when I realized that guns are neither weapons nor tools for most gun users.  They’re toys.

Once upon a time most gun owners realized this and were happy to encourage sensible gun policy.  The NRA started as an organization to promote gun control.

Fetishes metastasize.  They fuse with other available narratives and affective paradigms, like the politics of paranoia in the US.  Paranoia is the insistence that everyone is out to get you, that your failures and the everyday indignities of life aren’t your fault. Paranoia is the adamant refusal of shame.

Our toys aren’t silly toys.  They’re Shining Emblems of Freedom.  Rather than a source of shame, our toys bear the Weight of the Dignity of Salvation.  Our toys are placed on an altar in a fantasy of self-importance, a flickering head-movie in which grim-faced citizens defend us against Government Tyranny or Foreign Hordes or “gangs.”

4) The discourse on gun control goes straight to the tensions at the heart classical liberalism.  Thinking through the legacy of the liberal model of subjectivity is crucial for understanding religion, and vice versa.

My colleague Michael Norton wrote that we can understand Jane Bennett’s work on the agency of nonliving objects to cast light on the gun control debate.  Bennett’s objective, in her book Vibrant Matter, is to uncouple the idea of “agency” not only from the “human,” but from “organism” altogether.  She wants to suggest that objects create their own spheres of potentiality that project themselves into the world–and thus resemble agents.

The gun control debate is often framed by general-issue soundbites like “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,”  and “if someone really wants a gun, they’ll find a way to get it.”

The reason these lines work is because they speak the language of classical liberalism, the political philosophy written into the DNA of America.  The language of rights, of autonomy, of rational actors, of freedom.  The belief that we, thinking beings, are the only agents, and that our agency and our actions are transparent to ourselves.  That we always know what we want and we always move in straight lines towards rational outcomes.

Bennett’s work is anti-liberal in the sense that it fractures the notion of autonomy.  It suggests that agency isn’t just about the clean through-line from a thought to an action.  It points to a model of human agency as a cluster of impulses mediated through a field of non-human potentialities.  As Evan Selinger wrote in The Atlantic after the Aurora, CO shootings,  “To someone with a gun, the world readily takes on a distinct shape.”  Guns change us.  We are susceptible to them.

This is the sense in which a gun is an “agent.”  The gun does nothing by itself.  But a gun has the potential to amplify existing tensions within and between bodies and create new situations that didn’t exist until the gun appeared.  Guns, like all things, have their own agency and play their own tune.  Selinger quotes Bruno Latour, who wrote, “You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you.”

5) Gun control is a parcel of political territory surrounded by landmines.  No-one in congress can talk about gun control without the NRA flooding your district with pamphlets and headshrinkers and media campaigns if you’re a Democrat, or orchestrating a primary challenge against you if you’re a Republican.  The NRA is the most feared lobbying organization in US politics.  Why?

There is a wavering posture that pro-gun partisans affect in their tone and activity after a mass shooting.  The tone shifts to a pious admonition–the language today is about the tragedy of “gun-free spaces” like elementary school classrooms that become “soft targets.”  Or it hides.  But as many others have pointed out, the mentality that sets upon the country in the wake of a mass shooting is transitory.  How does not just the intensity, but the tonality of the conversation about guns change, jolting back and forth between tragedies?

Apocalypticism as an affective tendency is about a culture of defiance that thrives on the American cultural landscape. It’s about NRA-backed laws that enshrine “self-defense” as the absolute right to kill when you “feel” like your property is in jeopardy.  It’s about deeply rooted eschatological fantasies in which Common Men must “stand their ground” to protect “liberty.” It’s about a fascination with guns that eclipses dialogue.

6) I would take Bennett’s insight even further.  I would say that there’s a special field of possibilities that surrounds guns that doesn’t attach to other killing devices.  This is partly because of the embodied properties of the situation of the gun–the weight, the smell, the noise, the fear.  And it is partly because of the discourse that surrounds guns–the apocalyptic affective ensemble that is its own powerful agent.

This is why most parents do not want guns anywhere near children (not all parents–the mother of the Newtown shooter was an active gun hobbyist).  Children are our hope for the future; the aura of apocalypticism that surrounds guns is the excitement of no-hope, the same grim thrill that rises in us when we watch Charlton Heston movies.  This is part of our sense of the affective materiality of guns.

