American Gods (Imposters of God, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry, Part One)

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

Photo by Stefan Frerichs, Creative Commons

[This is my second post on William Stringfellow’s 1965 book, Imposters of God. For my first post, click here.]

When most people think of idolatry, they think of ancient Rome or today’s hunter-gatherers. But this is a mistake, according to William Stringfellow. “After all, is there any essential difference between middle-class people idolizing their children, as they do in America, an heathen venerating their ancestors?”

Today, as in 1965, idolatry is alive and well in America. We have made our new gods, but even the old gods find adherents. “Recalling Hiroshima, or beholding the war in Vietnam, can any of us really believe that Mars has abdicated his throne, or that the cult in which war is the deity, is any less militant here and now than in former times?”

In 48 years, what has changed? Recalling Baghdad  or beholding the war in Afghanistan and the constant drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, is Ares not still worshiped? Do we not pour out blood offerings to him every day?

America has always been polytheistic. We’ve always worshiped liberty, war, money, independence, family, rugged individualism, tradition, and religion.

In the Evangelical Churches especially, we’ve made an idol of marriage and family. What are singles Sunday School classes? Meat markets. What message do students get at Christian colleges? Get a ring by spring.

What do we teach about the call to celibacy, which the apostle Paul holds up as being more useful for the kingdom than marriage? Nothing, or perhaps, that it’s a Catholic thing that turns their priests into perverts.

What are the names of our great political organizations? American Family, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family … think about it, and think about what Jesus said about family (Luke 14:26).

Back to Stringfellow. What is an idol? It is anything, no matter how inherently noble, that a person uses to justify his or her own existence. An idol is “…that which renders the existence of the idolater morally significant, ultimately worthwhile.”

The Christian is justified by God’s faithfulness, especially as show by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. If we lose sight of that and base our worth on anything else:

  • Family
  • Accomplishments
  • Children
  • Physical fitness
  • Political party
  • Reputation
  • Our own moral strength
  • Wealth
  • Patriotism,
  • Our Church and place in it

…. then we have fallen into idolatry.

When we use these idols to justify our existence, we become invested in them, even evangelize them. Stringfellow summed up the generational conflict of the 1960’s in one sentence:

“Americans who have devoutly served the idols of respectability and status all their lives feel threatened in their very being when their children refuse to offer these idols the same worship.”

Next time, I’ll talk about how letting something become an idol damages not only the inadvertent idolater, but also the idol.

But for now, let me offer up this prayer. Father in Heaven, give me eyes to see the idols that I have hidden in my life. Show me all those things I worship that are not you. Give me the wisdom to understand them. Give me the strength to cast them down, like Gideon.

Amen.

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Little Hershey’s Kisses, Big Child Labor (Wrestling the Chocolate Angel)

Face of Jesus stamped onto a chocolate candy

Human Trafficking and Idolatry…it’s One Stop Shopping

My friend Billy calls my push to abstain from factory farmed meat and eggs “Freeganism,” which is a pretty cool term (he knows about these things; he’s been a vegetarian for over a decade). I’m trying to reduce my dairy consumption, too, because dairy cattle aren’t really treated any better than meat cattle. But I can only go so far so fast.

The thing is, I may have forgotten one tiny little thing in my tepid one-man animal cruelty crusade: people. You see, chocolate, dearest chocolate, is made with cocoa beans. And cocoa beans are all too often made with child labor. These are not only slaves, they’re also often slave labor (bought and sold, like they were 200 years ago here in Mississippi), and they’re often trafficked as well.

Thanks to almost ten years of consciousness-raising, boycotts, and petitions, several of the big chocolate companies are moving toward certified cocoa, which by definition does not allow child labor or slavery. But none of them are at 100%.

The question is not, “do we do something?” That’s ridiculous. As Christians, we can’t just keep paying money to support child slavery. Not once we know what’s going on.

The real question is, do we go will 100% fair-trade companies like Green & Black, or do we support the big companies who are trying to do the right thing? By ‘the right thing,’ I mean companies that have clear programs with specific dates to eliminate child labor and slave labor from their supply chains, and who regularly report on their progress in a spirit of transparency.

I’m choosing to vocally and financially support the large chocolate companies that are in process of transitioning from slave-labor cocoa to fair trade cocoa (Mars, and to a much lesser extent Nestle and Kraft/Cadbury).

This is a judgment call, to be sure, but I’m hoping that the remaining big dogs (Hershey, especially) will follow suit. I think we’re at a tipping point where they entire industry could go either way. There is already real progress, as shown by Just Act’s 2012 fact sheet.

I see this as a “necessary evil” because I’m technically still buying into a system built on slavery, but with the goal of shutting it down. If the world’s biggest chocolatiers refuse to deal with plantations that use slave labor and child labor, those practices will become economic suicide – as they should be – and will vanish.

That said, I completely understand and admire the desire to stick only to fair trade chocolate, to refuse to give any money or sanction to the evils of child slave labor. I took that same path when voting this year. Whatever you do, keep this in mind while you’re stocking up for Thanksgiving and Christmas. You can make a difference, one purchase at a time.