I’ve been mostly avoiding commenting on the presidential circus in the US: it’s not my country, and for the most part it’s not my business who Americans elect. It is, however, the business of every Christian to care about the misuse of God’s name, so I feel there is one aspect of the Republican National Congress that I can comment on.
Usually, when we think about the second commandment, we think about relatively trivial transgressions: people thoughtlessly saying things like “Oh my God,” or “I swear to God…” or using Christ’s name as a cuss word. I’m not saying that this stuff doesn’t matter, but that the vast majority of the time it’s done almost unconsciously, without malice, without any blasphemous intent, possibly without the person realizing that they’re doing it. Culpability, in a situation like that, fades towards a very distant horizon.
In any case, it would seem somewhat absurd for God to waste an entire commandment just on making sure that people don’t say His name when they drop a hammer on their toe. Characterizing the second commandment in this way makes it look arbitrary, and gives the impression that God is a bit vain and pompous – like a king who gets his knickers in a knot and starts having people beheaded for making nasty jokes about him. Indeed, I’ve met a lot of atheists who believe that most of the ten commandments are laudable rules – but that the first few suggest that God is a massive narcissist.
Actually, the second commandment is tremendously important – and it should be important to atheists as well. What it forbids is “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” What does that mean? Two things. First, if you went back to the ancient world you would have found that it was very common for people to make oaths in the name of their gods. Invoking a deity to vouchsafe your promises was a way of providing accountability. To take your god’s name in vain was not only an offense against the diety in question, it was also an abuse of the good faith of whomever you made promises to. The consequences of oath-breaking ranged from private abuses like denying the poor their wages, to major international conflicts.
Secondly, to take God’s name in vain is to misuse it for personal or political gain. When a shady televangelist tells people to send him money in the name of Jesus, this is not only a breach of the seventh commandment (which forbids theft) but also, and more importantly, of the second. When God’s name is invoked to justify evils, or incite people to commit them, this is a violation of the Divine Law. When God’s name is used to take advantage of the gullible, this is likewise a violation. “It is also blasphemous to make use of God’s name to cover up criminal practices, to reduce peoples to servitude, to torture persons or put them to death. The misuse of God’s name to commit a crime can provoke others to repudiate religion.” (CCC 2148)The prohibition against blasphemy includes every misuse of God’s name, including within the political sphere. It’s something that happens all the time, and that has happened throughout history: political leaders claim to have been divinely anointed to their tasks, and religious leaders get roped in to uphold these claims. What happens in the process is that God is not-so-subtly replaced with an idol.
We saw that yesterday at the Republican convention. Pastor Mark Burns gave a troubling illustration of what happens when the language of religion becomes subservient to a political idol. In Burns prayer, the enemy is not Satan. It’s not powers and principalities, thrones and dominions. It’s flesh and blood: specifically, Hillary Clinton and the “liberal Democratic party.” The saviour is still nominally Jesus, but it’s clear that Christ will, for the moment, be working to save American – primarily through the instrumentality of Donald Trump.
This kind of jingoism is blasphemous. It takes the name of God and it reduces Him to a prop in a political drama. Moreover, it promotes ideas that are fundamentally at odds with the Gospel. The point of Christianity is that God is not for any one people, any one party, any one group. He and His love are for everyone. The Jews. The Gentiles. The Samaritans. Christ was not all about proclaiming an earthly kingdom and saving His chosen people from their worldly enemies. Even though He was the King of the Jews, He didn’t feel any particular need to draw attention to it; He let Pontius Pilate, who was concerned about such matters, be the one to proclaim it. Whenever it came to politics, Christ’s basic approach was to sidestep the questions and redirect people’s attention back towards the spiritual and moral life.
Burns prayer does the opposite. It takes the spotlight off of Jesus and puts it on Donald Trump. It turns one of God’s beloved children into an avatar of evil, and it confuses spiritual categories with political parties. It appeals to God as the guarantor of a particular political order, rather than humbling the political order before the absolute authority of God.
In short, it takes the name of God in vain.
Picture credit: pixabay
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