The Idolatry of Nation

“For [the one] who has lost God the people [or, the nation] can be a first station on [a] new way.” These are the words of Martin Buber, that brilliant Jewish philosopher. He is reflecting here on the loss of his pietist roots in Hasidic Judaism and on his first impulse to channel that former faith into national hopes, into Zionism. Buber in some ways eventually came around to a more religious, Hasidic existential worldview.

But what struck me about this reflection of Buber’s is the need on the part of many (formerly) religious people, Christians included, to launch from their faith orientation into a social orientation. That is, they need to get lost — to give themselves to — a cause, something bigger than their own life. Many shift from the church to society (and sadly think the move is “kingdom” vs. “church”).

Which leads me to ponder whether or not the many today who are now entranced by social justice are expressing not so much a dimension of their faith but a stage on the way of losing that faith.

Has social justice become an idol? Has it become a substitute for God, for personal engagement with God?

Of course, justice is of colossal importance in the Bible, but that justice is always connected to covenant and therefore to piety. The question I am asking is if some need to consider the Why? question in their commitment to social justice. Are they abandoning piety and finding justice to be its substitution?

The struggle for nation will never satisfy; only God can ultimately satisfy.

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  • Good questions, Scot. I was struck when we returned in 2005 from 20+ years overseas how American Evangelicalism had changed its focus from evangelism to politics. My thought was that Evangelicalism no longer really believed the theology that drove its evangelism. The devotion to social justice could be see as a similar, parallel development.

    But is it necessarily a loss of faith in God? It is indeed a loss of “that faith,” as you put it. But what if “that faith” was itself idolatrous? I am struck by Jesus’ downplaying of “piety” and his emphasis on how we treat people (Matthew 7:21-23; 25:31-46). This certainly requires the rethinking of piety and of church, but not their loss. It may be the forming of a more faithful faith.

  • a very thought-provoking post.

  • I think it’s a mixture of both. It is the losing of the faith in isolated magical ritualistic ways to approach god. It is, as Bonhoeffer put it, a religionless Christianity – living as if god were not. But it is also finding the right real way to approach god – through our actions and especially our actions toward and in relation to others. In a poetic sense, losing our faith to find it.

  • Strange sort of piety it would be without praxis towards justice. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. Seems many would have Him on a shakey throne.

  • Paul W

    “The struggle for nation will never satisfy; only God can ultimately satisfy.”

    I’m not sure if I’d agree with that statement or not. However, I don’t really think social justice should be viewed primarily through the quest of finding a satisfying life.

  • Rick

    Jeff r #3-

    Please define/clarify “approach god”.

  • Jason Lee

    Mark Farmer (#1) makes one of the points I was going to make. I think there are likely a variety of shifts taking place, including the one outlined by Scot in this post. The shift Scot describes is probably relatively prevalent. I would however add a third to Scot’s and Mark Farmer’s: shallow faith-decorated individualistic morality (displayed as “piety”) –> shallow faith-decorated social justice orientation. In the end, though, if you’re going to have this shift from individualistic shallow to social shallow, I’d rather have the social shallow.

  • Diane

    This is interesting. In my case, deepening faith has led to more interest in social justice but I have certainly experienced “social justice” churches where that indefinable sense of “holy spirit” is sadly missing. However, being immersed in Bonhoeffer, I am following with great interest his thought that the Christian faith must be focused on this-worldliness, not the after-life (a cop-out he saw among German Christians under Nazism), that Christianity be in the “center of the village,” not on the peripheries, etc. What this makes me wonder–if social justice work is a way-station on the road to losing faith, what is the institutional church doing wrong? Why is there a disjunction between faith and social justice? I know that like many people, I do get frustrated with institutional forces and that like Bonhoeffer (who btw was as annoyed as anybody with the “social gospel” churches) I think we need to engage in the process of re-thinking what church is so that it isn’t a choice between faith and good works in the world.

