Category Archives: idolatry

What is your idol?

Shun the cult of idols…
You cannot drink, at the same time,
from the cup of the Lord
and from the cup of demons.
1 Corinthians 10: 14, 21

 In the US when I discussed belief in God in classes or with groups of students, I would sometimes suggest that everyone, even atheists, believe in something. Thus the really important question is not “Do you believe in God?” Rather the critical question is “What God do you believe in? What God do you trust?”

Sometimes I believe that we Christians do not believe in the God of Jesus Christ, but we try to use God as a way to disguise our real beliefs. We say we believe in God, but we are atheists in practice.

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I say?”
Luke 6: 46

Do we really trust a God who commands us to love our neighbors? Or do we trust in “gods of metal,” our weapons?

Do we really trust God who tells us not to worry about we are to eat, or drink? Or do we trust in “gods of gold and silver,” our savings?

Do we really trust a God who calls us to feed the hungry? Or do we hoard our grains, seeking higher prices?

Do we really believe in a God who identifies with the stranger and the migrant? Or do we seek more secure borders by building walls?

Do we really believe in a God who became human as a poor man and gives Himself to us in the vulnerability of bread and wine, His Body and Blood?

Do we believe in a God who loves all people? Or do we restrict out love to people of our own nation, class, race, or religion?

Do we believe in a God whose servant Paul told us to associate with the poor? Or do we seek the attention of the powerful and wealthy?

Do we believe in a God who created the heavens and the earth and made humans in His image and likeness? Or do we worship a god who is identified with my nation?

Maybe we should call to mind the words of St. John Chrysostom, whose feast is celebrated today:

If you are a Christian, no earthly city is yours. Concerning our true city, the builder and maker is God. Though we may gain possession of the whole world, we are nonetheless only strangers and sojourners. We are enrolled in Heaven — our citizenship is there. Let us not, after the manner of little children, despise things that are great and admire those which are of little account.

If you want to further explore this, I recommend the writings of the late Jesuit, John Kavanaugh, especially Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance: 25th anniversary edition (Orbis Books, 2006).



going after strange gods

Jeremiah is brutal in today’s lectionary reading (7: 1-11). He refuses to let the people rely on their public worship, their beautiful temple.

Instead he lays out their wrong doing and calls them to amend their ways:

 Do not abuse the stranger, orphan, or widow,
or shed innocent blood in this place,
or follow strange gods…
But you trust in deceptive and useless words.
You steal, kill, take the wife of your neighbor;
you swear falsely and follow strange gods…

Dan Berrigan notes that this is not a mere listing of sins:

 Each catalogue of crimes ends, in fact, with the name of the greatest of crime: idolatry.
…idolatry permeates every misdeed. There are unjust toward one another, taking base advantage of widows and orphans, even killing the innocent… Such behavior already implies… “worshipping false gods.”

What might Jeremiah say today?

I think that he would list the rejection of the migrant, especially the children, as well as the killing of civilians in Gaza, as well as – to a lesser extent – in Israel. He would look at the lack of compassion toward the poor and rail against this abuse.

But he would also ask us to look at the strange gods that lead us to such actions.

What are these strange gods?

For this we need a national examination of conscience, not just asking what evil we have done but what gods we worship.

I propose we look at a few possible false gods – wealth, power, nationalism, consumerism. All of these, I believe, flow from a lack of trust in a God who calls us to mercy and compassion. It flows from a fear that we might have to lay these gods aside, these gods that promise an easy life – in order to live a good life.

A good life is a life serving the God of compassion, the Father of orphans, widows, and the stranger.

This is not a God who kills strangers, who tells the migrant to go home, who erects walls and borders.

The Lord is a God who finds ways to welcome others – even ourselves – so that we may live as people of mercy.


New golden calves

We who were freed from slavery by the power of God give up on God so easily.

When God seems absent we seek something that will give us a sense of power.

So the people of Israel in the desert seek a tangible substitute for the saving God – something that they can know and manipulate: a golden calf. It will go before them because, as they believe, it was the molten calf, a work of their hands, that brought them out of Egypt.

The story (Exodus 32) is well known, but we often forget that the people invested power in something that they made.

We usually talk about this as the worship of an idol. But it’s really a type of fetishism.

When Pope Francis spoke to ambassadors last year, he used the image of the golden calf to critique economic systems that substitute money for persons.

The adoration of the ancient golden calf has found a new and ruthless image in the fetishism of money and in the dictatorship of the faceless economy which lacks a truly human purpose. (My translation from the Spanish.)

The official translation softens the pope’s critique, talking only of an “idolatry” of money.

The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.

But the pope has spoken more than once of the “fetishism of money.” Sadly, the translators usually use the term idolatry, instead of fetishism.

But what is a fetish?

In the 25th anniversary edition of Following Christ in a Consumer Society, p. 34, Fr. John Kavanaugh put it succinctly:

A “fetish” is something that is fabricated, the product of human work; but it is also something we relate to in worshipful devotion. Even though it is something that we ourselves have made, we invest it with power over us and we refashion ourselves in its image.

That’s what the people did in the desert. That’s what we do when the bottom line or our bank accounts become primary.

And that’s what happens when we let anything made by us be the criterion for our lives.

Isn’t it also fetishism when we look for praise from others as the criterion for our actions? As Jesus says in today’s Gospel (John 5: 44):

As long as you seek praise from one another, instead of seeking the glory which comes from the only God, how can you believe?

What are the fetishes in our lives?

What works of our hands (or our hearts and minds) do we let rule us?

How will we begin to turn from these fetishes and seek the glory of God?


Idols and orphans

We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands;
for in you the orphan finds compassion.
Hosea 14: 4

 What do orphans have to do with idolatry?

Yet Hosea has the people giving up idolatry in the light of the Lord’s compassion on orphans.

In Israel, the care of orphans and widows was an essential part of keeping the Covenant with God.

In a male-dominated society, a woman without a man to care for her and a child without a male protector were helpless, since they without connection to any support system. Thus the community had the obligation to see to their needs. Failure to care for them was a failure to live as the People of God.

Idolatry means placing our hopes in something which is not God, but is of our own making. Idolatry is often a response to insecurity or to the need to have something that gives us power or protection.

Pope Francis has talked of the fetishism of money, how we give money a magical power to control us, thinking it will save us.

Hosea also sees reliance on horses – that is war alliances with Egypt – as idolatry, thinking we can save ourselves by weapons, the work of our hands.

But our God is a God who cares for the orphans, who identifies with them. There is security when we follow our God in our love and care for the orphan.

I think that President Eisenhower’s remarks in a April 16, 1953 speech also reflects the problem of choosing between idols and orphans

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

Lenten conversion means turning away from idols and turning to the care of those in need – not just in our personal lives but in our nations.