The News: The Sacrament of the Blood Cult
Wednesday's Child Is Full of Woe
I tossed and turned a bit more than usual last night, thinking that I would have to write something in the morning about guns in the United States.
I’ve been publishing some form of online public commentary since 2003, and before that, been an active participant in online discussion threads. Like many other Americans, I feel I have said all the things that can be said about these events, about this issue, and none of it seems to matter. This is, however, what Second Amendment fanatics want: a sense that this is a settled issue and there’s no point to trying to change anything about it. So we have to keep speaking and demanding and trying to get to the better country that is plainly possible—the country that we can see in plain sight all around the world, all the countries where gun-related homicides are rare events. That doesn’t even mean a country where guns themselves are rare, as Switzerland demonstrates.
The question at these moments is always “why are we this way? Why do we have so many guns and why are they used so often in public murders, in domestic killings, and in suicides? What makes it so impossible to make even trivial changes in law or policy to try and stop all the blood from flowing despite a clear desire by the majority of Americans for major changes in that direction?”
I will start where, unfortunately, the NRA starts, in my one agreement with them. Guns don’t kill people. Or to put it another way, merely having lots of guns is not a sufficient cause of the frequent use of guns to kill people. They’re important to the issue because they dramatically amplify the number of people who die as a result. If there were few guns in America and nothing else changed, far fewer people would die.
The reason we’re awash in guns, however, is the same reason we die from them so much more than any other nation on the planet. People don’t kill people either.
Culture does. The last time I wrote about this in December of 2021, I said the same thing. I’m going to say it again now, and try to push it a bit more.
The United States is the home of a culture that envelops guns, violence and masculinity whose underlying propositions, doctrines, routines and perspectives are so firmly set and understood that it amounts to a civic religion. Putting it that way helps also to clarify that it is not a universal national culture: it has adherents who worship actively in its church and some who at least share more generally in its faith. And like any powerful religion, its dogma is known far and wide to non-believers. I am not a Christian, but I know Christianity’s scriptures, rituals and doctrines (frankly, better than most alleged Christians seem to), and Christianity’s sense of what is right and wrong mingles into my own even if I am not a practitioner. Likewise, I am not a gun owner nor am I an adherent of the American Blood Cult, but I know it well. I can trace its workings and its longings inside my own soul.
“Culture” is a multivalent word. In the sense I mean it here, it includes what people know they believe, it includes deliberate everyday practices, but it also includes deep assumptions, social identities, mindsets that are so routinized that they’re not really consciously accessible. The American Blood Cult is built first and foremost on a fused idea about manhood, individuality, honor and violent action, that means being able to act independently of government and institutions in response to others, especially women, to avenge dishonor or shame to the manhood of a congregant. This action must involve either violence or the capacity to do violence. And not just to protect or avenge but crucially to own. The Blood Cult is built around ownership: my house, my land, my wife, my children, my town. It’s not limited to men per se, like a lot of gendered cultures, but it’s mostly men who feel called to it, and to be a member, one has to conceptualize the faith as manhood. It’s not limited to white Americans per se, but Black Americans have largely been kept to their own congregations in the cult, and threatened for any public adherence to the larger faith. The Blood Cult’s obsession with ownership shows that it also aligns with European settlement of the Americas. What kind of land, house, family do you have to actively defend with violence? The kind you know was stolen from somebody, the kind you have to keep captive if you want to have it, the kind you always presume someone wants to take away from you because you know, no matter how long ago it was, that it was taken.
The faithful feel it deep inside. They’ve grown up with guns, they’ve trained to use guns, but they’re being honest when they say the guns are just tools—sacramental ones—for something deeper. In Christianity, the Eucharist doesn’t have to be a round wafer nor must the wine be served in a golden cup: any bread, any vessel will do. The American Blood Cult could make do with knives or bows if it had to—or fists. You don’t have to kill someone or hurt them, but meaningful action, whether to protect or to avenge, is always centered in a means of violence. Every other avenue for action in the world around the Blood Cult is social, shared, relational, institutional or governmental and thus only degraded and muddled in what it can promise or offer to the individual wanting to play an active role in the world. You can’t persuade someone through words all by yourself: the other person has to agree to listen and has to decide to be persuaded. You can’t vote all by yourself: there’s got to be at least one other person voting. You can’t guarantee the jury or the judge will do justice by you no matter what the evidence is.
But you can fight and kill—and thus protect and act—by yourself. You can save the innocent, protect the world, make them pay, make them think twice, keep what is yours, lay stake to what you want. You can act by yourself, in yourself. It takes will, it takes determination, it takes being able to be alone if need be. You need the best tools for the sacraments of the Blood Cult: if the bad guys have guns, if the world is armed, you’ll need them too. If you had to, you’d go down fighting without them, but you don’t have to in America.
The Blood Cult is a minority religion. So why is it allowed to conduct its rituals across so much of our national territory? Why is it allowed to sacrifice children, strangers, families, as well as its own members? That’s the second thing we have to remember. Contemporary America is under the control of a political minority, a control that is teetering on the edge of becoming a genuine tyranny. A coalition of wealthy small businesspeople, billionaire oligarchs and aggrieved rural and periurban whites at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum have aligned their resources and their political aspirations together and have spent the last thirty years taking advantage of the institutions of American federalism to engineer a distinctive form of minority rule. The majority is wealthy and culturally powerful—a dominant class in terms of prestige and reputation—but they are geographically concentrated in a political system that disproportionately rewards geographic distribution.
