It is not the idols of others that we need to be worried about. It is
our own tendency to make idols of finite things because we can’t face
what we suspect a living God demands of us. We’re scared and so we pin
our hopes on violence, hoping to scare the demons away.
Reverend Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Ph.D., is the 11th president of Chicago Theological Seminary.
The title of this sermon comes from the hymn we just sang, “Sprit, Spirit of Gentleness”. In verse two it says, “When they were confounded by their idols and lies, then you spoke through your prophets and opened their eyes.” We sang this same hymn last spring at Chicago Theological Seminary and sitting there in the pew at worship I decided to write a sermon called “Confounded by Idols and Lies.”
What was percolating in me at the time was not only the prevalence of theological issues in our national debates, but also an extraordinary event I witnessed on CNN last year. You may remember the controversy that erupted in Alabama when Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama paid for and installed a granite monument in the state judicial building rotunda on which the Ten Commandments were written (in an abbreviated form). Federal Judge Myron Thompson had ruled that Chief Justice Moore had thirty days to remove his ½ ton monument as it violated the establishment clause of the Constitution.
Hundreds of conservative Christian demonstrators had gathered at the Alabama judicial building and were protesting the monument’s removal. In late August with camera crews trained on the removal, a crew prepared to load the stone and remove it. A man flung himself face down on the floor, wrapped his hands around the Ten Commandments rock and shouted “Get your hands off our God, God haters.”
Now, we just listened to those same Ten Commandments and the first commandment is this: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” And even more explicitly, the second commandment says, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image…and you shall not bow down to them and serve them.”
And there we were, on CNN, with someone frantically crying, bowing down, and worshipping the very rock that said, “Don’t do that. Don’t make graven images, don’t confuse the living God with a statue.”
This confounded me, I must tell you. We need to make sure that people actually read the Ten Commandments and not just worship them.
But beyond that sort of obvious point, what is the impulse to such idolatry?
I think the times in which we live seem so frightening, so new that people are deeply afraid. The impulse to idolatry is the desire for control, to be able to define, describe and finally to put God in a box. A living God resists this. When earlier in Exodus Moses encounters God in the burning bush, God sends Moses on a mission to liberate God’s people who are groaning in bondage. Moses wants a name of a specific God to take to Pharaoh. “When they ask me, “What is his name” this God who commands we let the Israelites go, “what shall I say to them?” And God replies, “I am who I am…I am has sent me to you.” (Exodus 3:14) The “I AM,” the living God, resists being defined or controlled. But still we try.
When I think about what we as a church should be contributing to our national and local debates on peace and war, the first thing I want to emphasize with that we need to be who we are; we are Christians. What we as Christians have to contribute to these discussions is first and foremost their theological reflections on who God is and how God works with the world.
I was invited, last spring, to be part of a chat room on the United Church of Christ website. The UCC had requested my permission to post a sermon I had given at Elmhurst UCC on “Just War and the War with Iraq” and they wanted me to be available to discuss it with people. I agreed and at the appointed day I logged on for several hours. The screen was filled with actually very well informed political science debates about the pros and cons of international policy and the proposed war. After a while, and trying to introduce the notion that this was not what the sermon was about, I typed in, “I won’t respond to anyone who won’t engage the theological issues in my sermon.” The screen was blank for more than ten minutes. Then, very tentatively, the question appeared, “What do you mean by theology?”
Just because we don’t do simplistic theologies that trumpet “God thinks, God wants, etc.” (and those phrases are usually a codeword for “I think, I want etc.”) We shy away from and do not contribute what we have best to contribute, a theological reflection on the signs of the times and an affirmation of the love and care of God for the world.
And our times are filled with lots of things on which theological comments is absolutely critical. The Chicago Tribune published an editorial I wrote on Lt. General William Boykin and the storm of protest that broke out about the general’s comments that he’s fighting Satan. The general said that when he fought in Somalia against a Muslim warlord, “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol.” Boykin views the war on terrorism as a religious war, a war between Judeo-Christian values and “Satan”.
This kind of theology informs the kind of decisions that the general has made and will make. Did he perhaps think he needed fewer ground troops and less firepower because his God was bigger than his enemy’s God? When you fight Satan, does God guarantee your victory? Shouldn’t we at least ask if these views raise troubling questions about whether Lt. General Boykin can make good judgments and objectively evaluate the conditions under which military force can and cannot be used effectively? Do we have no exit strategy in Iraq because we had such blind faith that we were doing “good” and that Saddam Hussein was so “evil” that we merely assumed God would take care of the rest? Belief dictates actions. It is fair to evaluate actions based on expressed beliefs. It is fair to anticipate that future actions will be based on deeply held beliefs.