  • Jason Lee

    Regarding the move toward social issues and away from faith … could be that Evangelicals becoming entranced with conservative politics leading up to the 90s led to the pushing out of those with faith who had a social justice orientation. Kind of an “I guess I’m not welcome anymore in that faith” kind of thing. (See Hout and Fischer’s “Why More Americans Have No Religious Preference: Politics and Generations” )

  • Deets

    I think that Mark#1 has some good points. Piety and social action need to be out workings of faith, that faith is a response to the hearing of the gospel. We don’t become followers of Christ through fasting and prayer, but through the work of the Holy Spirit as we hear the good news. We don’t become Christians through feeding the poor or caring for the sick. We care for the poor, and the sick, and pray and do other works of piety because our response to the gospel leads us to those things.

    The question I have is rooted in what I see in the Gospels. I see many occasions where Jesus chastises the pious for false piety, but I can’t think of a single occasion where one is corrected for falsely caring for another. Is that a function of human nature, the particular culture or a weighing of importance with being justice more important than piety?

  • Jason Lee

    Diane (#7) brings to mind the fact that people use all sorts of things as way-stations on the road to losing faith: having kids, getting married, romantic escapades, hobbies, careers, political activism (of whatever stripe), and even “ministry.” The fact that some people use some of these things as exit doors from the church in no way means that all of them are usually used in that way and that those things should be suspect. One could also easily ask: “Has your career become an idol? Has it become a substitute for God, for personal engagement with God?” “Are they abandoning piety and finding faith in the market to be its substitution?”

  • Jason Lee

    This is a great post in that it brings up the fact that such questions are healthy questions for all of us to ask ourselves and those we love:

    Has social justice become a substitute for God?
    Has your faith in the market become a substitute for God?
    Has your sense of pride in making it on your own become a substitute for God?
    Have your children become a substitute for God?
    Has your girlfriend become a substitute for God?
    Has social media become a substitute for God?
    Has your denomination become a substitute for God?
    Has your interest in debate X become a substitute for God?

  • Robert Martin

    Jason Lee, you’ve hit it right there with those questions. Anything, even supposedly “good” things, can become idols when we look to them for meaning, purpose, and self-fulfillment in place of God.

  • ScottW

    An interesting parallel can made, albeit within a different ideological perspective but cut from the same cloth,with religio-political impulse to fascism:

  • Greg Gamble

    The question makes me think of a question Ive been asking myself for years, along the same vein.
    Why did Jesus minister only to Jews and does that highlight the point that when He said He came for the lost sheep of Israel that He meant that we also must first seek the lost among His people?
    His instructions to spread the gospel were ordered; first in Jerusalem, then Samaria, then the other nations.
    We seem to have patterned outreach after the missionary journeys of Paul, who was motivated to do so in order to strengthen the churches.
    Building your own family first is deemed selfish, even un-spiritual while advocating for the poor and sick gets kudos from everyone.
    I suggest an experiment in obedience.
    Challenge all socially oriented believers we know to look for the ‘lost’ among Gods people for one year.
    Become fathers for the many children who have broken families, provide support for the many abandoned women and mothers, bring relief to the many afflicted with sickness, poverty and abuse among us. In short, do what Jesus did, instructed us to do, and the early church did.

    We are Gods house, and the scriptures fairly yell at us to build His House first, after which He will build ours.
    It seems that collectively, and that’s how God moves us forward, we have found social reasons to ignore the needs and chaos among His people, for centuries.
    I wager that if we will turn our social efforts primarily to seek the welfare of Gods people, no matter how unpleasant we all are, we will see Him honor us with an enlarged church of new converts, and a richer experience of daily life that no organic church conference or book has so far been able to kickstart.
    We dare not speak of unity among all believers, because we intuitively know that we must love one another as Christ loves us to achieve it, and its a lot easier to love the lost who dont get to smell our dirty laundry, until we have brought them in to our house. But both testaments are records of Gods laundrymen and women cleaning house, and the few times that all of His people rallied to obey Him in perfect love, He conquered their enemies, made their enemies to be their friends and build them into a holy nation thru which He expressed Himself to the other nations.
    We have lost sight of the woods because the trees are in the way in this matter, and if we will begin to challenge our brethren to consider this, I believe we will find many that are longing for a wholesale setting right of our priorities.

