Faith in the New Security State

[The following essay is in response to a question posted on the Patheos Public Square: I will continue with the JudaismNext book on Wednesday.]

I find it curious that we are asking people of faith to speak out about NSA spying: when it comes to surveillance the NSA has nothing on God. While the NSA may be reading my email, monitoring my phone calls, and hacking my computer and smartphone, God is collecting my every thought, word, and deed:

God knows the secrets of the heart. (Psalm 44:21)

Jesus said, “You feign righteousness in public, but God knows your hearts. (Luke 16:15)

God’s eyes are everywhere, recording both the evil and the good. (Proverbs 15:3)

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the idea of the NSA spying on me, but I like the idea of God doing so even less. After all, the reach of the NSA is limited to this life whereas God is using the data he collects to determine my fate in the next life:

And I say to you my friends, don’t fear those who can only kill your body, and beyond that have no power over you… Fear God who, after he has killed your body, has the power to cast your soul into hell. Yes, if you are going to fear, fear him! (Luke 12: 4-5)

I suspect that an all–knowing and all–powerful God goes hand in hand with an all–knowing and all–powerful state. The divine right of kings—the notion that God is always on the side of the powerful—is still with us. And the surveillance God feeds the surveillance state, and both lead to the same end: a submissive and silence population cowed by fear. Listen to Ecclesiastes’ warning:

Do not criticize the king even in your thoughts, or curse the rich in the privacy of your bedroom, because a hovering bird may carry your words, and, flying, may report what you say. (Ecclesiastes 10:20)

These birds are metaphors of a BCE surveillance state. Today they are prescient hints of tiny drones listening in on everyone everywhere. At least the NSA is limited by its technology; God on the other hand has no such limits:

O Lord, you have searched me, and know me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up. You read my thoughts from a great distance… you are aware of everything I do. (Psalm 139: 1-3)

How will people of faith respond to the recent revelations about the NSA? The same way we respond to all revelations: we embrace those that confirm our biases and reject those that do not; and mobilize to promote those who believe and we do and defeat those who do not.

I don’t trust the NSA, and I don’t trust God. But what can I do about this? Oddly enough I can do more about God than the NSA.

If I don’t trust this all–seeing, all–knowing and all–judging God, I can stop believing in him. When I do, he actually goes away. The gods of our various theologies are figments of our imaginations. When enough believers become disbelievers any god can go the way of Zeus. Sadly I can’t say the same about the NSA. Believe in the agency or not, it is here to stay.

If we clergy want to do something to resist the surveillance state, we should start by rejecting the surveilling god. If we want to overthrow a political system rooted in fear, we should overthrow religions rooted in the same. If we want people to be free, autonomous, and creative agents for compassion, justice, and dignity for all beings, we should promote religions that value freedom, autonomy, creativity, compassion, justice, and dignity for all beings. Whatever we are willing to excuse when it comes to religion we will rationalize with it comes to state as well.

[Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent, and host of the radio show How to be a Holy Rascal at]

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