On Palm Sunday of this year, Reverend Edward Fride, of Christ the King parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan, made himself temporarily famous by announcing during the Mass that the parish would be conducting qualifying classes for parishioners to carry concealed firearms. This announcement was met with some resistance from parishioners, to which Fr. Ed responded with a longish letter explaining his position. That letter exploded across the internet, with titles like, “Priest tells flock to pack heat.” This dust-up, in turn, compelled the Bishop of Lansing to issue a (sensible, in my view) cease-and-desist directive to Fr. Ed on gun training in the parish.
This all gave me some concern, because I am reading from and signing copies of my latest book in Ann Arbor on May 9th, at Bookbound, and the venue has publicized that I am writing explicitly as a Catholic. I fear that the attendees will inevitably raise questions about Fr. Ed and his letter that might hijack any discussion of the book itself with the somewhat arcane – if vitally important – questions of theology raised by the text of Reverend Fride's macho monograph on the need for Christians to carry concealed pistols. The audience, after all, might not even all be Christians.
On the other hand, if I can avoid entanglement in the thicket of daffy theology in Fr. Ed's letter, the letter's idiom does relate rather directly to the subject of the aforementioned book, entitled Borderline – Reflections on War, Sex, and Church (Cascade Books, 2015). The subtitle is not meant to be salacious, but is instead an abbreviation of the book's thesis, which is – as stated in the Introduction - “War is implicated in masculinity. Masculinity is implicated in war. Masculinity is implicated in the contempt for and domination of women. Together, these are implicated in the greatest sins of the church.” Masculinity constructed as violence, as domination, as conquest, I have claimed, is an unacknowledged idol that has been smuggled into the sanctuary for centuries; and it is the common ground for both our war-mongering and misogyny.
Perhaps I can lead, then, when I have this conversation with Ann Arbor bibliophiles in a couple of weeks, with Fr. Ed's example; because the association of Christianity with American gun culture has a very specific history, which I covered in some detail in Chapter 24, “Progress and the Fear of the Feminine.” Oddly enough, in its infancy, this emergence of “muscular Christianity” and the male fascination with guns as signs of virility had distinctly Protestant origins, as well as origins with the Progressive Movement symbolically embodied in the leadership of once-President Theodore Roosevelt. History, at least, gives me some common ground with those who may not be literate in or interested in theology.
Roosevelt was the national exemplar of what I like to call probative masculinity. He and many of his white male contemporaries were intensely preoccupied with what they saw as a crisis in American masculinity. The roots of this crisis, according to Progressive thinkers, included the end of the so-called frontier conquest, the danger that Victorian gentility might open the door to effeminacy, and the double-threat of non-white fecundity and miscegenation. Pastor Fride may not be familiar with this history, but it also included no small measure of anti-Catholicism, which was associated with waves of immigration from Southern Europe. Eugenics was a popular cause among Progressives and Protestants, and social Darwinism had captured the white American imagination. This eugenic preoccupation with masculinity was actually incorporated into a toxic amalgam in Progressive churches called “natural theology,” the term “natural” being closely associated with a proud and public white supremacy, to which “muscular Christians” and Roosevelt alike enthusiastically subscribed.
Gun culture was part of this movement, and it incorporated an American myth of Western expansion that can be summarized in the bumper sticker – still on view in places – stating, “God, Guns, and Guts Made America Free.” It is a well-known myth that still populates our cinemas, in which guns are the phallic instruments of order against chaos, and every story is a story about redemptive violence.
This is precisely the story that Pastor Fride tells in his letter to parishioners, which he opens with the subtitle: We're Not InMaybery Anymore, Toto.
His reference is to the idyllic, small-town, white paradise of Western North Carolina in the 1960s, whether the Sheriff went unarmed and men didn't beat their wives and girlfriends and there were no Ku Klux Klan or White Citizens Councils. He mixes this metaphor with the Wizard of Oz, wherein a storm blows a white rural girl into a world inhabited by vengeful green witches and malevolent flying monkeys.
“It is very common for Christians to simply assume that they live in Mayberry,” writes Fr. Ed, “trusting that because they know the Lord Jesus, everything will always be fine and nothing bad can happen to them and their families.”