  • Ben

    I grew up in a religious context where charity was all well and good, but “social justice” was something to be wary of. I was even told once (when I asked someone in my church why we didn’t do more for the poor) that, “As Christians, we believe the world is going to burn someday, so what’s the point? It’s only the soul that matters in the long run.”

    I’d guess that much of my adult life – from the causes I engage with to some of the career choices I’ve made – has been a reaction to that experience.

    So I could see how someone who had a similar experience might become disillusioned with faith and come to see social justice as a replacement for God, rather than a natural outworking of our relationship with God. When reacting to one extreme, sometimes the pendulum swings too far the other way.

  • Albion

    Are they abandoning piety and finding justice to be its substitution?

    That’s an interesting way to put it. I think it suggests that piety is something we are commit ourselves to when it seems to me piety is something we display as we follow Jesus. In other words, social justice, worship, evangelism are all facets of a single character that is devoted to Christ, in fact united with Christ and therefore doing the work of the kingdom in all areas of life. So a piety/social justice dichotomy is a false dichotomy.

    But you make an excellent point when you say: “they need to get lost — to give themselves to — a cause, something bigger than their own life.” That “cause” for Christians should always be Christ. In union with him, we do justice and mercy and whatever else reflects the character of Christ.

  • When one’s interest in “social justice” becomes, as so often seems to be the case, a matter best left for the State to handle, then I think both “social justice” and the State have become forms of idolatry.

  • In “Good and Evil” Buber says, “The Psalm does not say that God knows the proven ones, the pious, but that he knows their way. The way, the way of life of these men is so created that at each of its stages they experience the divine contact afresh.” I think from Buber’s perspective – like Jesus in Matthew 25 – we encounter God by living the Way. Piety then is found by living out a crucified life which includes efforts that involve social justice. I think people engaged in social justice with their whole hearts are far more likely to encounter God and the Kingdom than those who make Church a part of their life.

  • Jason Lee

    #18: What you say can be true in some instances, but it can also be the case that when justice becomes a matter only for the individual to handle then we can lose sight of the reality of our interconnectedness. Losing sight of collective dimensions can be an excuse for individual pride or selfishness cloaked in personal morality. See Smith’s (1998) “American Evangelicalism” ( for a trenchant critique of evangelicals’ almost universal habit of reducing the solution to all social problems to the role of the individual and his or her values.

  • Steve Sherwood

    It seems to me that there’s less danger of social justice replacing God than nationalism/wrap-ourselves-in-the-flag replacing God.

  • Alan K

    The kingdom of God minus the God. Is it not just the latest well-meaning variation of humanity at the center of things? How tempting to define God’s “yes” and God’s “no” as we see fit.

  • Jason Lee #20,

    I have not suggested that “social justice” is a matter only for individual. There are many forms of interconnectedness, including family and local community, as well as the Church. To whatever extent the State may represent interconnectedness, I do not think it is the highest form or the most efficient or effective form.

    Steve Sherwood #21,

    I think there is just as much danger of “social justice” becoming idolatrous and there is for flag-wrapping nationalism to become idolatrous. There is also just as much danger of left-wing politics and agendas to become idolatrous as there is for right-wing politics and agendas.

  • AHH

    I think there is likely some truth to this, but I would add that the observation of finding an object of devotion that supplants God applies at least as much to post-9/11 “patriotism”. With the “God and Country” idolatry (which has a long history in the US) being numerically more pervasive in the Evangelical church than any “social justice” idolatry.

  • One thing we have to ask is who gets to define “social justice” and how it is to be implemented. The State? A political party or movement? A denominational structure?

  • Lesley

    Perhaps they are people who are lost because the “Church” is not helping their faith…feeding their faith…and they are merely trying to find faithin different expressions. Perhaps Social Justice is another way to find faith, not become an idol?!

