The Gun as Symbol: A Reflection on our American Conversation

The Gun as Symbol

Stuart Higginbotham

                There is no doubt that this essay will infuriate some.  I can think of about ten folks immediately who will not be happy, but I want to write this to help myself process the tensions I feel as a priest in the midst of a grieving, angry, confused, and frustrated congregation.  What I write is from my own experience, but I wonder if it resonates with yours.

When I was sixteen years old, I went to the hunting camp with my father to practice shooting my sixteen-gauge shotgun.  I was not excited about it, but I felt I needed to go.  I was expected to go.  It was part of our tradition, and I needed to take my place in it.

It was early afternoon, and we stood behind one of the buildings, shooting at an old two-liter soda bottle.  As we stood there talking, out of nowhere an armadillo scampered out into the open.  I was amazed at the creature, and I was shocked when my father told me to shoot it.  After hesitating for a few seconds, I raised the shotgun and fired.  I hit the poor animal, knocking it into the air and sending it running behind the building to take cover.

We found it huddled in leaves, bleeding and breathing heavily.  My poorly aimed shot had not killed it.  I had caused it enormous pain.  My heart beat in my chest as tears came to my eyes.  I couldn’t shoot it again, so my father took out his pistol and shot it, putting an end to the suffering I had inflicted on the creature.

That was the last time I ever picked up a gun.

When people went hunting for food, that felt different to me.  When we brought home venison, that had a different feel.  When my cousins brought home dove and even squirrel, it helped feed our family.  For that matter, when we went fishing, it gave us food—and peaceful moments on the water.

What bothered me about that afternoon experience—and still bothers me to this day—is that I shot the animal out of sheer sport and enjoyment.  My shooting the armadillo served no practical purpose; rather, it was merely an expression of aggression.  It was supposed to be fun.

I know it disappointed my father that I never picked up a gun again.  I had broken the chain.  I was an outlier in the family, a stranger among those who raised me when hunting season came around.  I tended the fire while they went out to the deer stands.

In my mind and heart, I can separate the feelings around hunting for food and shooting animals for mere enjoyment.  I have no interest in the latter.  If I am really honest about why I threw the gun down that day, I have to tell you that I felt something primal in myself wake up.  A piece of myself got a thrill out of being powerful, being able to overpower that defenseless animal.  There was a part of me that resonated with being aggressive and violent.  It frightens me that this part of me is “in there,” and I learned that I need to be very aware of it.  Pay attention to it.  Not nurture it.

With this recent tragic school shooting, we once again find ourselves sorting into categories: those who are advocating for more gun laws to restrict access and those who refuse to consider new gun restrictions.  Those who see guns as the cause of the problem, and those who want to focus on mental illness and other causes.  The arguments between these “camps” is an echo that has repeated for years now.

I think we need to dig deeper into the experience and break through the log jam that has us frozen in frustration.  I think we need to honestly reflect on what guns are in American society: powerful symbols that carry forth one of our most pronounced values.

It may seem strange that the study of liturgy might hold the key for breaking the logjam, but hear me out.  In liturgical studies, that fascinating discipline that reflects on what worship does in our lives, how prayer shapes us, how our common experience of postures, prayers, and music forms the way we see the world, symbols are of the utmost importance.  It is vitally important to understand what symbols are and how they work.

The word symbol in Greek means to come alongside or to lay alongside.  In a symbol, we lay a physical object alongside, as it were, a deeper spiritual reality.  In the Christian tradition, ordinary bread and wine are laid alongside, in the liturgy, the deeper spiritual reality of Christ’s promised presence with us.  The bread and wine are transformed through the Spirit, and they carry forth the deeper meaning of Christ’s redeeming and reconciling presence in our lives.  In this symbol, this sacramental reality, we take in this deeper spiritual reality—this truth—by ingesting the bread and wine.  Christ is really present in the bread and wine, and the transformation we experience is realized in our lives through Holy Communion.

For those who think this is strange or too “popish,” let me tell you how my Missionary Baptist grandfather stopped us kids from simply chugging down the left over juice after the Lord’s Supper one Sunday night.  Only hours before, when we made the bread out of flower and water at my grandparent’s house, we ate it like crackers and drank the grape juice without a second glance from them.  Once we had shared that experience of the small, white chicklet of bread and the small, glass swallow of grape juice, something had changed.  When I went to start drinking as many of the little glasses of juice as I could, my grandfather quickly stopped me, telling me that we needed to take this seriously.  Take this seriously.  I watched as the older ones slowly drank the leftover juice with a solemnity that taught me something: Symbols have power.

Here’s where my words might make you mad.  I think that guns have become the symbol par excellence for an American culture steeped in violence and aggression.  Guns are symbols of a primal value we carry as a culture, and we need to talk about this.  We are a colonizing people as much as we are a people who fled religious persecution (and here I am talking about the white folks, of course).  So much of our story is flavored by violence and aggression, with Western expansion, the treatment of indigenous peoples, and slavery being obvious examples.  There is something about American culture that resonates with violence.  Think of the stories we tell, the movies we make.  Cowboys with guns and shootouts.  War movies.  Video games.  Toys.  Music. Over time, the gun infused this primal value of violence and aggression, and a symbol was formed.  And symbols are very powerful.