I have to interrupt here, if not with theology, at least with Christianity 101. If Christians believe any such thing, it is because the story of our origins have been trumped by the Andy Griffith show. Our founding story is one of gross injustice, ruthless military occupation, and martyrdom. In addition to the crucifixion of Jesus, most of the Apostles were martyred, as were observant Christians again and again throughout our history. Some are being martyred today in Southwest Asia. Not one of the martyred Apostles fought back, by the way; they accepted their fates as per the example of Jesus, who went nonviolently to the cross.
Before the Constantinian compromise, this was the way of the church.
Fride goes on to say, “How to balance faith, reality, prudence, and trust is one of those critical questions that we struggle with all our lives. Pretending we are in Mayberry, while we are clearly not, can have very negative consequences for ourselves and those we love, especially those we have a responsibility to protect.”
This is not following Christ, it is masculinism. Masculinism has its historical coordinates, its transhistorical coordinates, and its own rationalizations. I emphasize this, because following Christ, in any way consistent with the Gospels, can only be based upon a very specific set of coordinates that are established in the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; and these coordinates are in several respects the opposite of masculinism.
In Pastor Fride's letter, we find examples of transhistorical masculinism, historical (American) masculinism, and the archetypical rationalizations for both. Let me explain. Transhistorically, male power (including violence) has been understood as potentially and actually redemptive. It has been understood as protective of community, even though these communities excluded or marginalized females. The masculine male was – very importantly – willing to fight. Unwillingness to fight has transhistorically – across several historical epochs and cultures – been seen as un-manly, as a forfeiture of masculine identity. This, by the way, made Jesus unintelligible to his disciples for most of his earthly mission, and a scandal to masculinity in later years, which could only be corrected by casting Jesus into extraterrestiral orbit as a purely celestial being whose actual life was no longer seen as exemplary for us earthbound creatures.
When men do not have the opportunity to prove themselves as fighters, they tend to do so vicariously – by idolizing fighters – and linguistically, by talking like fighters. In Fride's letter, he prominently mentions that he studies marital arts, and that he has had to use them more than once, establishing his fighter bona fides.
“When I get into the sparring ring,” he says, “with a hundred pound yellow belt, there is no fear—there is a threat but it can easily be handled. If at the last minute Chuck Norris jumped into the ring and took his place, the fear would be very real! If most of us were placed in a combat situation, the fear would be very real, so real as to almost be paralyzing; if some Team Six Navy SEALs were placed in the same situation, there would be great focus and concentration, but little fear . . . in serious threat situations, twice the Lord Jesus had me respond to imminent very dangerous personal threats using more prosaic means, e.g. disarming an attacker in one case and physically challenging members of an attacking gang in another.”
So our battling pastor has demonstrated his willingness to fight at the same time he has identified himself rhetorically with other idealized fighters. I like the way he only allows Jesus into this letter as his corner-man.
The threat, by the way, according to the pastoral letter, emanates from Detroit. The scary, dark, third-world enclave has hatched a malevolent evil that is creeping westward from the howling ruins, paralleling Highway 12, infiltrating across the River Rouge, through Deerborn Heights, Garden City, Westland, Canton, nearer each day to Ypsilanti, our Osgiliath that will fall and lay bare the gates of Ann Arbor, our Minis Tirith.
This is one aspect of historical masculinity, which incorporates aspects of transhistorical masculinity and accommodates them to particular historical places and times. In fact, Fride is mobilizing a more modern masculine idiom, one that is post-Enlightenment, when white masculinity stood along the racialized battlements between civilization and savagery. We saw this trope in Teddy Roosevelt's ranting on behalf of empire, we saw it during the entire colonial era – the white man's burden to civilize darker races.
“Several Protestant ministers in Ypsilanti,” Fr. Ed writes, “they told me that they all regularly carry (i.e. carry concealed pistols) and that especially during their services, they have armed uniform guards present. They take the threat to their folks and their worshipping [sic] congregation seriously. They told me that they felt that they had a duty to acknowledge the reality of the threat and to take appropriate action for their people's safety.”