  • Thanks, Scot, for writing this. It jogged me for sure, and kind of pushed me in writing a post this morning even though the direct point of the post is not the point you’re making here.

    It is important to hold a gospel orientation toward everything, we know. The problem in part I would suppose for many who leave the faith behind in their passion for social justice is surely there. The gospel as they understand it just does not comprehend the need for justice in this world. When in fact the gospel of King Jesus actually does. Although it must be tethered to the gospel as a whole which includes the church, in the following of Jesus.

  • Jim

    It appears to me that striving for social justice is a way to live out the Jesus way horizontally. Perhaps the whole issue would never have surfaced if the church had been living that way from the beginning.

    We were missing from the struggle for civil rights, to stop senseless, neo-con led wars and the work to care for the creation God blessed us with.

    My work in these fields has bolstered my faith

  • TJJ

    Provocative post. I think there is alot of truth in the suggestion the question and quote posits. Politics and social issues, on both sides of the theological spectrum (or perhaps on all points on the theological continuum), can and oft times provide purpose, satisfaction, meaning, emotion, hope, fulfillment, when these are lost or “thin” in the God/Holy Spirit relationship.

  • If we do not recognize how easily even a good can become a god, we are very much in danger of idolatry.

  • Jason Lee

    Jeff Doles: “To whatever extent the State may represent interconnectedness, I do not think it is the highest form or the most efficient or effective form.”

    But this depends on efficiency or effectiveness for what tasks and for which people, no? Or are you making the strong statement that this applies to all interconnected tasks and resources and to everyone?

  • Steve’s remark, *21, brought to mind this quote from Stanley Hauerwas:”War is a moral necessity for America…” it “is America’s central liturgical act…”

    Try to bring up this topic with evangelical Christians and see how quickly you are shunned:

  • Jason Lee #31,

    I’m making the statement that the State is not the highest form of interconnectedness, nor is it the most effective and efficient form.

  • I echo the comments of many. Social justice can replace relationship with Christ. At the same time, political action can replace relationship with Christ. Any number of things, including ministry in the local church or the pursuit of righteousness through following the law, can replace relationship with Christ. When these activities flow out of our love for God and talking and walking with him, God uses and blesses them. We bear fruit.

    When we get busy with these activities and lose a foundational relationship with Jesus, they’re just actions and can easily become idols.

    We tend to do that.

  • Doug McCall

    The Tree of “knowledge of Good and Evil” still shows itself in some of our christianity let alone the world.Good is still Bad in this case.It is still of the wrong Tree!

  • Brian C

    Has social justice become an idol? Has it become a substitute for God, for personal engagement with God?


    Just look at the recent example of ICC and the stir they cause with Kony 2012. The next report concerning the head of this organization was not so becoming any decent person, exposed naked as he was in public view. A true picture of the wickedness of the heart in need of salvation and a personal life in Christ, even as they proclaim social justice. Of course, today, many in the Church fall victim to the pursuit of social justice causes believing God “needs” us to fix the planet. But do they actually know Christ and make Him know? Not so much, replacing works of righteousness for the real thing – Jesus Christ – His death, burial and resurrection power living out His life in and through us. The Prophet Isaiah had this to say, I believe, on this matter:

    “All of us have become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
    we all shrivel up like a leaf,
    and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”

    The Prophet continues:

    No one calls on your name
    or strives to lay hold of you;
    for you have hidden your face from us
    and have given us over to[b] our sins.

    Many think they can accomplish some social justice for God as if God has need of us to rectify the world’s ills, as prayerlessness in the U.S. remains a tragic epidemic.

  • Brian C

    @ #15 Greg – “Why did Jesus minister only to Jews?”

    Jesus didn’t minister only to Jews. See Mark 7:24-37. There we find at least two Gentiles that Jesus ministered to – the Syrophoenician woman and the Canaanite demoniac, a resident of the Decapolis.