So, to those who say guns aren’t the problem, in a way you are correct—yet you are shortsighted as well.  Guns are the problem because they are the symbol par excellence of a culture that values violence and aggression.  This is why guns are the problem, and it is also why we experience resistance when we talk about changing laws around access to guns.

Let’s go back to the liturgy for another example.  Back in the 1970s, it became clear that The Episcopal Church had to have the conversation around ordaining women as priests.  The time had come.  So many were resistant to it, for different reasons.  They did not want to change the canons, the church laws, which to that point only allowed for men to be ordained as priests.  For some, they looked to the Scriptural account that apparently showed Jesus only choosing men as his disciples.  For them, there was a Biblical mandate to ordain only men.  For others, the conversation became even more theological and perhaps significant.  For these, ordaining women as priests made no sense given that the priest was, in the moment of consecration, serving in persona Christi, in the person of Christ.

See, in the sacramental act of the Holy Eucharist, we experience a series of deeply profound moments.  As the priest offers the bread and wine, the priest repeats Jesus’s own words: “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  The priest is, sacramentally, standing in the person of Jesus Christ as host of that meal, yet with Christ as the ultimate host.  The priest is, as it were, a symbol of Christ at that moment.  Things are laid alongside each other, and a transformation is experienced.  Symbols are powerful things.

So this begs the question: “If Jesus was a man, how can a female priest be in persona Christi?”  To change the canons, the laws, on this issue was to affect a change in understanding the symbol itself.  To alter the laws was to question—some would say threaten—the value the Church had placed in the symbol of the priest.  Hence, the enormous frustration and even anger when the change was made and ordination was finally opened to women.

We see how symbols have power, don’t we?  And, we see how a change to structures and laws can threaten long held values in a community.  I believe this is what is happening in our conversations around changes to the gun laws.  For many, changes in the laws and restrictions on access feel like a threat on values they hold.  They feel judged, because their values have been questioned.  The framework has been altered.

Now, this begs the question as to how we should explore the values that we hold dear in this country, which guns symbolize.  This is the painful part of the conversation that we are not addressing enough.  For those who say this is a cultural problem, you are correct, of course, although I don’t know if “you really want to go there,” as the kids say.  We do have a cultural problem with violence and aggression.  We need to talk about this.  We have a warped understanding of what power is and how power should be used.

When we approach the conversation through this lens of the symbol, it opens up deeply meaningful—and challenging—points of conversation.  One obvious example comes to mind: why is a massive military parade showing our power and aggressive capabilities a way to honor veterans?  Because what it really taps into is this primal value we have around violence and aggression.  It is all connected, friends.  Why do we continue to hear music laden with references to violence?  Because it sells.  Because it connects to the primal value we have around violence and aggression.  Why do we see these video games?  You got it.

So, here is a challenge for us to consider.  When the canons of The Episcopal Church were changed to allow for the ordination of female priests, what the church experienced was, in fact, an expansion and reorientation of how it understood the symbol of the priest.  There was a deepening of significance there, an expansion that was deeply meaningful.  We recognized more of the Gospel’s promise in terms of how God’s love is poured out for all people.  We recognized how much we had been laden with a patriarchal understanding of God.  We grew and were transformed.

But to do this, we had to address the symbol itself.  We could have continued having the conversation for decades more, perhaps, but the deep work around this reorientation and realization of grace was only possible when the symbol was affected.  What was most painful was most necessary.

Here we find our challenge with the guns.  For those who argue that cultural changes must be made in order to make people safer, I offer you this: these necessary cultural changes will only be made when the symbol itself is affected.  So long as the symbol is not affected, it will continue to carry forth the values that it carries, reinforcing the old values of violence and aggression.  This is the deep truth of what we are dealing with.  This is why restrictions on gun laws are necessary: because they are painful.  We feel the significance the guns have in our culture.  We know their value.  We recognize them as symbols and we feel their power.

So, here we are.  We find ourselves, I believe, at a turning point when, perhaps, we are willing to lean into this space of transformation.  It will not be easy.  That is for sure.  Change and transformation dealing with symbols never is, but in this instance, given what is at stake in our culture and collective soul, I pray to God that we will have the courage to do what is needed.


2 thoughts on “The Gun as Symbol: A Reflection on our American Conversation

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  1. Very well said Stuart. Thank you for taking the time to reflect and shares those reflections with us. I pray that we as a nation will pause and think about the consequences of not making changes in how we “do business.” Reasonable restrictions on guns? Yes. Changes in how we treat and prevent mental illness? Absolutely. Again, thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “…the deep work around this reorientation and realization of grace was only possible when the symbol was affected. What was most painful was most necessary.” What beautiful “conversion” language this is. Anyone who has ever had a sports trainer understands that pain is necessary. For example, those who wish to play a good round of golf go to a golf “pro” and one of the first things done by the pro will be to observe and correct the player’s swing. This correcting process is often painful and feels strange, and trust is involved by both parties. Once a golfer gets “reoriented” to the new swing, their game improves. What was once a lost game is found in a new way of playing, and the symbol is not lost. It is rediscovered. Thanks for your post, Stuart. This one’s going to stay with me, and I hope play with “symbol” as I challenge myself in others in taking a (deeper) look. ~Peace.

    Liked by 1 person

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