He switches up then to cite Columbine, Aurora, and Sandy Hook, in case the Gangs of Detroit have failed to mobilize parishioner anxiety sufficient to send them shopping for Glocks. This is one of those rationalizations. If, if, if . . . if someone other than the shooters had been armed, they could have stopped these mass shootings . . . which have nothing to do, by the way, with the kinds of crimes he mentioned earlier, like robbery. It is a fallacy, of course, one I call the fallacy of retrojection, in which all other variables are the same, with one hypothetical exception. But it works, because the male fantasy of redemption by violence has been etched onto our psyches almost since birth. We all want to be the hero in our own skit, the death-dealing, masculine hero we have been raised on through television and cinema.
The internal logic of his argument leads inevitably to a situation in which everyone is armed all the time; and so Fride seeks now to arm his parish.
Universal armament is what is implied when he uses the examples of Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Aurora, where – in point of fact - the white middle-class shooters themselves were using legal firearms and had grown up around firearms. By whatever measure, each of them was crazy, but for some reason, crazy women don't unload with firearms on crowds of unsuspecting people. These were not crazy people, they were crazy men. The masculinity that each of them felt compelled to recover in non-normative ways – after real and perceived humiliations – was not crazy, but normative for the whole culture. It was the same masculinity – one associated with the willingness to attack others with firearms – that we men learn, as men. The same masculinity that backgrounds Fr. Ed's letter to his parishioners.
Fride's remarks conjure a mythical republican masculinity – republican in the sense of the American Revolution, the battle for the Republic – which has been erroneously identified with the gun-owning male, which underwrote frontier masculinity – another American mythic archetype – associated with the conquest of the West, both its wild nature, and the people that were defined into wild nature as a pretext for their conquest. Women, by the way, are also defined into nature by men as a pretext for conquest.
Always that borderline between orderly civilization and untamed chaos, where real men stand in their protective role along the perilous boundary.
The other rationalization gambit, surely not overlooked by the good pastor, is the Canned Scenario in which there are only two choices – kill or allow the slaughter of innocents, an abrogation of your male duty to protect. This actual situation is so rare in reality that it is almost nonexistent, and in the rare cases where it may happen, it is most often foreseeable enough to avoid.
This is a common discursive gambit today in defense of torture – What if? What if? What if? What if the ticking backpack nuke has one hour to detonation somewhere in a Manhattan subway, and you have captured the person who placed it? In literature, television, and film, this is called the tempo task, and it is a Canned Scenario. Its purpose is to systematically peel away every appeal to the accepted rules of behavior and open the door to salvation through a release of pure masculine violence, real “thinking with the blood” stuff, the kind that fired the imagination of Mussolini.
These are the argumentative mainstays, however, for people who are defending violence generally, and for Christians, especially Christians who split their allegiance between Christ and the idol of masculinity, who can't abide the teachings of Jesus that reject violence.
Now, I will be the first to admit that this is a radical teaching, and one that is ignored as consistently as Jesus teaching that to be rich is a sin. But I will quote Chesterton, who said that “Christianity hasn't been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” We are called to something very radically different than the world of power, which is exactly what got Jesus crucified. Male power is one of those forms of power.
I cannot, as a Christian, make the same critique of non-Christians that I do of Christians, which is why I am picking on Pastor Fride now. On the other hand, this emphasis on the fact that men, not merely people, are the specific group who are enculturated to violence as a virtue, is an echo of what many feminists and feminist-allies point out apart from faith. It is the unremarked elephant in most accounts of “human” violence. Most violence is committed by men, and men are associated in our collective consciousness with violence as virtue.
These Canned Scenarios where the choice is boiled down to kill or allow the slaughter of innocents, are the last refuge for someone whose other arguments have utterly failed. I am sixty-three years old. I have been to many conflict areas. I was in the army for more than two decades. I was a drunk who went to seedy bars and seedy places. I bought and sold illicit drugs. I carried a gun, concealed and otherwise. If anyone was looking for a do-or-die scenario, it was me. And in all honesty, I have to say that there was never any situation so extreme that I could not have avoided had I wished to. Every extreme situation I experienced was one that I participated in constructing for myself and others, by gravitating toward conflict – something probative masculinity will compel a man to do. Conflict is the flame to conquest-masculinity's moth.
