When Mike Huckabee infamously said that Friday’s murders in Newtown, Connecticut took place because we’ve “systematically removed God” from our public schools, he provided yet another stark reminder of the way that Christianity frequently functions as nothing more than a nihilistic enterprise that keeps us from addressing the most serious concerns that face us as a nation.
When people like Huckabee line up to say that “taking God out of the public schools” is the reason why such horrific atrocities take place, it shifts the conversation away from actual dialog about real problems and real solutions and replaces it with jargon that has basically nothing to do with what sets the stage for such tragedies. As such, this version of Christianity becomes the ultimate form of nihilism, for it is used in such a way as to ensure that nothing changes, that no substantive dialog can occur, and that no substantive action is demanded of society other than cognitively affirming a particular religious viewpoint (or talking point). It allows Christians to hide behind facades that mask the actual reality on the ground. It encourages people to focus on things behind the scenes (that no one can be sure about) more than on things right under our noses (that are readily apparent). It is full of logical non-sequiturs (as the president from my alma-mater, Phillips Theological Seminary, writes: “These spokespersons link the slaughter of innocents with either taking God out of schools or a secular turn in the U.S. [But] how is it that the most church-going, overtly religious nation in the developed world is being visited with more gun violence than any of the more godless nations because of our sliver of secularism? Why aren’t nations such as France or Canada visited frequently with mass murders? I believe any such punishing god is created in America’s image and bears no resemblance to the God of Jesus of Nazareth.”). Perhaps most striking of all, it keeps important calls to action (such as “turning pistols into plowshares”) at arm’s length, because it repeats the narrative that the problem isn’t really about guns and our pathological allegiance to them. In short, it asks you to live in an alternative universe.
This is similar to the way many Christians say that the primary reason for being a Christian is related to the afterlife. Such an emphasis shifts what is most important away from this (very real) world toward another (very different) world, not to be accessed until after you die (it is truly “otherworldly”). And when the point of Christianity is only about going to heaven when you die, there isn’t nearly as much emphasis on making a difference in the here and now. Not surprisingly, in the 1980s, James G. Watt, Secretary of the Interior, said we didn’t need to worry very much about environmental concerns because Jesus is coming back soon and none of it will matter, so to hell with the environment. Nihilism if I’ve ever heard it.
Huckabee asks, “Should we be surprised schools have become a place for carnage because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, responsibility, accountability?” This may not be a bad question in its own right, but it takes some kind of audacity to ask it if one shamelessly lobbies for the NRA, for where is the valuation of life, responsibility, and accountability on the part of the gun industry and the gun lobby or the politicians they own? Or on the part of Christians who refuse to talk about any measure of gun control, even though they get a bunch of warm fuzzies on Sunday mornings singing to somebody who, ironically enough, told them to put their bloody guns away (“Those who live by the sword will die by the sword”)?
A better question for Huckabee to ask would have been this: “Should we be surprised schools have become a place for carnage because leader after leader has refused the responsibility to talk about true measures of reform, because politicians bought and sold by the gun lobby evidently don’t have any accountability in our culture and therefore can use all of their trite platitudes as a way of changing the subject instead of dealing with what really matters? That we not only are discouraged from talking about changes in gun control, but even conversations about the kind of culture that perpetuates such outbursts of violence are off the table as well? That many Christians who claim to be pro-life actually glorify a culture of death, worshiping at the altar of violence and pledging allegiance to arms, not only sanctioning preemptive wars but remaining quiet as drones continue to drop bombs on civilians a world away, like nothing is even happening, even as our nation’s spending on weapons and warfare continues to outpace the world on a drastic scale, even as we celebrate and venerate all of our founding myths of redemptive violence and the myopic machismo that goes with them, not the least of which is on display in the blood bath scenarios portrayed in the Left Behind novels, all of which fly off the shelves of Christian bookstores and are taught as being perfectly ‘biblical’?”
Of course, there is alternative religious wisdom out there. There always is. And it’s pretty simple. As one theologian summarizes, “Violence begets violence. Generosity begets generosity. Guns beget guns. Nonviolence begets nonviolence. The choice is clear.”
The great preacher & social justice advocate William Sloane Coffin once worried that America is going the way of the dinosaur: “Too much armor, too little brain.” Let’s hope it’s not too late to reverse course. The children, quite literally, depend upon it.
Note: This post was updated on Sunday evening to include the quote from Gary Peluso-Verdend, president of Phillips Theological Seminary.