Context and interpretation

In matters of interpretation, it’s important for us to try to understand context. This is an essential assumption inherent in a liberal religious outlook. Religious liberalism tends to discourage an enthusiasm for absolutes and universals, embracing instead a sense that the milieu in which something comes into being is almost always relevant in some way. This is intrinsic to a liberal religious interpretation of scripture, for instance.

It should be admitted that we all take things out of context sometimes. We all “pick and choose” to some degree, whether we’re liberal, conservative, or whatever label (meaningful or not) we may assign to a particular person or school of thought. Nevertheless, it’s healthy to acknowledge, if we can, when and why this picking and choosing take place.

Evidence indicates that James E. Holmes, the young man accused in the horrible recent mass shooting in a Colorado cinema, purchased some 6,000 rounds of ammunition quite legally over the internet prior to the massacre, and there are so far no indications that the four firearms he is accused of using in the shooting were obtained unlawfully. This brings to light yet again the ongoing and complex issue in our society about the availability of firearms, and the government’s role in regulating their sale and purchase. The defense mounted by those who urge fewer restrictions on gun ownership is most often the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which is interpreted in those instances as protecting the right to bear arms. After all, it’s right there in the text. But what does the amendment actually say?

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.

There is an aspect of this amendment which is wholly unique, both within the original Bill of Rights and the seventeen other amendments that have been added subsequently: the Second Amendment is the only one that says why the right in question is granted. The First Amendment does not state, “The separation of church and state being vital to the sustenance of a democratic state, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” the Thirteenth Amendment does not say, “Being injurious to and wholly at odds with the principles of liberty, neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Indeed, every other amendment simply states what the rights being granted or the restrictions on the government are, without stating a purpose for doing so. Only the Second Amendment gives a rationale, an explanation for why the right it grants shall not be infringed.

To what militia did James E. Holmes belong, and by whom was that militia well-regulated?

If a phrase from the Constitution, the Bible, or any text is going to be taken out of context, we ought to think seriously about why, and what the consequences might be.

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