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?