American Idols

My last several years living in the United States of America has been an exercise in, as my Canadian friends would say, living in the belly of the beast. It hardly feels this way, of course, surrounded as I am by people of good will. I reflect on the wars and the violence, the inequities and injustices, and it is easy to not feel that I am somehow contributing to it. I ignore the reality that the taxes I pay here go to fund things I do not in good conscience support. I float along feeling that if I am not actively contributing to the things that I find objectionable, then I am doing all right. I get momentary flashes, however, when I think, If I am not actively resisting, then I am participating.

That is the nature of living in the midst of what the New Testament calls powers and principalities. The social ills one would actively resist are actually systems, whole networks of power relations. It is difficult to stand apart from a system. Daily life is a mundane series of choices that one makes unthinking, and many of these are aspects of the powers and principalities of the nation.

I like to personify these powers and principalities as idols, false gods, to keep them as personalities before my eyes to better clarify the choices that I make. Idolatry, in the monotheistic religions, is the worship of deities other than the one true God. It is the deification of objects; idols are objects made of stone and wood and metal and are revered as divine. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have prohibitions and limitations on representing the divine. The caution is in mistaking the representation for what is represented, the sign for what it signifies, thus drawing worshippers away from the one true God and toward the worship of symbols and images.

“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; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God…” (Exodus 20:1-6).

The Bible describes idolatry as the worship of images and also of polytheistic deities. The biblical language of idolatry (the Hebrew literally means “foreign worship”) is a polemic against the indigenous nations of the ancient Near East, which saw the natural world as imbued with supernatural forces. Hebrew monotheism, by contrast, saw the divine as entirely beyond the world. The pagan religions that surrounded the ancient Hebrew people used statues, talismans, and natural objects in their worship, frequently believing that the divine was immanent within such objects or within certain geographical locations. In setting themselves apart from the nations, the ancient Hebrews shored up their national identity by forbidding the worship of foreign deities, and banishing the use of sacred objects. To do so was unpatriotic as well as irreligious.

Devotion to pagan gods and goddesses was nevertheless not uncommon among the ancient Hebrews, as we read throughout Hebrew Scriptures. No sooner had Moses received the Ten Commandments on top of Mount Sinai, than the Israelites below fashioned a golden calf to worship. They built poles to honor the goddess Asherah and frequently worshipped other Canaanite gods such as Baal.

The prophets and judges decry such infidelity to the God of Israel and frequently lambast the creation and worship of idols. In separating themselves out from other ancient peoples, the Hebrews not only strictly forbade the use of any created thing in worship, they also set limits on ways in which the divine could be mediated or communicated through objects. Though such things as the Ark of the Covenant, or the equipment and vestments of the Temple were sacred, they were not worshipped as such, for God was utterly transcendent.

The Bible affirms that the one true God is shapeless and formless, so no image or idea or created thing can represent God. The reverencing of images is thus forbidden. The Protestant Reformation renewed among Christians the sense of God’s transcendence and the caution against sacred objects and images. Puritanism is the stream of Christianity that is most similar to the Jewish view. The more sacramental currents of Christianity allowed icons and statues to be reverenced as mediators of God’s grace, and bread, wine, water and oil to be signifiers of God’s presence and grace. Our Puritan forebears (those of us who stand in Unitarian and Congregational traditions) were iconoclasts, literally destroying icons, images, and statues in an effort to purify Christian faith and practice from idolatrous distractions.

For each of the monotheistic traditions, the sole object of worship and adoration is the transcendent God. Valuing something or somebody that hinders the love and trust owed to God alone is considered idolatry. God and God alone comes first and God and God alone is foremost in the lives of the faithful. Though God provides many gifts for our use in a life that glorifies him, we are not to confuse the gift with the Giver. Though all of creation speaks of God and God’s handiwork, we are not to confuse the creation with the Creator. It seems to me that we offer our blind and excessive devotion to powers and principalities that are neither God nor godly. Refusal to worship them is deemed unpatriotic.

The idols and false gods that reign here in the United States are militarism and wealth. These are our contemporary American idols. We put our trust in military might. We worship Mammon, the New Testament personification of wealth. We lay waste to the Earth in the name of our economies, feeding its fires with our children’s futures, feeding the voracious appetites of economic growth with no less vigor than ancients fed their own children to the god Molech. Militarism is a false god whose parents are nationalism and violence. Militarism is the belief that a strong military is needed for security and peace, that a strong military must be maintained at all costs, and that the military must be prepared for preemptive and aggressive action in defense not only of the nation’s borders, but of its economic and geopolitical interests.

The ideology of the nation state and the legitimacy of violence are the faith and practices of this false religion. This is most clearly seen in totalitarian regimes. The image of its despotic leader is ubiquitous, its bureaucratic apparatus all-powerful. God is replaced by the state and given the humanizing face of its leader. Its scriptures are its laws and constitutions, its spirituality appeals to blood and soil, its worship military and nationalist parades and processionals. Discipleship with this idol is obedience, patriotism, and an unquestioning loyalty to our own ethnic, racial, linguistic and national group. The theology of the state is its reinforcing ideologies; whether that be democracy or free enterprise, state socialism or Marxism, pan-Arab nationalism or jihadist Islamism.