The Blood Cult can’t be beat while the minority rules. Those who are not adherents to the Blood Cult (most of the oligarchs aren’t, for example—they know they need institutions to retain their power) will indulge the Blood Cult in order to keep the coalition together and get their own priorities taken care of. The contempt that the majority feels for the Blood Cult—which grows stronger every time the majority is made to feel their helplessness, their victimhood—also keeps the Blood Cult strong. Any time a minority rules a majority and forces the majority to bend the knee, that minority knows that it is paying more and more into a furious future retribution should the majority ever re-establish its own authority. That makes the political minority hold on all the tighter. Thirty years ago, Americans in favor of gun control would have settled for a small suite of sensible regulations—licensing, registration, limitations on availability of some models. Today if they decisively broke through the deathgrip of the Blood Cult, they’d want far more because they’ve spent the last thirty years being taunted by the obscenity of “thoughts and prayers”.
The third thing that needs reckoning with is the wellspring that feeds the Blood Cult.
Yes, it matters that there are people and companies who make a lot of profit from selling guns. They will defend their interests just like tobacco companies did, no matter how much damage their products do. This isn’t enough.
What lies deeper, what makes the Blood Cult stronger in its appeal, is that almost all the alternatives are so much weaker in 21st Century American life. All the other kinds of manhood, personhood, humanity, have been devalued, demeaned or ruined. There are so few ways now that we feel that we matter. The jobs where Americans built things and crafted the world they lived in are gone; what’s left are mostly jobs where you get bossed by a middle manager who gets bossed by a top manager who gets bossed by an owner who gets bossed by the big owner who gets bossed by a hedge fund. Communities are shrinking: the rail stations are gone, the Main Streets are shuttered up, the kids have left, the churches are full of old people and ghosts. The elections don’t seem to matter, the campaigns are run by advertisers and pollsters. The scope of life even in the smallest town is incomprehensibly global. Things change, but nobody knows why—or they change to suit those people, who always seem to get what they want.
The Blood Cult is one of the few answers to the loss of meaning. It is not lying when it promises that its members can act and do something. They can protect—they can be the good guy with the gun who stops (or tries to stop) the bad guy. They can bristle like a porcupine on the road or in a bar and let the other guy know that there will be consequences. They can avenge themselves against an unfeeling or unaccommodating world. They can exact a price if they’re turned into losers or chumps, and for one moment, show the world what it means to cheat a Blood Cult member of what he’s owed.
What I hear when I get the shooter drill talk at my workplace is that I can run or I can hide or if there’s nothing left to do, rush the Blood Cult member and likely die in the process. What the Blood Cult member thinks he has over me is that he’s got a fair chance to kill his co-religionist and be a hero, and always at least to see himself as someone who acts rather than is acted upon. All the social and institutional and collective worlds I inhabit offer me an endless life of being acted upon: being governed, being trained, being criticized, being observed. To be a person of worth in my worlds, I must always try to meet the world halfway. I might be offered meaning and impact as a citizen, a collaborative partner, a professional, a neighbor, a speaker. An influencer, a commentator, a writer. A friend, a family member, a team member, a fan. None of which mean anything alone, all of which feel as if they have less meaning than they once did. They feel swallowed by scope, lost in massification. They feel defunded, deflated, disrespected. They feel pushed by invisible forces and managed by bloodless precepts. The things I can see that I feel sure ought to be done—the actions we should take together—feel most of the time as they never will happen for reasons beyond my ken. Most of the time the people who have power to act just patronize or pretend-listen. I never know at the end of any day, week, month or year if I made any difference at all in anything.
The Blood Cult offers an answer for people who have far fewer of those sources of meaning and impact than I do and it is a good answer in the sense that it is a real alternative. It is not just propaganda, it is not just habit and it is not just manipulation by people who stand to profit from it. The Blood Cult member with his guns and his idea of active manhood is completely right in thinking he can make a difference in the world with that belief and that tool. He might indeed shoot a bad man and save people. He might miss and shoot some good people too, but that’s a difference in the world. He might warn off a drunk in a bar, scare off a mugger in an alley, get that road rager to think twice. That’s a difference he can see. And if he despairs at the world’s injuries to him, he can punish the world and leave it knowing that the world has paid a price for what it’s done.
I started off thinking to myself, “Is there anything to be done about a culture? Is there any time that a government or a society has stopped a religion on purpose?” The answer is yes, but it’s a bad yes, because most of the examples involve horrific violence from above, involve governmental or social persecution. But I can think of cultures that change and religions that have disappeared—or been reformed. If that happens because people outside the culture want it changed or want the religion to go away, it’s perhaps because those outsiders did something to dry up the wellsprings, to provide more meaning and rewards somewhere else. Restricting guns would hurt the Blood Cult, but what might destroy it is for all those other sources of meaning, action and aspiration to be greatly renewed. Most people just want to matter, to be heard, to feel their lives make a difference. If that were in work, in community, in fellowship, in family, in nation, in some mission or project, I think many Blood Cult members would choose that instead. If American life is increasingly bereft of those ways to act and to live a life of meaning, then that’s what will need fixing, rather than tinkering with the regulation of bump stocks or ammunition types.
Image credit: "Picture A Day December 3, 2009 - Uvalde County 338" by mlhradio is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.