As a grad student, I find myself more and more in denial as the semester’s impending end trundles closer, its end bringing papers, comprehensive exams, late nights, and fleeting, passionate affairs with caffeine. In my quest for ever-dwindling moments of diversion, I’ve rewatched the whole of The Walking Dead, finished the decades-long Wheel of Time series, and daydreamed about the mythic realm of formation we Jesuits call Regency (where I’m headed once I finish this semester).
Maybe what I’m really saying is: I’ve been flirting with the idea of idolatry.
After an intense Easter Vigil, I spent part of Easter Sunday morning watching Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC. My former professor, Christiana Z. Peppard, was a guest on the show to talk about the new Pope, ethics, global resources, and other items. At one point, the conversation turned toward how people use religious symbols to interpret the world – an example that came up was talking about the lynching tree as a cross. Christiana shared her experience the Columbine High School shootings, having grown up 15 minutes from the school. Taking a cue from the conversation about mobilizing religious symbols, she named one problem related to gun violence in America – what she calls the “idolatry of liberty.”
The phrase resonated deeply with me. I knew immediately that Christiana had hit on an important truth. Last spring, I wrote a paper about martyrdom that touched on the topic of idols (so perhaps finals can be a moment of grace and not just terror…). For that paper, I quoted a snippet from theologian Jon Sobrino. He wrote:
Idols are existing historical realities; they offer (apparent) salvation, they demand worship and orthodoxy, but in reality they dehumanize those who worship them – and what is worse, they need human victims in order to survive.
I think we would struggle to find a more invidious idol in American culture than our exaggerated sense of “liberty.” We can point to other possible candidates, and to a whole host of sinful structures as idols, but in my view liberty still takes the cake. Addressing this issue elsewhere, Peppard has written:
The idolatry of liberty—of rights unfettered from social responsibilities—is cancerous. In our culture of violence, it is at least partly fed by hyper-permissive interpretations of the second amendment. And we are too strapped to guns and gurneys for any of this to be even bleakly funny. If the body politic is to survive, the cancer requires surgery.
Don’t get me wrong. Before becoming a Jesuit, I owned guns myself. I learned to shoot when I was 5 years old and grew up hunting on my family’s property. I have nothing against guns or gun ownership in themselves. But for many in America, the Second Amendment has become an idol. It offers the illusion of safety and independence, it demands that nothing even slightly obstruct it, and it continues to extract human sacrifices in the form of massacres like those at Columbine and Sandy Hook.
One way to define the term “martyr” is: a person whose deaths exposes an idol, and whose death invite us to cast down those idols and to allow the person of Christ to transform us into temples of the Spirit. My prayer as this Easter season closes is that the recent martyrs of gun violence might bring an unexpected grace: to displace especially the idolatry of liberty, and to balance our inalienable rights with social responsibility.