The current interpretation of the Second Amendment that operates in American political discourse is that the Constitution "guarantees the right to bear arms." It strikes us as a biblical scholar and historian that the same fundamental issues at stake in how one interprets the Bible are at stake in the interpretation of the Second Amendment. That's because the Second Amendment is scripture. It is a sacred written text, the primary definition of scripture. The Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America is enshrined in civil religion in the U.S.
For some folks in other words, God is the guarantor of American freedom including in particular, gun ownership. We contend that understanding this "sacred" context of the text can help break the logjam of interpretation that has prevented the passing of rational gun laws in America.
The notion of a "civil religion," like the construct of "religion" itself, is a modern hybrid that is implicated in the history of nationalism and empires, among other kinds of violence. French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the notion in the late 18th century, sociologist Robert Bellah popularized it in the American academy during the Kennedy-Camelot-Vietnam-era, and countless devotees practice it, more or less intentionally, and more or less alongside other traditions. Among other features, the American civil religion is marked by sacred places--the Lincoln Memorial, Gettysburg Battlefield, the Liberty Bell; sacred times--the 4th of July, Veterans Day, Flag Day; and sacred texts--notably the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
What the civil religion does is to "fix" certain places, times, and discourses and grant them "transcendent" authority. Such fixed places, times, and discourses give people anchors in uncertain seas. They provide meaning, purpose, and control in the face of finitude and fear. Just as select interpretive discourses, (for some readers everything), in the Holy Bible became "fixed" in a pseudo-scientific "literalism" in the wake of modern historical criticism (the "virgin birth," six-day creation, and so forth), so have interpretations of the Constitution and U.S. history. American "exceptionalism" is one such construct in recent public discourse. "Sacrifice" on behalf of the nation is another. The interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that fixes its meaning in "the right to bear arms" is a third. It deserves careful exegesis.
Exegesis is the practice - art and science - of interpreting a text, especially the Bible. In the academic field of biblical studies exegesis attends to the original language, multiple contexts, form, genre and other aspects of the text and its multiple contexts - originating, oral transmission, written production, transmission, canonization, translation, interpretation, etc. - in order to represent as faithfully as possible what a text said, what it meant in its context of origin and what it means in the context of the interpreter. Those contexts and every one in between across time are crucial to interpreting - and constructing - meaning. An axiom of African American preaching is that a text without a context is a pretext. And the way the Second Amendment is most regularly cited is without context, without its introductory framework, as a universal and essential "right to bear arms."
There was a time in which it was imagined that a text, whether the Bible or the Constitution or any of their subtexts had a single comprehensible meaning that was unchanged across time and distance. That single correct interpretation was the one given by the authorized interpreters. Historically, it was imagined that those authorized interpreters, nearly universally white and male, did not consider their own context or identity as they shaped their interpretations.
But when women, people of color, sexual minorities and other marginalized and minoritized persons in the Church, Beit Midrash and American political discourse began interpreting sacred texts - scripture - it became apparent that all interpreters operated from particular contexts and identities. Some were honest about it; some were in adamant denial.
Examples abound of biblical texts that have been reinterpreted or simply rejected in light of modern contexts, including, for example: parents having an alcoholic child stoned, (Deut 21:20-12), requiring women to marry their rapists (Deut 22:28-29), entitling soldiers to kill male children and take women and girls captive for sexual use, (Deut 20:10-14),and, blaming demons for diseases (Mk 9:25-29; Lk 11:14; Matt 12:22, 17:14-18). We no longer live in the Iron Age or in the era that gave birth to the U.S. Constitution.
Using two aspects of exegesis, the literary context of the text and the social-cultural contexts of the text and its interpreters, we'd like to offer some thoughts about how the Second Amendment can and should be interpreted - exegeted - in our contemporary context. We understand that legal scholars have their own principles of jurisprudence, and offer these insights in the hope that they may contribute to shifting the paradigm through which the text is read.
First the immediate literary context, the entire 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.
The literary context provides the socio-cultural context of the Amendment, namely the American Revolution and establishment of new nation, one without a standing army. In that context, people owned the weapons they would use in defense of the common good. It is interesting to note that the original text is gender-inclusive in its form although we are still struggling over the role of armed women in combat.
The Revolutionary Era militia has been superseded by an Army and Navy, which spawned the Air Force (formerly Army Air Corps), and Marine Corps, now augmented by state and local police - which have their own colonial and pre-colonial predecessors, National Guard and Coast Guard. And in each case those women and men have their firearms supplied by the governments (local, state, federal) that employ them. The necessity met by a "well regulated militia" in the Revolutionary Era and its aftermath is now met without militias. The originating context of the Second Amendment no longer exists.
Next, arguably, one of the most significant terms in the passage is "infringed." What did it mean to "infringe" upon the rights of people to "keep and bear arms" in the Revolutionary Era? What does the right to "keep and bear arms mean" in our current context? A simple and straightforward understand might seem to be that nothing should prevent the people (note this is a collective term and not the same as every individual) from keeping and bearing arms - in the context of militia service from which this text cannot be severed. The courts have ruled that individuals do not have the absolute right to keep and bear arms; that is why felons can be deprived of the right to keep and bear arms, which is entirely consistent with the original context of the Amendment.
At present, we contend that an individualist interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that has been read to uphold a universal "right to bear arms" of any kind, in any context, serves functions that are more accurately described as theological than legal. That is, people (notably NRA members) have turned their guns into an extension of God, sources of security (supposedly) in any storm. That this is, theologically speaking, idol worship - that which is not God being revered as God - should go without saying. That it has proven destructive is repeatedly evident historically. But until we address the sacred functions of the language that legitimizes this idol we will not likely get far in fostering rational limits on gun owning in America, because the religious needs being met by this interpretation (and by possession of the fetish object of the handgun or assault rifle) will continue to operate unabated.
Interpreting an older or even ancient text into a social, cultural and temporal context that is quite different from the one in which it originated is the regular work of biblical scholars and other exegetes and interpreters of texts. A pressing issue emerging from our contemporary interpretive context not present in the originating is the nature and kind of "arms" to which the people - again collectively, not individually - have a right. We are no longer talking about muskets. And since the general citizenry does not form the basis of a militia or army charged with the security of the nation they do not have a Constitutionally enshrined right to military-grade arsenals.
Jointly authored with Jon Pahl, Peter Paul and Elizabeth Hagan Professor of the History of Christianity and Director of MA Programs for The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.