All cultures in the world, whatever their current sophistication, developed around a creation myth of one kind or another. To put it bluntly, the United States of America has not one, but two creation myths around which the cultural debate revolves.
Meanwhile Justice John Paul Stevens countered in his dissent by arguing that the truth is more subtle, and not literal when defining a militia as anyone who owns and handles a gun: When each word in the text is given full effect, the Amendment is most naturally read to secure to the people a right to use and possess arms in conjunction with service in a well-regulated militia. So far as appears, no more than that was contemplated.
Civilized versus tribal
When it comes to choosing a nation that is able to confine and regulate its internal arsenal, in other words, a civilized nation versus a tribal and lawless nation operating under vigilante justice, Justice John Paul Stevens arrived at the conclusion that the Second Amendment was not meant to be interpreted literally to mean that everyone who wants to own a gun, and use it, is covered by the term “well-regulated militia.”
Justice Antonin Scalia, by contrast, takes the literal, more primitive and more tribal approach of creating opportunity for everyone to own a gun of any type, almost without restriction. In so doing, Scalia and his populist henchmen in organizations such as the National Rifle Association have fostered a tribal culture in which gun ownership literally is the law of the land.
This primitive interpretation of the Second Amendment of course fits with America’s treasured Cowboy myths of an unbridled freedom in the Wild West. That was supposedly an America in which everyone carried a gun and settled their differences out in the street, like honest men and women do.
Yet the facts are somewhat different, and cowboy myths are just that, conflated images of relatively rare incidents of either heroic or tragic behavior. Then cannot be taken literally. In fact, our national narrative cannot agree on even the most basic of cherished traditions, including the life and death of men life Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. The lives of these particularly great men were fairly well chronicled, and yet their deaths by gun assassinations have had little if no effect on the primitive fact that they were shot dead by guns.
A deadly and ignored narrative
Instead, America has embraced a primitive narrative that says, in effect, that the deaths of great presidents and leaders, as well as innocent, is the supposed price of freedom to own and use guns any way “the people,” as Justice Scalia so cynically defines it, shall be unabridged.
This is a fatal sort of primitivism, deadly both to the people killed by guns and to the conscience of the nation as a whole. We live in an America where people scream against the right to have an abortion yet tolerates the use of deadly weapons to take life on a daily basis. That is primitive thinking, at best. Irresponsible and irrational, at worst.
Red herrings and mental health
The current direction of the gun debate appears to be steering towards and effort to take guns out of the hands of the mentally ill whenever possible. Yet that approach plays into the hands of the primitivist gun lobby because it defers raising the question on the rights of gun ownership as a whole, and why that interpretation of the Second Amendment by men like Justice Scalia is so wrongheaded and avoids the subject.
All of America has a mental illness so long as we depend on a literal interpretation of our creation myths. The fact that 50% of America believes in a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis is responsible for a deep chasm between progressive education in the sciences, medicine, geology and philosophy ranging all the way to civil rights, including equal rights for minorities, gays and all people. That is the path to civility and maturity as a nation, yet it is being blocked by a primitive religious culture that is prejudicial, aggressive and tribal.
Correcting the mistakes of the Founding Fathers
Likewise on the Constitutional front. America’s creation myth of the Founding Fathers as somehow perfect beings has been contradicted over and over again with amendments to the Constitution delivering equal rights to blacks (which took another 100 years to commence in full) women and now people of all orientations. This progressive tradition is making America a better place for all to live. Indeed, it fulfills the equality so strongly desired by the Founding Fathers in drafting a Constitution that guaranteed equal rights for all people. Yet that equality has been repeatedly and aggressively denied by constitutional primitivists who use the so-called letter of the law to interpret it to meet their tribal desires for power and control.
Free will and choosing grace
America needs to overcome this fearful tradition of literalism and primitivism at its core. Only then will the nation fulfill its true definitions of freedom, and by ironic consequence, also fulfill the meaning of true freedom espoused in the Christian Bible and nearly all faith traditions. The freedom to choose grace, rather than impose will upon others shall not be abridged.
Jesus was particularly unfond of those whose power turned upon a phrase in order to manipulate “the people.” Here in Matthew 15 we find a description of how Jesus handled such challenges.
Matthew 15 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’[a] and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[b] 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’[c]”
Think about the application of this scripture to current day issues in America, in which Second Amendment Constitutional rights are being construed and dispensed in ways that literally lead to murder and death. We need not ask what Jesus would do in these circumstances.
Instead, we can look in a multitude of places in the Bible, and need not fall back on a literal interpretation to understand that it is our duty and our right to consider a better America, one that is not constrained by primitivism or tribalism the way it is today. We can use this bit of scripture as a starting point of inspiration, to do so:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Let’s move beyond the primitivism and the tribalism.