What is the stated goal of war? Those who contend that some wars can be “just wars” pursue military intervention in order to bring about peace and a restoration of some kind of justice. The goal of war is not more war; the goal of war, in Just War perspective, is “good outcome”. We look to end the violence as quickly as possible. Military planners teach this at the War College.
The view that the enemy is not only wrong but also evil fundamentally distorts the capacity of a military planner to accurately assess the complex motives of the other side. And if we think that “Satan” is directing the actions of the enemy then no peace will ever be possible. You can’t make peace with Satan.
People go to war for complex reasons. Sometimes it is because they want land, or power, or status in the world, or simply the recognition that they and their culture are not irrelevant in the modern world. If you can assess the enemy in a complex and nuanced way, you may be able to bring conflict to an end and achieve your goal of peace by responding to the enemy’s action in more than one way. If you think you are fighting Satan you’ve lost that edge. You are locked in to kill or be killed.
We might also consider the general’s theology for a moment. The general has asserted that the Christian God is “real” and the Muslim God is an “idol”. Actually, the God worshipped by Muslims is the same God as the one worshipped by Christians. In fact the Koran has a verse that explicitly states that the God of the Muslims is the same God as the God of Christians and Jews. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all religions that have grown from a common source of texts and traditions. That is why they are, all three together, called “the Abrahamic faiths”. So the general is not only misguided in his ability to do complex military planning, he is missing the boat theologically. We worship the same God.
Finally, and most worrisome, the Protestant evangelicalism that Lt. General Boykin is articulating includes the belief that the turmoil of our times is a clear sign that Armageddon, the violent end of history described in the Book of Revelation in the Bible, is about to occur. Conservative predictor of impending doom, Hal Lindsey, in his new book The Everlasting Hatred: The Roots of Islam, asserts that the current struggle with terrorism is really a centuries long war of God against God, the God of Christianity versus the God of Islam. Indeed, the general’s quoted comments have a strong echo of Lindsey’s argument. Lindsey’s book predicts that this cosmic struggle will usher in Armageddon, what he calls “The Climax of Hate”.
Our theological beliefs matter deeply and different understandings of who God is and how the world works dictate profoundly different consequences. When you hold a very dualistic view of good and evil as the general seems to, then the other side is all “evil” and you are “good”. This applies to the question of whether the American people were lied to about whether there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that posed an imminent threat to the security of the American people. Since no such weapons have been found it has been said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. Saddam was evil and we should have taken him out anyway.” Of course it matters. If somebody lies, it matters. One of the topics on which Jesus absolutely fulminates in the gospels is on lying. The dishonest steward is the very image of the one who cannot and does not love God. God and lying are incompatible. Period. “Do not bear false witness.” There it is again, in the Ten Commandments. Loving God and telling lies are incompatible.
But the dualistic theology of good and evil blinds us to this. When you think the other does all the evil and you are the only good, you are blind to the ways in which your own words and deeds are not always the best. You are cut off from the exercise of conscience. You are also blind to the fact that the other side has some capacity for good, and finally, you must find that capacity in your enemy in order ever to live in peace. Yitzak Rabin said it, “You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies.” If you only see your enemies as devils, you will never live in peace.
It is not the idols of others that we need to be worried about. It is our own tendency to make idols of finite things because we can’t face what we suspect a living God demands of us. We’re scared and so we pin our hopes on violence, hoping to scare the demons away.
Our graduate the Rev. Frank Thomas, now a pastor in Memphis, TN, wrote a wonderful book during the war with Iraq called “The Lord’s Prayer: In Times Such as These.” I strongly urge you to adopt this short, but spiritually very rich book for your study this fall. I was just stunned with Frank’s insight into “Lead us not into temptation.” After the fall of the Soviet Union and the balance of power in the world that the Soviets forced upon us, we’re it. We’re the only superpower. And we’re tempted, so tempted, to exercise that power. Jesus was tempted with just such a temptation. The devil tempts Jesus “I will give you power and authority over all this.” And Frank notes that something isn’t temptation unless you want it. You can just put thirty cartons of cigarettes in front of me and it’s not tempting. I’ve never smoked and I don’t care about it. But put a pile of chocolate in front of me and we’re talking. It’s temptation because I want it. For Jesus actually to have been tempted at some level he knew what a temptation having power and authority over everyone and everything was. And so too with us. We are the only superpower and its bad for our souls. We’re tempted to intervene because we can and no one can stop us. It’s bad for our souls. It’s bad for our theology. It’s bad for our country.
Our fear and our unilateral status of as a superpower are tempting us to make an idol of our nation. We want that security, that control that only idolatry can bring. “You shall have no other gods before me.” Don’t be confounded by idols and lies. Cling to the I AM and you will know what God demands of you in these times.