In Guns We Trust

In Guns We Trust

by Jon Pahl

In a weird coincidence, I was teaching a class on The Bhagavad Gita and violence the day that Meleanie Hain, the Gita-reading, gun-toting soccer mom from Lebanon, PA was murdered by her husband in her kitchen. As Philadelphia Inquirer Monica Yant Kinney put it in her excellent column on the case: Hain "fancied herself a lioness protecting her cubs, with a baby on one hip and a holster on the other." Such a fantasy proved a tragic delusion. Her husband shot her, then turned the gun on himself. My conclusion: seeking security in weapons is a twisted version of "realism" that is in fact an American religious dogma: "In Guns We Trust."

The problem isn't gun owning. I come from a Wisconsin family of hunters. My grandfather owned a case full of rifles. But he didn't imagine that his guns would keep him safe. He used them to get food. The Second Amendment secures the right to bear arms because in the 18th century guns fed people. They were a necessary evil.

Similarly, guns can be necessary for a state to defend itself. That's the deeper reason for the Amendment. In the eighteenth-century, guns were required for a "well-regulated militia." They still are. But we're not talking about muskets anymore. American faith in weaponry is a perverse piety that masks a decadent fear of death.

The problem is bad religion; misplaced trust. Hain was a Hare Krishna, committed to a non-violent vegetarian diet. But apparently she had trouble reading the Gita in the context of the American civil religion.

As Drew Gilpin Faust and many others have suggested, American civil piety has often dealt with the trauma of death by trusting in various sanitizing discourses and practices, none of them more prevalent than "sacrifice." Hain apparently thought her trust in guns would keep her safe. The Gita, while counseling Arjuna to do his duty as a warrior and fight, if necessary, also suggests that trust in weaponry is ultimate illusory.

At least as Gandhi read it, the Gita is about renouncing the false security of faith in violence, and finding true security in love of God and neighbors--in weapons of the spirit. Hain was, by all accounts, a loving Mom. But her children had to endure the trauma of watching her faith in guns unravel as her husband shot her. They ran from the house screaming: "Daddy shot Mommy!" As Kinney concludes: "no civilized society should stomach" such a scenario

In the last chapter of the Gita, Krishna counsels Arjuna that in "the highest vision of light . . . selfishness and violence and pride are gone. . . . Beyond grief and desire one's soul is in peace. [One's] love is for all creation."(18:50, 53-54). Here's hoping that Hain's family--and especially her young children--can find some peace.

But such peace will be elusive as long as American civilization is warped with weapon-based religion. Some years ago, Ira Chernus pointed out, in Dr. Strangegod: On the Symbolic Significance of Nuclear Weapons, how trust in military might is a perverse piety held by many Americans. That macrocosmic piety gets mirrored in microcosms like the one in Hain's kitchen.

The problem is not intractable. In my own forthcoming work, Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence, I explore some of the contours of American faith in what I call "innocent domination" across constructions of age, race, and gender.

In my next work, I'll explore what I see as an emerging consensus across religious traditions, since Gandhi, that is beginning to disentangle faith from force in what I call a "coming religious peace."

Too often, even scholars identify violence only with the tip of the problem--with illegitimate physical force like a gunshot. But the roots of violence stem from religion--from misplaced trust that tries to build a mighty fortress against finitude by seeking to solve violence with violence.

Such "realism" is anything but realistic. Any conflict can only be solved over the long-term by a new instauration of trust. Fortunately, religious traditions specialize in fostering exactly this kind of social capital, in discourses and practices that build trust and promote more just, less violent, societies.

A good place to start in developing these resources around the globe would be with the source that Gandhi read daily, and that might have helped Meleanie Hain avoid her tragic fate: The Bhagavad Gita.

As the Gita puts its:

Freedom from fear, purity of heart, constancy in sacred learning and contemplation . . . non-violence, truth, freedom from anger, renunciation, serenity, aversion to fault-finding, sympathy for all beings . . . a good will, freedom from pride--these belong to [one] born for heaven.(16:1-3)

"In Guns We Trust" is a perverse American piety that offers the superficial solution of violence to the fears we all live with. Meleanie Hain's death at the hands of her prison-guard and gun-toting husband is a symptom of how misplaced trust in violence fractures families, just as it destroys civilizations. Perhaps this domestic tragedy can do what Columbine, Virginia Tech, and "the Global War on Terror" have been unable to do: surface for critical scrutiny a false American faith in weapons.


Anonymous said…
"The Second Amendment secures the right to bear arms because in the 18th century guns fed people." This is absolutely not what the Second Amendment says! Defense isn't the "deeper reason" for the Amendment, it's the single reason, clearly stated.
sfauthor said…
Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?
Paul M. said…
Your research is interesting. I like the idea of fitting our gun culture into America's civic religion.

But I don't find your connection to Hain's case compelling. All other things being equal, if she had not been a gun owner she would still have been shot and killed. If that had been the case, pro-gun folks would likely have used her death as proof that we need more guns. "If only she had had a gun..."

Your argument is the mirror image of your opponents'. So though you might be correct to point out the flaws in their reasoning, it ends up being a case of the "mote and the beam."
Jon Pahl said…
Thanks, all, for commenting: re: 2nd Amendment. A literal reading focuses on defense, yes, but a contextual reading sees gun rights in the broader context of their uses. The same applies today, just with much fancier (more lethal) weapons. I don't know about the new edition of the Gita; thanks! Finally, I'd love to have the beam in my own eye taken out, but I fail to see how pointing out American religious devotion to weaponry is identifying a "speck" in our national body. Hain was a true believer, sharing a religion that trusted in guns with the gun-toting husband whose object of misplaced trust killed her, and then killed him. Some "trust."

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