7) Objects create their own reality.  We need to think about the ways that mass media have transformed the globalized potential of apocalyptic affects.  Roger Ebert in his review of Gus van Sant’s movie about Columbine, Elephant, talked about the ways that media coverage could now take an apocalyptic moment–the blood-soaked gun fantasy–and amplify it by distributing it in vivid, real-time images, broadcasting it to millions of bodies plugged into the mediasphere.

This same magnetic field also draws in apocalyptic religious movements like the Westboro Baptist Church.  The concentric rings of spectacle that radiate out from a body with a gun through the layers of the mediasphere will eventually be captured by individuals, communities, and organized religious movements building their own apocalyptic narratives.

8) Saturday was a grey December afternoon in Haverford, Pennsylvania, where I live, and as I walked to my office with my hood over my head and passed other bodies on my forest path and saw them watching me, I remembered again that I was white and male.  It’s easy to forget.  And I realized once more that white male bodies like mine are becoming, more and more, sources of terror.

I still think, as Gloria Steinem wrote after Columbine, that these “supremacy crimes” have a profile:

These “senseless” killings begin to seem less mysterious when you consider that they were committed disproportionately by white, non-poor males, the group most likely to become hooked on the drug of superiority. It’s a drug pushed by a male-dominant culture that presents dominance as a natural right; a racist hierarchy that falsely elevates whiteness; a materialist society that equates superiority with possessions, and a homophobic one that empowers only one form of sexuality.

But I am deeply worried that this particular situation with this particular murder is about to be blamed on “mental illness.” That, following articles like this one, we are about to see a new wave of stigmatization of mental illness that will not only distract from the much more pressing conversation about guns, but do material damage to the lives of people living with a diagnosis.  Mental illness does not correlate to higher levels of violent behavior.  In fact, the mentally ill are more likely to be victimized by violence.  There’s going to be too much talk about strange behavior, dark clothes, and that most misunderstood thing, autism.  The last thing anyone needs is another opportunity to look away, to point to another group of easily identifiable bodies and say “Look, there’s the problem–and it’s easy to contain.”

9) Apocalypticism is about drawing battle lines between us and them, between good and evil, outside our bodies.  It’s about setting the stage for a cosmic showdown, an Armageddon.  There are affects surging through the act of naming and dividing the world into “us” and “not-us.”  These affects–for which we still have no name–are part of the affective complex of apocalypticism.

What if we draw the battle lines inside ourselves?  What if, like Odysseus, we recognized that a siren song can defeat us?  That we are susceptible, vulnerable, and woven into volatile affective dynamics that will carry everyone, everybody, at least once in their lives to a place where they tiptoe up to the line of becoming a danger to either themselves or to others?

10) I read a comment last week proposing that we submit everyone to a PET scan if they want to buy a gun.  Both “mental illness” and “criminality” are relational.  They are categories largely defined by what we do.  They don’t exist before we do them.  We need to see and defeat the temptation–the apocalyptic impulse–to identify and blame a specific group–especially a group with easily identifiable bodies–before it snares us.  You cannot solve this problem with background checks because a background is not predictive of what anyone will do next.  The lines between criminality and innocence and dividing health from sickness are not so finely drawn.  They are nothing but a comforting fiction.  Nothing is more dangerous than someone utterly convinced of their own sinlessness.

White Americans have to remember that this problem is not new, that disparate media coverage makes it a bigger story when it affects predominantly white communities than the ongoing epidemic of violence in certain parts of the US–let alone the disastrous consequences of America’s lax gun laws in the drug war ravaging Mexico.

Gun buyback programs embody this anti-apocalyptic impulse, the desire to subvert apocalyptic affects by redrawing the battle lines inside ourselves, to renounce the seductive fantasy of self-mastery, of a cohesive self besieged by ruthless enemies without.  They call on us to give away our toys–to put away childish things–and turn off the post-apocalyptic movie running in the background of our lives.

This entry was posted in Donovan Schaefer, Politics and Religion, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, Religion in the News, Sexuality and Gender and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Theses on Guns, Apocalypticism, and American Religion

  1. Tom Verenna says:

    Fantastic. Thanks for this. Really making me rethink a lot of my views on gun violence–particularly concerning background checks.

  2. Pingback: Guns, Religion, and School Shootings | AKTIAG

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