We are not without our own processionals and parades in the United States of America. We celebrate the American Revolution and the principles of democracy in a haze of nostalgia. We play out the rituals of a constitutional democracy, even as the Supreme Court grants legal personhood to corporations, as lobbyists for banks, oil companies and other industries become government policy makers, passing through a revolving door of influence and governance, as public institutions are handed over to private interests. The republic transmogrifies into an empire, marching ever further away from the ideals of the founding fathers, and we are swept up and carried along in the patriotic parade willy-nilly.

We are a nation at war, and war has become so ubiquitous and unending that it is no longer remarkable. Warfare is the air we breathe. War is our daily reality. Yet we are inured to its violence, its daily death, its very presence. Unlike the Second World War, we are not asked to conserve electricity and other resources, plant victory gardens or participate in a popular mobilization around a war effort. American soldiers, many of them young, working class, and people of color, are deployed again and again, unnoticed and unseen. Lost in a flurry of distractions, we forget the wars that we wage overseas. The wars seem to go on in the background, with the volume muted, not interfering with our day-to-day lives.

“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.They have mouths but they do not speak; they have eyes but they do not see; they have ears but they do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths. Those who make them and all who trust in them shall become like them.” (Psalm 135:15-18)

Have we become like them? Unspeaking, not using our voice? Unseeing, turning a blind eye from what our actions and inactions are causing? Unhearing, refusing to listen to the cries of the hungry, the cries of the non-human animals, the cries of wounded soldiers and grieving civilians a world away?

The United States government budgets more than one trillion dollars in military spending. The false god of militarism is literally consuming our national treasure. A fraction of the money spent on war and war preparations could fund homes, schools, university scholarships, teachers salaries, and equip homes with renewable electricity.

Our technologies, our wealth, and our economies are three of our other false gods, fed by and fuel for the American idol of military might. Competition for resources, especially cheap oil, is the motivation for our militarism and global belligerence. Americans consume far more than our fair share of the planet’s resources and to maintain our bloated lifestyles of acquisitiveness and overconsumption, we need to maintain by force the steady flow of natural resources into the fires of our economic engines. Our styles of life, based on growth economies that devour the Earth, are quickly rendering the planet uninhabitable.

“If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the LORD your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

In biblical religion, to love and serve God heart and soul, to not be turned away by the false gods, leads to an abundant, lively relationship with the Earth. To be devoted in love and service to the divine, we need nothing less than a conversion, a turning away from domination and violence, hoarding and destruction, limitless growth and greed.

We need to convert our elected government’s priorities from funding endless wars to funding the common good. We need to convert our petroleum fueled war economy of the past into the sustainable, ecologically sound economy of the future. To love and serve the divine is to take seriously biblical and humane values: cooperation and sharing, conservation and stewardship, mutuality and nonviolence, prudence and justice.  We need to be converted anew to these principles as individuals and as a society.

I love the glimpses the Bible offers of a divine dream for the earth; it offers us direct “thou shall not’s” as well as the visions of its prophets. Security and peace are not gained by outgunning the enemy, by clobbering those who we view as competing with us for limited resources. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and others foresaw a time when war and war making were banished, and peace the order of the day.

“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor with they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree and no one will make them afraid.”

The causes of war – economic disparity, scarcity – are removed. Everyone has their own land, their own vine and fig tree; everyone has enough. Security comes with having enough.

This is peace in the holistic sense of shalom, the integrity and wholeness of creation. In Isaiah’s vision, animals that typically fight each other lie down together in peace, and even the mountains and hills burst into song, the trees of the field clap their hands, in the day of God’s shalom on earth. The biblical injunction to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy is an exercise in setting limits. A balance of work and play is required in the worship of the one true God. Work is given meaning and dignity, as forms of tending the green garden bequeathed to humankind. Overwork and exhausting the soil are anathema to biblical principles and its Sabbath economics. No person or animal or farm should have the life squeezed out of it by overwork.

The holy invites us into a spacious sense of abundance and plenty by giving us enough. Ostentation and material gain for its own sake are rejected in favor of limits within which we flourish. We need only enough. Mammon is the biblical word for riches, the personification of wealth as a false god. Greed and excessive love of money are forms of idolatry, a betrayal of a trusting relationship with the God who provides us with enough. Mammon is the endless treadmill of wanting and getting, getting more and wanting more. Manna, the food the Israelites ate while they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, is the antidote to Mammon. It was provided freely by God and rotted if it was hoarded. Everybody had exactly enough, everybody had exactly as much as they needed.

We read in the book of Acts this description of the earliest followers of Jesus:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. … they ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:44-46)

Goods were shared and wealth redistributed to all as any had need.  The economics of manna is a joint venture in everybody having enough, in everybody having a glad and generous heart. This is a small echo of the biblical vision of the Jubilee Year, a time when there is rest for the land, forgiveness of debts, when land is returned to its ancestral owners and slaves are freed. Land, in the ancient world was wealth. If you became indebted and had to sell your land, it would be returned to you in the Jubilee Year. Nobody could buy up land and keep it for him or herself in perpetuity. The fact that the Bible mandates a regular dismantling of structures that might keep wealth in the hands of few points toward a vision in which there is enough for everyone. Wide gaps between rich and poor are not God’s dream for his world. Nobody has more than is needed and nobody hoards. Everybody has enough. This is a vision of work and prosperity for all, indebtedness and slavery being relieved, balance between work and play, and personal and environmental rejuvenation.