Toxic Worship (The Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part 2)

Sculpture of a Family

Photo by J. Lord, Creative Commons

This is part three of my series on William Stringfellow’s The Imposters of God. You can read my first post on Chapter One and my introduction to the series.

As you recall, Stringfellow pointed out that an idol is anything we use to define ourselves, to give significance to our lives, other than God (of course). All such things – money, family, church, reputation, country – are doomed to fail us, of course.

But did you know that so long as we put them in the place of worship, that we are doomed to fail them?

As Stringfellow put it, “Where idolatrous patriotism is practiced, the vocation of the nation so idolized is destroyed.”

How far from the lofty ideals of civil rights and democracy have the super-patriots (with their super PATRIOT Acts) taken us?

I’m old enough to remember when torture and indefinite detention were things the bad guys did, not things two successive openly Christian Presidents would undertake, to the applause of their mostly openly Christian supporters.

“When the family is idolized, the members of the family are enslaved.” (Stringfellow). How many times have we seen parents living vicariously through their children? Whether Tiger Moms pushing their kids into depression  or washed-up high school quarterbacks and homecoming queens reliving their youth, it never ends well.

I’m reminded of the controlling mother from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, who’d rather have her son with her in hell than leave him in heaven.

Even within our churches, the extreme focus on the family has left the unmarried feeling unwanted. It’s made us political animals, white-flighting our way into the “best” schools.

It’s led us to forget that the Apostles who spread the Gospel to the known world were themselves single, and that they focused not on their families, but on the Gospel.

“Every idol, therefore, represents a thing or being existing in a state of profound disorientation” (Stringfellow).

Idolatry ultimately brings death.

Sometimes literally, as in our persistent worship of war.

Sometimes figuratively, in the dehumanization of a culture that views everything and everyone as a commodity.

And sometimes both, as in the dysfunctional relationships and vicious social structures that drive the young to depression and sometimes suicide.

Perhaps Idolatry is at the heart of the decline of America’s churches. We’ve grown so entangled with the idols of respectability, growth, and politics that we find ourselves reduced to merely a social function. A social function that offers precious little to the constantly-connected Facebook generation.

What is the answer? I’m not certain. But I know this. We fail, again and again, to keep the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3).

And to even detect our idols means turning the rusty knife of self-examination on the things we hold dearest. The pain may be akin to amputating a gangrenous limb without anesthetic, but it must be done if we are serious about serving Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

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Means and Ends (Neither Kant nor Machiavelli)

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Kant in black & white, Machiavelli in shades of gray

Niccolo Machiavelli famously said, “In judging policies we should consider the results that have been achieved through them rather than the means by which they have been executed.” The ends justify the means.

Immanuel Kant argued in favor of the old Latin maxim, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.” The means justify the ends.

But I don’t believe we can, in good conscience, stand by either maxim. As moral beings, especially as people of faith, we have a responsibility for both our means and our ends. We must balance the rightness of our methods with the most likely outcomes.

It’s easy to brush off Machiavelli. “The ends justifies the means” sounds like something a movie villain would say.

Until national security is on the line.

Until George W. Bush is talking about “enhanced interrogation” and “indefinite detention” (without a trial, of course)

Until Barrack Obama is talking about (or rather, trying very hard not to talk about) using Predator drones to blow up civilians in nations we aren’t even at war with.

But as Christians, we can at least try to avoid that one. We can set our feet down and join Kant in defending the old saying, “Do what is right, though the world should perish.”

But what does that mean? Does that mean being so focused on “biblical” roles in marriage that you treat spousal abuse like it’s a matter of the wife’s submission, as John Piper does below (from his entire demeanor, he either has no concept of what an abusive relationship is really like, or he has no empathy. I think both may be true, given his view of God).

When we focus on what is “right” according to scripture, and then use that to justify hurting “sinners” (such as denying them their [secular] civil rights, advocating discredited and medically dangerous therapies, or advocating for harsh criminal penalties against them in African countries),  we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we let our idea of “biblical” gender roles blind us to abuse in marriages, in families, and in churches, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

Even if we are not blinded, if we ignore or minimize suffering (as John Piper is doing above), we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

When we use our interpretation of scripture (without the humility to question whether we might be wrong, reading the Bible in translation, 2000+ years later, in a totally different cultural context) as a weapon, or an anesthetic that prevents us from feeling the pain of others, we are “doing what’s right, though the world perishes.”

But we’re not doing what’s right. Not really. And our means, no matter how righteous we may thing they are, are utterly and totally tainted by the pain we cause.

Our righteousness is like filthy rags to God. That’s not just a redundant restating of Romans 3:23. It isn’t a declaration of Calvin’s “total depravity.” It means that our rightness, our self-justifications, our focus on “doing the right thing” no matter what the cost to others … is just filthy.

And the world sees this. It’s not the gospel that’s offending them. It’s our warped Kantian-Calvinistic logic, our weaponized righteousness. And it should offend them.

We Will Get Fooled Again

Every election cycle, complaints rise about how divided America is. Many bemoan the incivility (which is a problem), others, like Matthew Yglesias, argue that division is a sign of a healthy democracy.  I think I’d feel better about our democracy’s ‘health’ if the divisions were actually real.

Four years ago, my conservative friends and family were beyond worried what would happen if Obama were elected. The pundit-verse was alive with conspiracies, Jeremiads, and dire warnings of socialism, a dismantled military, and persecution of all Christians. A guy with a chalkboard explained how it all traced back to George Soros and Josef Stalin. Clearly, the sky did not fall.  Sure, the economy crashed, but it did its face plant in late 2008, before Obama was even sworn in.

This year, my liberal friends were having similar concerns about Romney. If he was elected, he’d find a way to outlaw contraception, set feminism back 50 years, invade Iran, barbecue the poor and feed them to the rich (ok, maybe they meant that one metaphorically).

We’ll never find out whether Mitt Romney was secretly a misogynist christofascist theocrat or just a big-money businessman who thought he could run his campaign the way he ran his businesses. I’m guessing it’s the latter.

The truth is, Obama’s first term has largely been George W. Bush’s third term. The “indefinite detention without trial” prison at Guantanamo Bay is still open. Granted, he’s stopped waterboarding prisoners, but our Nobel Peace Prize-winning President has replaced that practice with constant drone strikes with massive civilian casualties, and without any outside oversight as to his kill list (ahem, “disposition matrix”).

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is congruous with Bush’s new prescription drug benefit for seniors (way to court the AARP vote, there W. And it only cost $400 billion a year). Oh, yeah, and Obamacare was written by Mitt Romney, before he ran for president and had to pretend it was unconstitutional and evil.

Both Bush and Obama are both are military interventionists (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya). Both are corporate-approved. Both signed massive bailouts to big banks and corporations. Both have done almost nothing about immigration, abortion, or gun control.

Obama has distinguished himself in two areas, however. He’s deported more people than Bush, and he’s done far more raids against medical marijuana growers in California. The nerve of that dirty hippie socialist, deporting illegal immigrants and raiding pot-smoking cancer patients!

Seriously, we will survive. We survived eight years of Bush. Okay, twelve, really. We’ll survive four more. And, if things go as they have been, we’ll survive eight more, probably from a Republican (your turn!) but possibly from “the other” Clinton (tag team!).

Move to Canada if you want, but don’t think you have any real reason to go (except for Vancouver’s Richmond Night Markets. Those are fabulous).

Nothing’s really changed that much, nor will it change anytime soon. As The Who said … “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” But Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey had one thing wrong: We Will Get Fooled Again. And that’s okay.

It’s not like our Hope is in Washington D.C., anyway.