It was a patriotic song written in 1942 by Frank Loesser in response to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” was apparently uttered by a chaplain on the U. S. S. New Orleans. Whether it was said by a chaplain or not is debatable. Someone said it and heard it and wrote a song about it to support the war effort.
Religion and violence. They don’t have to be linked, but often they are. Many have made the case that all religions should be eradicated from a civilized society because they only breed war and destruction.
It’s naïve to suggest that we can remove faith, devotion, belief, and myth from the psyche and human experience. A case can be made that we are by nature religious creatures always searching for meaning; we have a deep desire to be devoted to someone or something larger than ourselves. We need a God or gods to worship. Even atheists have their gods.
The Reformed theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) said the human mind is a factory of idols. He was right. We always create images or things or personas to worship (often not worthy of our devotion). Look at our fascination with shows such as American Idol or our enthrallment with celebrities or the Baltimore mania/adoration/idolatrous obsession with the Ravens - this is not to judge, but simply an observation (as a Ravens fan).
It’s the nonchalant way we easily connect religion and violence that concerns me most, especially when it comes to the national conversation around gun violence and gun control. For some, having a gun or protecting the rights to own a gun has become a kind of idol demanding obeisance and religious zeal from its followers. Gary Wills recently made this case in a provocative column. He writes, “…the fact that the gun is a reverenced god can be seen in its manifold and apparently resistless powers.”
Some say gun control is a political issue. Others say it’s a mental health issue. Others, still, say it’s a health care issue. I agree with James E. Atwood who suggests that it’s essentially a spiritual issue. In his recent book America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé (Cascade Books, 2012), Atwood asks an important question, posed directly to religious communities, specifically to Christians: “Many people of faith dare with some frequency, to call this a ‘Christian nation.’ Polls continue to show most Americans hold some religious faith, with Christianity claimed most often. How then does our self-identification as followers of the Prince of Peace relate to what can at least minimally be called a fascination with violence?”*
That’s my point. Why as a nation is the United States so violent? Why are Americans so fascinated with violence? Movies. Video games. Television. Sports. Are our lives in American society so boring, so shallow, so meaningless that we have to turn to violence to be entertained? The majority of Americans say they believe in God, but what God? Who is this God?
I’ll even go out on a limb here and raise a pointed question to the Christian community: have our theological claims about what took place through the violence of a cross – and Jesus’ crucifixion was violent – somehow made us numb to the violence that surrounds us on a daily basis? In other words, some Christians think redemption is only possible through violence, through suffering, namely Christ’s. Has the cross as a symbol of human brutality and violence toward God somehow, unwittingly, justified violence, somehow made it “holy”? If not holy, then at least acceptable? Has our toleration for violence within Christian theology made us numb to the amount of violence in our society, leaving us emotionally frozen to the next shooting? I wonder.
Religion doesn’t have to be violent. True religion is rooted in love and compassion and reconciliation and the celebration of life – affirming the inherent value of each individual.
Whether one is religious or not, whether one is a theist or atheist, we need to be aware of our idols. The reason idols were considered dangerous in the Hebrew (and later Christian) scriptures was because the Israelites knew that we become what we worship. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) made a similar point: “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our life and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.” What are we as a society worshipping? What are we becoming?
*On Sunday, February 17, 5:00 p.m.,the Reverend James Atwood will be speaking at Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church, 4640 Edmondson Avenue, Baltimore, MD, 21229.