Posts Tagged ‘idolatry’

What the Right Gets Wrong: about Idolatry

January 4, 2021

What the Right Gets Wrong:  about Idolatry

I the Lord your God am a jealous God

—-Exodus 20:2

            What is “idolatry”?  The Religious Right would say that such things as Santeria and Voodoo are idolatrous.  They combine Christian and non-Christian religious practices into one religion.  In the case of Santeria, more common in my native Florida, they sometimes quite explicitly rename and rebaptize the orisha of Yoruba sorcery as Catholic saints.  Although in the days of slavery there was an attempt to make the religion seem Christian to outsiders, its emphasis on animal sacrifice, spirit possession and other traditional African practices show that it is far different from the Catholicism of the Cuban plantation owners and masters. 

            Many in the Religious Right consider Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be idolatrous as well.  Both religions use images of Christ and the saints in worship, and Catholicism in particular has a strong emphasis on the saints as intermediaries who can receive prayers, intercede with God on behalf of the faithful, and even perform miracles to aid those who call on them.  All of this is abhorrent to Evangelical Protestants, and as a child I was often warned to be wary of those idolatrous Catholics.  Today however the Religious Right includes both Catholic and Protestant and they often set aside their theological differences in favor of political cooperation.

            Catholics and Orthodox, and maybe some followers of Voodoo and Santeria, would say that these saints or spirits are lesser beings than the Creator, even servants, and therefore it is no disloyalty to the Creator to pray to them.  Fundamentalist Protestants, on the other hand, reject all this imagery and iconography and ritual and prayer to intercessory powers, saying they are violations of the majesty of the One God.  God will surely smite such false worship, for the LORD is a jealous God.

            But many of the largest, richest Protestant churches, and the most powerful and celebrated preachers, are themselves idolaters.  The foremost example in the 20th Century was the Christian Nationalists.  In the 1930s a particularly odious example arose, the “German Christians.”  They sought to combine their primarily Lutheran heritage with the militarism and nationalism of Adolf Hitler. To them, any church that dissented from the rising political regime of the Nazi party was not only threatening the unity of the nation; it was rebelling against God, who established all nations and leaders and had chosen their nation to dominate all others as the foundation for the new Kingdom of God, the Holy Roman Empire reborn.  Not all Christians agreed with this mixing of nationalism and Christianity, however, and in 1934 a gathering of Reformed, Lutheran and United church leaders met in Barmen, Germany, where they approved and issued The Theological Declaration of Barmen.  Relying explicitly on Scripture for each of its main points, it argued that not only was this Christian nationalism theologically wrong, but that it was heresy.  In seeking to give the Church explicit political power, and in seeking greater union between Church and State, the German Christians were actually demoting the Church and turning it into an organ of the State (Barmen Declaration II, 5).  The Church should obey the Gospel alone, and not be swayed by allegiance to political movements (Barmen II, 3).  The declaration culminates with the final anathema, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans” (Barmen II, 6).  While the German Christians argued that the Nazi state was a Christian nation and thus the protector of the Church, those now known as the Confessing Churches argued that this pretense really meant replacing Jesus with the State as the center of concern.  The Church was being seen and being used as a means to an end, that end being the unity and strength of the State, and in particular the strength of the ruling political authorities of the State. 

            The Religious Right would say that this happened in a foreign land; while those Europeans were easily deceived, the United States is a blessed nation, a Shining City on a Hill, and could never be lured into idolatry.  Or, they might go further and say the Germans were corrupted because they were socialists; after all, Socialism is right there in the name “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”  Sure, they fought Communists, first on the streets of Germany and then across Europe; but really they were Socialists just like Stalin and Hugo Chavez and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:  all Socialists, all exactly the same.  The Religious Right, on the other hand, are all Capitalists and thus love Freedom and are Good and Right—again, it’s there in the name “Right Wing.” 

