By Dr. Doyle Sager
As the celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday draws near, we are soberly reminded that genuine prophets are often dealt with brutally. Throughout the generations, King and others like him have dared to name our nation’s idols and the diseased systems which spawn and support them.
The tension is obvious. The have’s rarely like to hear the truth — that their financial comfort is sometimes carried on the backs of the have-not’s. So, they kill the messenger, either metaphorically or physically.
Last year, I spent some time studying the biblical theme of idolatry. I was reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same. As recorded in Acts 19, the Apostle Paul had just arrived in Ephesus. He proclaimed the typical Judeo-Christian message of monotheism (translated: he preached against idol worship). Enter the sound of a buzz saw, which Paul was about to meet.
A silver artisan named Demetrius was alarmed, because he made a very comfortable living, creating little miniatures of the goddess Artemis, whose Ephesian temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It’s interesting to note that Demetrius’ problem with Paul was not theological, but economic. The problem was simple. While Demetrius was going over his books, he noted that profits had been dropping ever since Paul had been in town preaching Jesus Christ.
So, Demetrius faced a challenge — how to stir up the community against this Christian preacher without sounding money-grubbing. Demetrius was no fool. He knew how to frame his message. Instead of talking about his personal financial losses, Demetrius warned the people that Ephesus was in danger of losing its tourist industry and with it, its reputation as a great cultural center.What an unselfish, community-minded patriot! He was only thinking of the greater good, right?
Take note. When the idols of our town and nation are threatened, their adherents rarely hit the issue head on. Like this shrewd artisan from Ephesus, they always appeal to more noble and civic values. I dare you to publicly call out one of our culture’s gods (take your pick—nationalism, militarism, consumerism, racism, institutional religion, recreation, sports, etc.). You will soon hear the gatekeepers: “Come on! Where is your patriotism? Don’t you have civic pride? Don’t you want to see our community grow?”
But behind all of these so-called noble motives, a dark truth lurks. In reality, most of our gods remain in place because the present arrangement is working for a few powerful people. Someone is making a great deal of money, and often at the expense of someone else’s misery. No wonder the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers…authorities…cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
So, how do we engage the battle?
Perhaps we can all channel the spirits of St. Paul and Martin Luther King, Jr. We can begin by asking tough questions.
Who in our community is profiting from unacceptable housing? Who is making money off of so-called payday loans? (the average interest on such loans in Missouri is over 400%)?
Who is financially advantaged by war? Who is spending big money to make sure that the present arrangement remains in place — an arrangement which keeps minorities and the poor “in their place”?
And here may be the most difficult question to ask: How am I, without even realizing it, contributing to a system which supports oppressive idolatry?
Go ahead. Ask the questions. Name the idols. But say your prayers and take a deep breath. All hell may break lose.