    Further see Matthew 24:14 (also Matthew 28:19-20) where Jesus gives us the mandate to proclaim his Good News to all “panta ta ethne” – all the peoples of the earth. Certainly, that is a form of ministering to Gentiles, if not directly, then at least authoratively.

  • JohnM

    As Jason Lee, #12, points out, a number of things can become a substitute for God. The thing is social justice, or (fill in the blank), becomes that stage on the way to losing faith – and I think this is the important thing to realize – to the extent we canonize it. When we decide it is THE expression of piety, it is THE thing with which the righteous concern themselves, we may well be on the way to losing actual faith in the actual God. It seems to me this not only could happen with social justice, it already happened, and quite a while back at that. Social justice isn’t the only ideology to ever gobble up faith, but it is the one in question here.

  • Kyle

    I’m no Buber expert, but wasn’t his shift to community inspired by his philosophy of the I-Thou encounter that overflowed demarcation, denotation, and description? This divine wellspring of meaning could not be broached but in the act of confronting another thing or preferably human being. The intellectual abstraction of God and corollary dogmas and doctrines were precarious relics and reminders of the higher-order experience which needed to be recaptured time and time again, an experience which though resisting rationalization could ethically inform those bonded. For Buber, then, putting community first was not a wholesale rejection of God but the contact point for God, a network of these encounters that summoned the beyond. His hierarchy (community over God) needs to be treated with greater nuance, then.

  • Many things, including social justice, can become an idol. My fear with this question, though, is that it might allow people to dismiss the radical social implications of the gospel and thus become complacent under the guise of resisting idolatry.

  • As an example (to support #40), think of all the conservative Christians who have neglected creation care because they supposedly don’t want to become pagan nature worshipers? I wonder in this particular instance if the so-called fear of idolatry isn’t just a smoke-screen for continuing to be greedy and irresponsible.

  • [not sure why there’s a question mark after “worshipers” . . .]

  • phil_style

    @DC Cramer, #41,
    “I wonder in this particular instance if the so-called fear of idolatry isn’t just a smoke-screen for continuing to be greedy and irresponsible.”

    yup, just as fear of “unholiness” was the religious establishment’s excuse for not associating with the poor/outcast in Jesus’ day.

  • phil_style

    Matthew 25:35-40 is just about as blatant a requirement to view social justice as anything but idolatry as you’re ever going to get.

  • Val

    Without the Holy Spirit’s guide, anything can become an idol. But, if you walk with the Spirit, the Spirit will guide you to the hurting and the lost, not a something to “do” to be right with God. It won’t be easy, but it will be good. After living in a town with a spirit-filled church where families regularly took in homeless, runaways and all manner of hurting people – even when they had 4-7 kids and busy lives, my eyes were opened to the leading of the Spirit.

    For years I didn’t do much, but about 2 years ago we were approached about adopting a child in the foster system. Although that child didn’t end up with us, we were lead (not forced) to consider the children in need of a home and adopted a little boy with special needs. Doing this could never replace the need for Church or other Christians, as it is by God’s power and guidance we even took the little boy into our family, and it take’s God’s spirit to sustain us while we do it.

    Anyways, all this to say, following God often leads to social justice, but it is in God’s strength we do what we are called, without it I think it would be pretty arms-legnth justice. It is always easier to rant and rave then to reorganize yours, and your kids, lives to make room for the broken and vulnerable.

    My (very pro-socailist) co-workers love radical socialism, ranting about how poorly certain people are mistreated and how awful; foster care, welfare, social housing, government cuts, medicine, etc. are. Yet, they don’t live lives with great concern for the poor. They are out at fine restaurants, bars, mini-vaccations, ski-holidays, and endless shopping, and whining when the government won’t give them a raise. When we adopted, I think it freaked a lot of them out. Many said to me: “you don’t have to do that much you know? you could just sponsor a child in Africa”. Funny, I thought they wanted social justice.

  • JohnM

    Val #45 – Good point and good example. But what you did is not social justice. Social justice is what one calls it when one wants to make somebody else do it.