            And because they are capitalists and capitalism is Good, many of them embrace a theology known as “The Prosperity Gospel.”  According to this theology, which has roots in the “power of positive thinking” of Norman Vincent Peale and more recently in such preachers as Jim Bakker, God wants all the faithful followers of his son Jesus to have “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).  Whatever you ask for, if you believe, you will receive (Matthew 7:7; Mark 11:24).  And so on, and never mind where the Bible hints that these are spiritual blessings (Luke 11:13); God knows you want nice clothes and a minivan and a good job and early retirement and three square meals plus a day, and God is good and wants you to have whatever you ask.  So just believe in God and Jesus, as the preacher tells you and describes them, and you will get all the worldly goodies you desire.  Believe in God and Jesus SO THAT you can get all the worldly goodies.  In the Prosperity Gospel, in the version of Christianity taught by chair of the spiritual advisory board serving Donald Trump, God and Jesus are there waiting for you to show up with your spiritual ATM card to withdraw cold, hard cash to buy everything you desire; or, if your credit runs out, it’s because you didn’t believe hard enough or obey your preacher closely enough.  Just as your worldly job is a means to an end, that end being your paycheck, so too does the Prosperity Gospel proclaim that if you work for God, He will give you an even bigger paycheck, and all this faith is the means by which you can attain worldly prosperity. 

            In Catholicism, we pray to the saints and to the Virgin Mother, who prays to the Father for us, who saves us from our sins, and that is called “idolatry” by the Evangelical Protestants.  In Evangelical Protestantism you pray directly to the Father through Jesus, and the Father will give you miracles and magic and fulfill your wishes for comfort and profit and even for power over others, and somehow that isn’t idolatry?  One prays to something that is not God to reach what is God; the other prays to God like a letter to Santa, making God the tool and prosperity the goal.  But of course, that’s Capitalism and therefore Good and therefore holy.  Right?

            No!  Idolatry is not whether you have an empty cross or one with the crucified Christ.  It is not whether you have no pictures in your church, or only pictures of Jesus, or pictures of all the saints.  Idolatry is when you make the ultimate reality, God, a tool of your own tiny ambitions.  As Kierkegaard put it:

If someone who lives in the midst of Christianity enters, with knowledge of the true idea of God, the house of God, the house of the true God, and prays, but prays in untruth, and if someone lives in an idolatrous land but prays with all the passion of infinity, although his eyes rest upon the image of an idol—where, then, is there more truth?  The one prays in truth to God although he is worshipping an idol; the other prays in untruth to the true God and is therefore in truth worshipping an idol.[1]

            Idolatry is, in a way, the natural default for the human-deity relationship.  It is the childish (in Kierkegaard’s terms, “esthetic”) understanding.  God is to be understood and used; God acts and thinks just like us, and can be flattered like us, grows cross like us, kicks ass like we imagine we would do if we were gods, and showers money, political control, fame, military might and everything else we imagine as “good” on those who please Him.  And since most of us live in a patriarchal culture, we imagine God as an older, rather stern male ruler.  We want, as Kierkegaard said, a direct relationship to God, one that is straightforward, where we know the rules and know how to work the rules to get what we want, like a teenager who knows that if he or she just gets good grades and isn’t arrested for drinking then Dad will give them a car next birthday.  What we don’t want is what Kierkegaard says is true worship:  to love God, to know that God is beyond all comprehension, to orient all one’s own personal ambitions and values around that idea of being utterly transparent in the presence of God, who wants to be in that relationship despite the fact that literally nothing one could do could possibly “earn” one a spot in Heaven.     The Prosperity Gospel is not “gospel” at all, in any meaningful sense.  It is not “gospel” in the sense of being a message about Jesus, who said that if you follow his way you’ll end up like him, serving God and loving unconditionally, with no place to lay your head, carrying your cross.  It is not “good news,” but just the old “works righteousness,” the old magical thinking, the old drudgery, where you do everything to try to follow the rules laid down by your taskmaster the preacher in the name of the boss in Heaven and, if you’re good, you’ll get a raise and maybe even a Christmas bonus.  And in the sense that we use “gospel” to mean “truth,” it is most assuredly not gospel.  It is just a way to make the rich comfortable since they can measure their virtue the way we measure our value to the company by our paycheck; and it is a way to humiliate the poor in the same way, while pacifying them that if they just obey their human taskmasters who claim to speak in God’s name, they too can earn a promotion.  It is idolatry, pure and simple. 

