Gun-Toting Masculinities: Changing the Conversation in the Wake of Terror

Posted on April 25, 2013


On a story lost in the busyness of last week’s news out of Boston:

Each senator, when he or she voted on April 17th’s gun control bill, had the victims of the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy in mind. With family members of those who died in the shooting lobbying congress in the days and weeks before the vote, we can safely say that they considered this massacre as they voted ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Even so, with the thoughts of children, cut down by a troubled man using a high-powered assault rifle, weighing on them, these men and women struck down protections that might prevent such atrocities in the future. The reasons behind why this vote was not a 100-0 passage are troubling and manifold. Certainly, one could make the case that the NRA and other gun lobbyists have sunk incomprehensible piles of money into preventing stricter gun laws; we might further consider the politicians’ fear of angering their gun-toting constituencies. But my concern focuses on the the irrational fear of losing one’s gun and, subsequently, his or her freedom.

This is largely a matter of gender, though, and accordingly we must consider the constructions of masculinities. First, a vast majority of gun owners are male (74% male to 26% female); men own guns. Bearing that in mind, then, we must ask, “What is it about unregulated gun ownership that takes precedence over the lives of children?” Indeed, the problem at hand centers on just that: ownership. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, much of our modern Western constructions of masculinity center on the quality and quantity of one’s property. That is, for men to own something demonstrates a control over the other that is reflected in their gender identity. This, it appears, is the type of liberty gained through the second amendment: the liberty to have ownership of something and not lose it.

But the individual’s fear focuses more on those who might take his gun, not simply the fear of losing it in the abstract. In other words, the obsession over second amendment “rights” is an obsession over protecting one’s property against the United States government who presumably have the power and desire to(?!) capture one’s personal arsenal. To be sure, the firepower available to U.S. authorities is not only far greater than the private gun owner, but will always lie out of his reach.

Even so, in recognition of U.S. government authority in the realm of gun ownership, American gun owners have become significantly more brash in the past decade. Instead of simply owning weapons sufficient for protection or sport, individuals are buying government-grade weapons in greater numbers, especially in light of the recent debate over gun control. Indeed, such purchases underscore a critical point: fearing government power, numerous gun enthusiasts have begun imitating that very power by stockpiling weapons which, for many years, have only been available to the government itself. Thus, such fear has driven the construction of an enemy who is at once more powerful, yet one to be emulated. Not only is this gun-envy an impetus for a nasty cycle of constant fear-inspired power-grabbing, but it also leads the man into a tragic battle for self-validation against an unattainable goal, a battle to which he has become enslaved. Furthermore, the casualties of this battle have only begun to be counted and in their number: the children of Newtown.

What kind of “liberty” is this? When, in the name of personal freedom, men become enslaved to the very power they fear and the lives of children are put on the line, we have completely redefined “freedom” itself.

So, what do we do when Jesus rejects the use of arms in the face of overwhelming force and abuses of power (Matt. 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-12)? Luke’s Gospel contains an important opportunity:

While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!” (Luke 22:47-53)

Luke’s Jesus takes three important steps from this point going forward. First, he calls for an end to the violence and heals the wounded (v. 51). Next, he names the fear and subsequent tactics of those who would destroy him (vv. 52-53), effectively exposing their move to arrest him as an attempt to claim power for themselves. Finally, throughout his passion, all the way to the Cross, Jesus changes the conversation. When he is dragged in front of the “elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes,” his confession (“. . . the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”) is met with the question, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” Subsequent accusations of blasphemy become condemnations of those who would themselves attempt to take the power of the Son of God for themselves.

Still, the joke is on them, in much the same way that Jesus allows Pilate to believe this Jewish peasant is himself king of the Jews (“You say so,” he says; 23:3), Jesus knows that his restructuring of human constructions of power is where God’s own power is truly working. That is, while Pilate, Judas, the chief priests, and his own disciples have spent this whole Gospel jockeying for control, Jesus has been performing a transgressive power, a Christian power. He does not look to confiscate the authority held by government authorities, nor does he have a desire to overthrow the authority to make laws. Rather, the power seized by Jesus is the one that heals, without question; names, with concern for the vulnerable; and then changes the conversation, so that the same abuses may never happen again.

And in the wake of terror throughout this nation we need a little bit of all three.