The Eighth Commandment and the Second Amendment

March 7, 2018
The Eighth Commandment and the Second Amendment
HDS Professor Kevin Madigan

Kevin Madigan, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at HDS and a historian of medieval Christian religious practice and thought, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on March 6.


The first reading is from Exodus 20:1-17 (selection):

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol ... You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents.

Honor your father and your mother.

You shall not murder.

You shall not bear false witness.

The second reading is from the United States Constitution, The Second Amendment:

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.

I come before you this morning, friends, to make no policy recommendations. There must be only a handful of faculty at Harvard less qualified than I to do so. Looking out over this gathering, most—no all—students present are actually, I admit it, more qualified—much more qualified—than I to do so.

Nor do I intend to deliver a jeremiad, though in the news that has recently spilled across our breakfast tables, and in our lawmakers’ craven response to it, there is plenty to mourn and lots to lament. Nor do I wish to pose the intriguing question, as the author of an editorial in the Washington Post recently did, whether gun ownership is compatible with Christianity, or, for that matter with Judaism, Islam, or any of religious traditions practiced on this campus and in this country.

Nor am I here to condemn the ways in which greenbacks, greed, and, alas, even the United States Supreme Court have rendered our lawmakers contemptible flunkies of their funders. Finally, I have not come here this morning to recommend that the second amendment, as has also recently been proposed in a major national newspaper, be expunged from of the Constitution.

Instead, I aim this morning to ponder what it means to read, and in particular, what it means to read well; even more precisely, how we ought to read authoritative religious and national texts honestly—in other words without misrepresentation or otherwise “bearing false witness,” as, indeed, it seems obvious the Eighth Commandment.

Reading well or honestly is not a mere educational desideratum. It has become, in recent months, a grave, indeed life-and-death question for our country, some of whose citizens habitually parrot the claim that their nation is founded on “Judeo-Christian values.” If true, that must surely mean that our nation originated, at least in part, in fidelity to the divine commandments you have just heard read.

Yet those in power who make such a claim all too often bear false witness, and, what is worse, make their money, their blood money, by bearing false witness to their neighbors and constituents—to the citizens of the United States they have, mendaciously it seems, promised to serve.

To illustrate this claim, I have quite literally brought pictures with me this morning, photographs to which I’d like us now to turn our attention.

NRA headquarters

As you can see, the pictures depict, appropriately enough, given our reading, two tablets. On one tablet, we read the familiar clause: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” The late Paul Fussell, literary critic, army veteran and historian of warfare once declared he expected the second panel to have honored the principle of symmetry and thus to have represented the critical first half of the Second Amendment. You know, the clause that connects the bearing of arms to a well-regulated militia—that is to say, to an army.

You will have noticed, by now, that it does not. The NRA, the organization that erected these two tablets, elected instead to list on the second tablet a series of functions or services. Shorn from the context of data on public health (like bullets whistling down the streets of our neighborhoods or in the halls of our grammar and secondary schools)—shorn from contexts such as these, the named functions—training in safety and marksmanship and the like—seem harmless, trivial: almost banal.

Concealing the truth in this way is one form of lying. Since the NRA has concealed a critical part of the Second Amendment, we can rightly conclude, as both the framers of the Constitution and the author of 1 John might have put it: that the Truth is not in Them. And they of course would be dead on right. From this observation, I infer the following:

  1. The NRA may restore our trust in its commitment to truth were it first), to honor the Law of Moses and the Law of Our Land by replacing the misleading tablet with one that expresses the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—namely, the crucial but now-missing first half of the Second Amendment; and second), to focus not on putative but dubious gun rights but on gun obligations, which have to do with regulating the armed forces effectively.
  2. Since, according to a recent Pew Research report, the group of Christians who insist that the Bible be read literally are most likely of all American religious groups surveyed to own guns, it follows that those Christians, if they are to avoid self-contradiction (which is to say, lying) ought to be loudest in their protests of the NRA’s sly and selective misrepresentation. Equally, they ought to be vociferous in insisting that the Second Amendment be read as literally as other normative texts, like the Bible, say.
  3. Christians and Jews present here today ought to join the ever-louder chorus of our literalist and gun-owning brothers and sisters. Why? Well, for one thing, we would not want to confuse our children, who are, egregiously for their intellectual and moral formation, taught to read one normative text literally while they are simultaneously instructed to construe another partially and non-literally. This is self-evidently wrong, as it teaches our children to believe, despite the divine command that we not bear false witness, that it is OK to do so when convenient.
  4. Because we agree with the NRA and gun-owning Christians that children are precious, we would not want to contradict ourselves—that is, to lie—by making their violent victimization more likely, even probable, by selective reading and representation—that is, by lying.
  5. Lying once not only leads to other lies. It leads to other forms of transgression. Selective rather than literal reading, for example, dishonors the sacred lawmaker who liberated us from the house of slavery only by delivering our profane legislators over to the servitude of the NRA’s Pharaoh.
  6. God’s law commands us to worship no graven images, but what does NRA’s Pharaoh do, if not to make an idol of deadly arms and demand that we bow down and venerate them?
  7. Exodus tells us we may not steal. But what does deceptive reading and representation do, if not brazenly rob us of countless scores of blameless children? Here, lying leads to stealing, which leads to murder; and this in turn leads on to more McConnellesque dissembling and Ryan-like hand-wringing and grimacing, and then the whole murderous cycle starts over again because—are we thoroughly suspicious of this yet?—it is not appropriate to discuss gun regulation in the wake of a tragedy caused by the use of a gun. A mother could hardly be blamed, a bereft father could hardly incur shame, were they to exclaim with the exiled psalmist, “How long, Lord, how long shall the wicked prevail?”
  8. God promises us that our days may be long if we honor father and mother. Yet the days of many innocents have been cut grievously short, though they did nothing to dishonor their parents. Their only error was to trust in those paid off to protect the supposed rights of those intent on violating the commandment not to kill—or, in secular terms, to commit homicide.
  9. God commands us not to murder. This unambiguous command requires no glossing from me. In his infinite wisdom, God especially did not require us to pose unwise and fruitless questions about it, like, for example, do people kill people, or do guns kill people?
  10. Let us then, brothers and sisters, read our sacred texts closely and honestly and even literally. Let the full will of our Founding Fathers finally be revealed by the lying liars of the NRA, lest we—lest they—flout not only the Constitution crafted so conscientiously and with such care but, more importantly, the revealed will of the God whom the Evangelist John identifies with Truth, with Veritas. I would want to remind all, and especially Monsieur LaPierre in closing, that the Exodus declares the Divine source of the Law to be not just a God of Truth. It also has that God declare himself also to be a just and punishing God. Or, as the text also states, God will not hold anyone guiltless who misappropriates the Divine Name. Let he who has ears to hear, let him hear. Amen.