Archive for the 'Idolatry' Category

Calling an Idol an Idol

Our nation’s relationship with guns is a hot topic right now. So much is being said in so many places that I hesitate to add to the noise. I don’t want to parrot others. I do want to amplify a theme that is critical for people of faith. The issue has been raised, but not nearly loudly or widely enough. For people of faith, the issue in this discussion isn’t merely “Constitutional rights”. It’s idolatry. I believe that idolatry is the most basic form of human sin. Very simply, idolatry is putting anything or anyone (including ourselves) in God’s place. We commit idolatry whenever we give to anyone, anything, or any idea the ultimate loyalty (worship) that belongs to God alone.

Idolatry began with Adam and Eve. Genesis 3 tells how God gave them unlimited access to the fruit of every tree in the Garden–except the one at the center. Naturally, that’s the one they wanted. So they did, encouraged by that wily serpent (hiss if you wish). We talk about that incident as “sin” and “temptation”. But I suggest it’s also the first example of idolatry in the Bible. Adam and Eve wanted to taste that fruit and “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). They valued their desire to have godlike powers more than their relationship with God. So they declared themselves gods (small-g)–with catastrophic results. It may have been the first time, but hardly the last.

Idolatry is a prominent but little-mentioned element in the current gun-control debate. Over the last few decades the National Rifle Association has moved beyond its original mission of promoting safe and responsible gun use. It has become the high priesthood of what it claims is the absolute right to own unlimited firepower. This recent article traces that evolution. On May 20, 2000, NRA President Charlton Heston (yes, the actor) told the national NRA Convention that “Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blue steel…” (Click to view the entire speech.In  America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose`, James Atwood quotes former NRA executive Warren Cassidy: “You would get a far better understanding [of the NRA] if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world.”

“Sacred stuff”? “One of the great religions of the world”? The god this new religion worships bears no resemblance to the God we know in Jesus.  The way of Jesus is absolutely incompatible with every cultural idolatry from the first century to the twenty-first. This particular idolatry is merely the latest episode in a struggle that’ started even before Jesus’ death. The NRA religion may call itself politics, patriotism, freedom, whatever. People of faith correctly call it idolatry: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Exodus 20:3-5 NRSV)

Jesus taught us to love God and love our neighbor. “Neighbor” includes everyone within our reach and influence. By contrast, the “religion” of Heston, Cassidy, and LaPierre exalts an absolute right to shoot one’s heart out with all the firepower one desires to possess, regardless of how that “right” impacts our 30,000 neighbors killed by guns in this country each year. Jesus’ twelve closest followers included at least one violent revolutionary, but he consistently rejected violence as a means to achieve change. The NRA’s answer to gun violence is more guns. But Jesus told the disciple who drew his sword to protect Jesus from arrest, “’Put your sword away. Anyone who lives by fighting will die by fighting.’” (Matthew 26:52 CEV)

BEFORE YOU STEREOTYPE ME, PLEASE LISTEN: I don’t support taking everybody’s guns away. I don’t own a gun, never have, and never will. I don’t hunt. I don’t target-shoot. I don’t feel a need to have a gun for self-defense. But I support the right of those who choose to have guns for those purposes. I believe responsible gun use has a legitimate place in our society. Learning that skill has been an important part of growing-up for millions of boys and girls. They’ve learned from their parents, from other adults, and often through NRA-sponsored classes.

But guns are not “sacred stuff”. Guns are powerful tools designed to kill. They need to be treated with great respect—but not worshiped. Our society needs to find a balanced approach that keeps these powerful tools available to those who will use them responsibly, yet denies access to those likely to misuse them and harm themselves or others. We will honestly differ about the best way to strike this balance. Ideally it will happen through public-private partnerships. It will include changes in the mental health field, improved security at schools and other public places, gun regulations, and broader cultural changes. Gun owners who value and respect their lethal tools are an essential part of the conversation and the resulting change. Many have already spoken up to say that those who worship the “Sacred stuff…in that wooden stock and blue steel” do not speak for them. Responsible gun owners respect their tools and reject the idolatry that values one’s gun more than one’s neighbor. They are the first to affirm that the “…wooden stock and blue steel…” is a tool—a deadly tool—but nothing more. Let’s not stereotype them either.

The emerging gun debate is an opportunity for our democracy to work. People of faith who are also citizens of this country have both a right and a responsibility to be involved. Let us enter vigorously into this debate as people of faith. Let us do so respectfully civilly, boldly, and assertively. Let us love our neighbors by listening as well as sharing our own views. Above all let us never forget that we are first and foremost followers of the Prince of Peace.