            The truth be told, however, idolatry is not confined to the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.”  It is central to the entire so-called “Religious Right.”[2]  Jerry Falwell Sr. described the USA as the last bastion for Christian mission and for worldwide evangelism.[3]  Without the United States, God would have no earthly basis for spreading the Gospel or for any of the other missions to feed the poor, bring medicine and other good works done by the Southern Baptist Convention.  Thus it is the duty of every Christian to support the U.S. military and American efforts to fight Communism everywhere.  While God may be able to raise up children for Abraham out of these stones here (Matthew 3:9) apparently God needs the U.S. Army, Navy and all the rest to guard and spread His kingdom.  And in exchange for doing the good work of God, God will give the U.S. security and prosperity.  What hubris!  No longer are Christians to regard themselves as mere unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10); instead we can expect a payoff in this life.  If the U.S. government fights legalize marijuana, fights pornography, upholds traditional heterosexual marriage and enforces other purity and behavioral laws, it can expect God’s blessing.  However, doing that stuff Jesus talked so much about—-feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and so on (Matthew 25:31-46; see also Amos chapters 1-8, Micah 3, Isaiah 3:14, Isaiah 5:8, Ezekiel 18:5-9, Luke 16:19-31, and the Epistle of James)—that would be too expensive, that would be “socialism” and take away from spending on the all-important military, and would reduce the poor person’s dependence upon the churches and thus might reduce their control.  What hubris!  What arrogance!  The Jesus who tells his followers to put away their swords, and assures them that he could call upon twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:52-53), but who tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) needs the USA to carry out his purposes; and the God who could do all this needs the nation so much that He is willing to bargain with its leaders that if they’ll enforce this strict moral code (much of which is nowhere in the Bible) while leaving the private sector to decide whether or how to care for the poor (though the prophets said rulers would be judged by how the poor were treated) then God will provide worldly success and prosperity to the nation.  This is little more than the Prosperity Gospel for nations instead of for individuals; and it is just as idolatrous. 

            We don’t have to take my word, or Niebuhr’s word for the claim that nationalism is a form of idolatry, a betrayal of true and faithful religion.  The prophet Jeremiah dealt with much the same thing, in the final days of the kingdom of Judah (Jer. 7).  His book, which seems to have been dictated by him directly to his scribe Baruch, describes the sins of the rich and powerful as they plotted and blundered their way to destruction by the Babylonian army.  There was plenty of straight-up idolatry, the sort that literalists denounce, with people praying to the Baals even at shrines set up in the temple of YHWH.  But along with this, Jeremiah condemns as equally bad the social sins, such as oppressing the resident immigrant and the poor, stealing, perjury, and adultery.  But the people who did these things felt safe and had no desire to repent, because the temple of YHWH was there in the city and God needed that temple, the last one left after the ravages of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies.  Speaking to the faithful church-goers, the people entering the Temple to worship the true God, Jeremiah says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words:  ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’” (Jer. 7:4).  Only if you repent of your sins, Jeremiah tells them, can you or the nation be saved.  But they did not repent, either of their crimes against the poor or of their combining of worship of YHWH with foreign deities.  And in the end, God allowed the city called by God’s name, the throne of David, and the Temple built by Solomon to honor the one true God to be destroyed—undoubtedly to the astonishment of those firm believers in Israelite exceptionalism, convinced as they were that God needed them and their nation and that thus they could bargain with God.  They were sure that if they agreed to offer sacrifices in the Temple then the LORD would simply look the other way while they robbed and oppressed the poor.  And as the prophet Amos made clear, it is not just the one who breaks the law to rob the poor who will be punished; even the powerful ones who creates unjust laws and profit from them are damned (Amos 2:8). 

