“Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. Violence is thriving as never before in every sector of American popular culture, civil religion, nationalism, and foreign policy. Violence, not Christianity, is the real religion of America.” -Walter Wink
This is the opening quote of the chapter “In Guns We Trust,” from Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin’s book Beating Guns: Hope for People Who Are Weary of Violence, in which they argue that our American love for guns has become a full-blown idol. The authors refer to Andy Crouch’s insightful description of how idols function, from his book Playing God:
“All idols begin by offering great things for a very small price. All idols then fail, more and more consistently, to deliver on their original promises, while ratcheting up their demands . . . In the end they fail completely, even as they make categorical demands.”
Later in the chapter, the authors quote historian Garry Wills, who, in a 2012 essay, made a bold and compelling claim about American culture: “The gun is our Moloch.” Moloch (or Molech) is the Canaanite god infamous in the Old Testament for receiving child sacrifices, a practice that the God of Israel abhorred.
Of course, it is easy to spot idols in the Old Testament — or, for that matter, in my home city of Bangkok, Thailand — where people bring physical offerings to lay at the feet of physical statues, hoping to obtain good fortune, security, or relief from life’s troubles. But we Americans are much slower to see the idols of our own times and cultures, along the lines of “greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). These counterfeit gods are all the more insidious for their lack of a clear, physical presence. Yet these invisible idols are no less demanding and no less destructive than their visible counterparts.
One of the roles of poetry, according to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is to help remove “the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude” that causes us to “have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.” In other words, poetry can help people see with renewed vision the reality that has been in front of them the whole time. So I wondered:
What if we could see the invisible idol of gun violence in its visible, physical form?
What if we could see the daily sacrifices inherent in our corporate unwillingness to repent of the status quo of “violence . . . the real religion of America”?
What if we could reframe the tragic, unceasing horror of children’s lives lost to gun violence for what it is: child sacrifices made to a counterfeit god?
Would that vision be enough to make us change?
These are the questions behind this poem of lament, “American Altar.” Before you read it, I invite you to take a deep breath. Then, read it slowly and prayerfully.
What if, instead,
we had a monstrous steel statue,
a modern-day Molech,
its bloodstained stainless steel
altar rimmed with polished wood,
serviced by priests and acolytes
inviting us, demanding now,
our money and fresh sacrifices
to appease its appetite,
and children were pulled
at random from our streets,
our parks, our playgrounds,
groups of them, even,
from elementary schools—
but mostly from homes,
led out one at a time
by a family member
or a thoughtless friend,
the child’s cries unheard
beneath the frenzied worship
of that insatiable god?
Would we call
This poem was originally published by PAX on June 8, 2021. You can read and listen to the original poem here.