When Calendars (and Loyalties?) Collide

It’s happened again. Last weekend we celebrated both Pentecost and Memorial Day. That’s an occupational hazard for us Christians. We live by two different calendars. One charts the rhythm of our physical, earthly home. The other charts the rhythm of our spiritual home in the Christian year. Sometimes they overlap, as with Christmas and Easter. Sometimes they run into each other head-on. Patriotic celebrations and church celebrations claim the same calendar square. Both compete for our limited time, attention, and resources. This collision often triggers a struggle in our churches. Do we pick one and ignore the other? Can we meaningfully observe both in the same service without thoroughly confusing the congregation? Where’s the balance between being a distinctive “set-apart” people of God and being good citizens participating fully in the life of the community who are also followers of Jesus–“little Christs” as Luther put it? Does it matter? Why?

Because of the First Commandment: “I am the LORD your God…you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:1-2) Governments from Egypt to Babylon to Rome to Nazi Germany to 21st-century superpowers routinely demand the ultimate allegiance that we understand belongs to God alone. The church cannot be the church unless we maintain a certain detachment from the government of the country we love. We will pray for our country and its government. We will be loyal, responsible citizens. We will follow Paul’s advice to “…be subject to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1). We will heed Jeremiah’s advice to exiles in Babylon to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you…and pray to the LORD on its behalf…” (Jeremiah 29:7). But we will not be silent about actions and policies that hurt people and make a mockery of God’s will. When the apostles were ordered to be quiet and stop preaching about Jesus the Messiah (their second offense!), they replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29)

“Being subject to the governing authorities” doesn’t mean automatic unquestioning acceptance of “the governing authorities'” every action. I suggest that our best contribution to the governments to which we’re subject is a) responsible participation as we’re called and gifted, and b) prayerful constructive criticism that calls for integrity, honesty, responsible stewardship of resources, a view toward long-term goals and the good of the entire cxommunity, and special care for the most vulnerable members of society. We dare not identify too closely with one political faction because we know so well that all points on the political spectrum are occupied by persons who are children of God but also flawed human being–like ourselves.

So, practically speaking, what do we do when Memorial Day, Veterans Day, or Independence Day collide with our Christian calendar? Foremost, let the worship team clearly understand its purpose in those particular services and plan the whole service toward that end. Otherwise the service becomes a camel (a horse designed by a committee) and has minimal or even negative impact. We can certainly acknowledge the occasion with music. We can gratefully remember those who have died serving their country and those who are serving now, even as we pray that the prophets’ vision of the end of war and violence (Isaiah 2:1-5; Micah 4:1-5) will be realized in our time. We can preach about some of the themes I’ve touched on. We can educate our people toward a more sophisticated understanding of Christian citizenship. In the case of Memorial Day and Pentecost, I think we acknowledge Memorial Day but focus on Pentecost. It’s the one Christian feast day that hasn’t been hyper-commercialized into triviality. It’s also a foundational experience we’re still learning to celebrate fully. Our Pentecost game needs work!

I think we need to keep plenty of distance between God and Caesar. Caesar will always try to co-opt God for Caesar’s purposes which are not always God’s purposes. For that reason I urge restraint regarding patriotic activity in worship. Here are some suggestions:

  •  The Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t belong in a worship service. It takes us too far toward Caesar and we can’t always recover. Presenting the colors is probably appropriate, expecially by the church’s Scout troop.
  • Hymns like “America the Beautiful” are certainly appropriate and helpful.
  •  I think an extended patriotic musical program at church muddies the water and dilutes the church’s prophetic stance. Let the community choir do it at the park, the school, or a concert hall.

I’m hearing murmuring voices even before I post this. Remember what we said earlier. This isn’t about politics. It’s about idolatry–“no other gods before me.” A god or idol is anything to which we give the loyalty only God deserves. Governments routinely demand that loyalty. First-century Rome declared its emperors divine. Nazi Germany tried to make the church an arm of the government. Dietrich Bonhoeffer led the resistance and helped organize The Confessing Church. Read Eric Metaxas’ Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. 

If I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered, my work here is done–for the moment! Colliding calendars raise the issue of competing and often conflicting fundamental loyalties. Let’s talk. What do you think about some of these issues? How do you resolve these conflicts–or are they issues for you?