            The one who denies food to the poor, or beats up a gay person, or imprisons an immigrant, or despises a different race, or burns down a mosque so that God will see and be pleased and reward them is exactly the same spirit as the one who cuts out a child’s heart as a gift to some god or demon so the sun will come up and the crops be plentiful.  It is human sacrifice, nothing more:  I will sacrifice this other person’s liberty, dignity, even their life so that some powerful spirit being will grant me power and success.  Falwell’s claim that feeding the hungry is a sin if done by a governmental agency but a virtue when done by individuals or churches is, at best, nonsense:  what else is the government for, except to carry out large-scale projects that many people need but that no one individual can achieve alone?  More likely it is not so much confusion and nonsense as it is that old-fashioned sinful evasion of God’s will, pronouncing human precepts as the divine will (Isaiah 29:13, Mark 7:6-8, among others).  It is wrong, Falwell says, to allow a government to do God’s work of justice and care; it is holy to stop the government and leave it to your own will—if you decide to get around to it.  This is idolatry in its purest meaning:  self-worship.  The true worship of the true God is much harder and more troubling:  to care for those God cares for, the poor, the immigrant, the one without family to help (Psalm 146:9, James 1:27 etc.); and to do it knowing that no matter how much you give, it does not earn you anything extra (Matthew 20:1-16) since everything you have was a gift from the start. 


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, v. 1; edited and translated, with introduction and notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1992) p. 201

[2] For a more detailed yet accessible discussion of this, see James Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell:  the Christian in Politics;” https://scholarworks.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/ (The College of William and Mary, 1982), pp. 78-115

[3] Comey, p. 60

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (conclusion)

June 21, 2018

Moses had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Muhammad had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Of the three great Abrahamic religions, Christianity is unique in that its founding prophet, God’s Anointed One, was powerless as the world measures power. Throughout the centuries, this has created unique challenges for Christians. Some Christians have sought to reject all force and all politics, as Jesus himself did in life, leaving the world to run its own affairs. Others have sought to blend religious and political power, calling on the Church to bless everything the State did, including the slave trade and the Holocaust. Those who wanted a “strong man” to protect them, “a king like the other nations,” have often been too willing to overlook when that king failed to protect others with the same justice they sought for themselves. And when, just as Samuel warned, that strong leader went too far and the people cried out, there was no one to deliver them (1 Samuel 8:18). During the Protestant Reformation John Calvin saw what a strong king with unchecked power can do, as the French king massacred thousands of peaceful, loyal Protestants. For this reason he came to advocate for checks and balances in government.[1] Likewise, after our American Revolution, or as it was known in England, “The Presbyterian Revolt,” those heirs of Calvin did not seek to establish Biblical law. They agreed with Calvin that the Law of Moses was given directly only to Israel; instead, they sought to be guided by the law of love, and by the principles of justice as these were revealed in the Bible, but to express these through creating a political order with limited power, since no sinful human could be trusted with unchecked power over the rest.[2] Those Revolutionaries did not want a “strong” leader, but rather a strong nation with strong interacting and cross-checking political institutions, which could preserve peace, order and justice while also humbling the pride of arrogant politicians grasping for power.

If history has taught us anything, it is that when one person or one small group has unchecked power, all are in danger and the Church itself liable to be attacked. That is why our Presbyterian Church adopted the Declaration of Barmen as one of its fundamental statements of faith.[3] This document was written primarily by Karl Barth and adopted by the Barmen Synod in opposition to Hitler and the nationalist Christians who were taking over the State and Church. It reads in part:

 

“Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17.)

Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.[4]

 

 

Our Reformed heritage is that no one person, and no one State can be allowed to become the sole goal and ordering principle of human life; that role belongs to God alone. When a “strong man” (or strong woman) demands unlimited fealty, that is a sin and a disaster in the making. And when a church claims the political mantle, that is simply the other side of the same bad penny, a human institution going beyond its God-given limits and mission. Those who claim they are exalting the Church by claiming Christian dominion over the State are instead demeaning it, turning it into an organ of the State rather than a holy priesthood set apart for service to God.

When we look around the world, we see forces of totalitarianism resurgent in countries that once seemed on the road to democracy, where Church and State blend to give their blessings to oligarchs. When we look at home, we see millions of Christians, including many in the highest ranks of government, who espouse Christian Dominionism, the belief that democracy should be replaced by government by and for Christian people only. The delegates to the Barmen Synod, with the Confessing Churches of Germany, can teach us much about the dangers of this heresy. Whether the Church seeks to become the State, or the State seeks to control the Church, it ends up the same way: political power gains control over religion, and the Church shrinks to being just another department in the government bureaucracy, another prop for humans seeking power over other humans. And ultimately, this idolatry of the State collapses into idolatry of an individual who claims, as that French king who massacred Protestants once said, “I am the State.”  “L’etat, c’est moi.”

