I was thinking about old Moses this week as he chastised his people, as one of the Ten Commandments, for worshipping idols. He had rescued his tribe from the oppressive Egyptians and offered them a covenant to become a new people under a God of great compassion, majesty and power. The idea of Yahweh that Moses offered, however, was not as easily identified as a tangible presence as the god of the neighboring dominant tribe depicted as a very impressive image of a golden calf. But Moses had made a commitment, a covenant, to follow a much more expansive and Holy God, and he was not going to allow his people to be distracted and converted to the temporal god of his neighbors. So Moses’/God's law sets the record straight: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Exod 20:4–6)
This is strong language, but I believe Moses (and God!) was right: Settling for something less than a reverence for the God of life and compassion, envisioned by Moses’ out of his of his sacred encounter with the Holy, needed to be confronted as a false God. The temptation to submit to the more tangible god of temporal power and glitz was as powerful then as it is now. And it is just a dangerous. And it needs to be as vigorously opposed.
So I have been thinking more about what it means to be tempted to commit to a spiritual, social, political, or economic path that is actually a false idol. The news this week included footage of the Qanon crowd bonding in their near veneration of Trump. I also watched an interview with theologian and activist, Carter Hayward,* about the increasing concern over the White Christian Nationalism movement that is somehow melding as a matter of faith their idea that Christianity is essentially based in an allegiance to the U.S. as a Christian nation. I did not watch the Ken Burns PBS program on the Holocaust but those who did watch have reported the similarities between the rise of Nazi Germany and the current threats to American democracy. Behind each of these political movements is the idolatry of charism and the false assurances of personal and national security. They are examples of a current version of the Golden Calf: a tangible offer of easy salvation rather than to follow the more complex and nuanced path of love, respect and cooperation. These movements with all their symbols and trappings are essential idols.
And bringing it a bit edgier and closer to home, the issues of gun control and abortion - on both ideological sides - can become entrenched as “carved images” of self-righteous certainty rather than the more nuanced reflection on discerning our moral responsibility for how we manage these choices. Gun ownership and the right to an abortion are not issues “carved in stone” but challenges to our human condition that then ultimately requires us to rely on our conscience and the guidance of our community to develop a truly more life-affirming management of them in our personal and communal lives. In short, life is not the duality of good and evil, right and wrong. Those too easily become idols; instead we are called to immerse ourselves in a spirit of an inclusive ethic of love and kindness within accountability to a wider community. One of my most precious holdings of the Jesus story is that his love and inclusiveness was not bound by tradition or contemporary social mores, but instead he was released to an inclusive ethic of nonviolence and love, even to the extreme of loving one’s enemies. I think that is one way to say he avoided idols as Moses expected us to do!
Moses did indeed seem to write a very hard line on rejecting any kind of false idol. In my Quaker faith, and perhaps yours, here’s my interpretation of this commandment: Don’t permit cheap and hollow temptations and distractions in life to detract you from following a living faith of reverence to the earth, each other, and, however you define it, your sense of Mystery or God. At a personal level it is easy to gauge our success in life on the basis of wealth, career/professional recognition, and perhaps social status. But the deep wisdom is that these can too easily become false idols; at the end of our life we know that what is most important is our faithfulness to our integrity and right relationships with our family, friends and life itself. Moses was right: don’t succumb to idols. Choose always instead a deeply lived affirmation of a reverence for life that settles for nothing less.
*Carter Hayward’s just published book is The 7 Deadly Sins of White Christian Nationalism: A Call to Action."