These fallacious scenarios are designed with the outcome in mind, and for any other outcome to be unthinkable. They ham-handedly smuggle the conclusion into the premises. But even if there were one of these extreme do-or-die scenarios which came to pass, Christians are not called by Jesus or the Gospels to intervene with deadly force. It is our belief that bad things happen – crucifixion is a pretty bad thing – but that a faithful life lost will be restored. This is why martyrs like Perpetua and Felicity could go gladly to their deaths without ever giving thought to employing violence as self-defense. We are not called to masculinism, but to its opposite, which we call “the way of the cross.”
Just as he made the Messiah his corner-man for manly face-offs in the street, Fride actually shoehorns Jesus into one of these Canned Scenarios.
“I began to consider a set of moral scenarios,” he writes, “'what would I do if' scenarios. I eventually concluded that . . . there were situations in which I would actively intervene, even to a lethal level if necessary. I could not generally see myself doing that simply to protect myself—especially if martyrdom was involved, but what if I came across a woman being beaten or sexually assaulted, or somebody attacking kids? In those cases my response would be immediate and sufficient. The 'what would Jesus do' is often used as a defense for pacifism, but when you read what Jesus actually does, as Revelation describes as He leads His army to destroy those attacking Israel, to say it does not go well for the bad guys would be something of an understatement.”
Question-begging anyone? If I find this outcome X unthinkable, then Jesus wouldn't have permitted outcome X, because outcome X is unthinkable.
As to his reference to John's Apocalypse, or Revelation, well . . . you know what they call the person who graduated last in his class at medical school? Doctor!
Anyone who has seriously studied this final book in the New Testament knows it was neither meant literally nor was it written as a prediction of things to come. It was a specific Persian form of literature, the apocalyptic, told as a vision, and filled with very specific symbolic references that told a parallel story to its listeners, who were, by the way, nonviolent Christians undergoing violent persecution. The literal, predictive interpretation of Revelation was put out by American Protestants, called dispensationalists, in the nineteenth century. For Catholics, like Fr. Ed, who may have slept through that class at seminary, this interpretation is heretical.
Women and children, of course, are always deployed in the Canned Scenario, to mobilize sentiment, of course, but also to remind us of the protective role of the fighting male. In fact, women and children are secondary, they are props in the construction of the tempo task, the central character still being the fighting man.
According to Fride's letter, when one woman told him that the presence of guns provoked fear in her, his reply was, “How do you feel about rape?” The man plays the trump card on the woman. Guns prevent rape. Echoes of the millennia-long sexual protection racket: women need violent men to protect them from violent men. Obedience in exchange for protection. Or perhaps he was suggesting she herself be armed. Since women are most often raped by dates, boyfriends, husbands, relatives, and other acquaintances, this suggests that women should pack heat 24/7, no?
Moreover, the prior reference to the roving hordes from Detroit – whether intentional or not – dog-whistles to many white men when we combine even veiled references to the fear of black men with the crime of rape. Here is the hoary and malignant conjunction in the American white male psyche between sex and race. No discussion of sex in American is complete without the discussion of race; and no account of race can be finalized without sub-totaling sex. The bogeyman of the black rapist always mobilizes a significant fraction of white men with the implicit call to “protect white womanhood,” again, as verification of masculinity.
All this we can unpack from the language of a letter, and I do so not to devalue Pastor Fride. As a Christian, I hold the core-belief that every human being is beloved of God – I myself am nearer the front of the line than the rear when roll is called for sinners. Ed Fride is beloved of God. The victims of drone attacks are beloved of God. The gang member is beloved of God. The crazy person is beloved of God. That annoying person I want to avoid after Mass is beloved of God. The politicians whose works regularly enrage me are beloved of God. The beggar is beloved of God. The drug addict is beloved of God. That selfish, rich asshole is beloved of God. That trafficked woman is beloved of God. The misguided, the ornery, the mean, the violent, all are beloved of God.
It is the most radical of ideas, with the most radical of implications. “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried.”
We find many people hard to love . . . such is a broken world. But we can refrain from killing them, even occasionally at great cost to ourselves and others . . . such is a redeemed world.
If every person has the spark of the divine, and if church is the body of Christ, as we say it is – both the crucified and risen body – and if the mission of the church is in any way to cast before it the image of a world redeemed, then how can we tell the members of that body to prepare to kill?