The “strong man” sought by many Americans is just another idol. God does not want us to seek from political leaders what we should seek only from God. This is, no doubt, an unsettling, anxiety-filled world; but the cure for this anxiety is not devotion to a leader, it’s faith in God. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, “On Civil Government” sections VIII, XXX

[2] John T. McNeill, editor, Calvin: On God and Political Duty (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1956) pp. xviii-xix, 63-6

[3] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, (http://www.westpresa2.org/docs/adulted/Barmen.pdf) downloaded June 19, 2018

[4] Declaration of Barmen, section 5

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (pt. 1)

May 29, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol

 

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”  But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord,  and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.  Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 

1 Samuel 8:4-9

 

The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes was largely responsible for much of our political language today. He said that all men (he was pretty sexist, so I’ll suspect the language wasn’t an oversight) were created equal, and that they have certain inalienable rights. These ideas got picked up later by John Locke, then passed through him to Jefferson and other Founding Fathers (and mothers) of our Revolution, and thence into common use today. HOWEVER, Hobbes differs from some of these others in that he does not think this “equality” is all that good a thing. In fact, this equality of people primarily means that we are all equally selfish, fearful, irrational, and absolutely dangerous to one another. When everyone is equal, everyone has equal rights to have his desires satisfied, no matter how harmful to anyone else. He says this equality breeds conflict, and that without a strong force to keep us all in line, our lives would be war of each against all, and life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” All this equality is so terrible, Hobbes said, that the only sensible thing to do is to join together in societies. In a society, or “commonwealth” to use his word, we all tacitly choose one person, or a small group, to be better than the rest of us, to be above the law, and to be the law for the rest. He preferred a single king, but a small group like the Roman senate would be okay too, so long as there was some person or persons in charge. In his view, the State is thus an “artificial person,” created when a group of us actual people agree to give up most of our rights in exchange for protection of our lives, freedom from torture and imprisonment, and some other minimal rights. Hobbes calls this ruling power the “sovereign,” and states that the sovereign is not bound by the law; it creates the law, designates what will count as “good” or “evil,” hands out rewards and punishments, and does whatever is required to establish order. Without a strong hand with a big stick, Hobbes said, none of us could sleep peacefully; but since we all know our neighbors fear the government, we can at least trust our neighbors not to murder us in our beds. Because this sovereign must be above the law, be the lawgiver for the nation, providing for the security and prosperity of the rest of us, Hobbes refers to it as “that earthly god, or Leviathan,” which the Creator put in place to manage human affairs. He thought God was not going to rule over us directly, so we need to select someone or some group among us to take over the role of deity pro tempore.

Hobbes and Samuel don’t seem to agree on much, but they do seem to agree that the strong worldly leader is an alternative to trusting in God alone. Hobbes would probably point us toward the book of Judges, and its mournful refrain: There was no king in Israel in those days, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. The lack of a king, Hobbes would say, had led Israel to anarchy and brutality; only a strong government would impose order. But this thing displeased Samuel. He seems to have taken it personally; he was, after all, one of those judges, those leaders appointed directly by God as prophet and leader. Samuel would probably have said that when Israel lived faithfully with God, they had peace and prosperity; but when the judge died and the people ceased following the LORD, that was when they ran into trouble. The period of the judges was chaotic, but it also is depicted as somewhat democratic for its day. The judge was called by God, but then had to go out and convince the people. Gideon, Deborah, and less famous judges ruled only with the consent of the people; they had to rally the people to follow and obey them. When they died, their successors were appointed by God and accepted by the people for their leadership, not because they were of royal blood. When Samuel became old, the people wanted a strong, stable, authoritarian government like the nations around them; since Samuel’s sons were not up to the job of succeeding their father, the people wanted an official monarchy with a clear, perpetual line of succession, like all the other nations had. God said, don’t take it personally, Samuel. They aren’t rejecting you. They are rejecting me, their God. They want visible power, a royal family that will hold authority over them, rather than the uncertainty of relying on the invisible power of the LORD to choose their leaders from among them. They are idolaters at heart, whether they are seeking a golden calf or a king. So explain to them carefully and honestly what it is they are choosing; and then, if that is what they want, let them have their king.

To be continued…