Sunday, December 20, 2015

The tyranny of literal interpretation

NYC, 2014. A. Hanson
As I reflect recently upon the barrage of gun violence in the news recently and the varied arguments for and against control, I am struck by the comparison between a fundamentalist interpretation of the Second Amendment and the biblical scriptures.

The Second Amendment states, "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Being that I am not a constitutional scholar, nor an attorney or supreme court justice, this comparison is imperfect, but bear with me.

At the time the US constitution was drafted, there were a few    important contextual things of which to be aware.  First, the US was a country in its infancy and did not have its own organized armed forces.  A militia was necessary to defend the infant United States from the British Empire in the war of  Independence. Next, there was no possible way that those who drafted the constitution would have known about the level of sophisticated weaponry that we possess now. Guns at the time were muzzle loaders and the bayonet (essentially a pokey appendage off the top of a gun used for stabbing other people) was still a viable option for wartime.

It is dangerous and foolhardy to assume that the second amendment could apply categorically to every situation that we could encounter now.  We do not need a militia, because we have one of the largest and most well-armed military in the world.  The average person does not need military grade weapons. Also, the semi-automatic guns that can fire a barrage of bullets in seconds are in an entirely different universe than the guns that were possessed by the founding fathers.  It is just not  fair comparison.  The Second Amendment captures a specific need in a moment of time.

All of this fundamentalist interpretation of the second amendment got me thinking about the tyranny of literal interpretation of the Bible as well. The Bible also captures a specific moment of time and its directives simply cannot be directly translated into being applicable for every single situation that one might encounter many hundreds of years later.

It is my theory that a literal interpretation of scripture is usually rooted in fear. Fear that if some part of the biblical canon might not make sense anymore, it all suddenly falls apart. If some part (such as a discussion of how LGBTQ folks are portrayed in scripture) requires more careful scrutiny and midrash (imaginative wrestling with sacred texts to find a new faithful interpretation), those who would interpret scripture literally would suddenly lose their footing and everything they have believed is wrong.  This feels tyrannical, and in my opinion, not how God would have us live at all.

I think that a literal interpretation of the Second Amendment is also rooted in fear. Fear that rights might be taken away, that there would be no way to defend one's self from a vague and unspecified threat, and so on.  It is an interpretation that comes from an individualist perspective rather than a collectivist perspective. That if one small portion of the canon of laws of the United States was critically reexamined for contextual suitability, the tyranny of literal interpretation would predict that anarchy would ensue.

I think that anarchy with regards to gun rights is already here. Even the smallest and most reasonable of restrictions (background checks or waiting periods for gun purchases) is protested vehemently. Even though a majority of citizens support such sensible gun control measures, a government propped up by funding from the NRA, completely ignores the will of the people and chaos continues.  If that is not anarchy, I am not sure what is. Killing one another in gun battles that play out in the streets or in schools or movie theaters or clinics is not how God would have us live.

Now is the time to critically reexamine literal interpretations of the Second Amendment. This charge can be led by people of faith who understand the importance of looking at things in context and who understand that we belong to each other in this crazy and broken world.

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