The Church of Partisanship

Patheos: Don’t Support This Bill, Oppose This Bill The worst thing that has happened with the church since the 60s but especially since the 80s (under Reagan) has been the politicization and partisanization of the church. Church cultures now exist where in a local church if you are not a Republican or a Democrat you don’t fit. […]

Postcards From Babylon

Brian Zahnd: Postcards From Babylon

So I’m writing my postcards from Babylon calling on Christians tangled up in red, white, and blue to renounce the idolatry of American civil religion. America is not an object of reverence — it’s just the latest in a long line of here-today, gone-tomorrow empires. I can love America like I love hamburgers and rock ‘n’ roll, but I can’t love America like I love Jesus. America as my residence within this world is fine, but America as the savior of the world is heresy. The gospel of the American dream is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are antithetical to one another. It’s either the story of Jesus that gives meaning to life or the story of America that gives meaning to life, but it’s not both. Lincoln, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and all the rest can claim America is the “last best hope of earth,” but it’s not true. That’s just the sort of thing that empires say; but it’s also the sort of thing Christians must never say.

America is many things. It’s a country, a culture, an empire, and a religion. As a country and culture America can often be respected, admired, and celebrated. But as an empire and religion, America is a rival to Christ. One of the reasons that Christian discipleship is so difficult in America is that we are trying to make disciples of people who are already thoroughly discipled into a rival religion. You can either operate under a governing philosophy of America first or you can seek first the kingdom of God, but you can’t do both. To claim otherwise is to either tacitly or explicitly claim that Christ is a servant of the American cause. But as Karl Barth (who knew a thing or two about the dangers of Christian nationalism) taught us, Christ cannot serve some other cause, Christ can only rule.

As with anything, our nation, its symbols, and our loyalty to it can be idols that draw us away from Christ.

Moloch

an engraving of people offering their children to the idol Moloch

In the midst of commands regarding sexual purity in Leviticus 18, we can find this directive from God to His people:

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.

– Leviticus 18:21 (ESV)

Moloch is a Hebrew name for a Canaanite god. (It’s also known as Molech, Milcom, or Malcam in various translations.) Later in Israel’s history, Moloch is most often associated with the Ammonites. Solomon actually brings Moloch worship into the borders of Israel at the behest of one of his many wives in I Kings 11:7, and Jeremiah 32:35 specifically condemns some of the children of Israel for continuing to worship this idol or any idol that requires human sacrifice.

What made Moloch unique among the other idols we read about in the Old Testament is that those who worshipped it sacrificed their children, seemingly by burning them before or on the idol. Cleitarchus describes similar sacrifices to Cronus in this way:

There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing. (trans. Paul G. Mosca)

We don’t worship statues any more, but the New Testament writers speak time and again about fleeing idolatry. Paul, in Colossians 3:5, goes so far as to define covetousness as idolatry. In other words, anything for which we are willing to sacrifice our spirituality to obtain, material or otherwise, becomes an idol to us. They are replacing God in our hearts.

Often, from the pulpit, we draw direct comparisons between Moloch and modern abortion, and the comparison is obvious. Both involve children; both involve death. The big differentiator being whether or not the mother involved views their unborn child as a sentient being as most of us Christians do. In the case of the sacrifices to Moloch, there was no doubt that the child was living, sentient, and capable of pain. Yet they would go through with it in hopes that they would receive safety, security, and victory from this god. And that’s where the application opens even further.

Our culture has grown comfortable with sacrificing the lives of “others” in order to preserve security, uphold political ideals, or to obtain some perceived victory. We turn away refugees and their children because welcoming them makes us feel unsafe. We advocate for health care laws that will rip affordable coverage away from those that need it most for some sense of “liberty.” We criticize those who wish to put diplomacy before violence, and praise said violence as strength.

In all of these cases, we’re putting our ideas of security, safety, and victory before the lives of others. We deem our ideals as more important than their existence. But we seldom feel the effects of our own callousness because we’re not the ones affected. Incidentally, sacrifices to Moloch never involved throwing yourself in the fire; it was always someone else, even if that meant your own child.

So challenge yourself with this question: what ideal or victory are you willing to sacrifice the lives of others to obtain? If we’re all honest with ourselves, we might all find forms of Moloch we’re still serving.

Uncomfortable American Idols

american flag

The Sunday morning Bible study I’ve been participating in is beginning to wrap up a marathon through the Old Testament. It’s an area of the Bible that presents some unique challenges, both in terms of what we can best get out of a covenant no longer binding us as well as in some of the directions classes usually take the Old Testament. I’ve studied these books numerous times now, and certain themes emerge time and again — some helpful to our spiritual development, others less so.

One of those themes that gets brought out every time we get to Aaron and the golden calf or the prophecies of men like Isaiah is that of idolatry. What does idolatry look like in the modern day? Of course the obvious ones come up: wealth, popularity, entertainment. You probably know the drill. I’ve noticed, though, as much as we like to discuss these idols and how they affect the world, we tend to shy away from discussing some common, but uncomfortable, idols that tempt many a conservative Christian.

These idols are uncomfortable for many reasons. They can easily become part of our identity. They are things that can seem good, but they adversely affect our spirituality when they inform our attitudes and conduct overmuch. They become deeply personal. We develop itching ears that want to hear what others are doing wrong, but leave my own idols alone, thank you very much. These are the high places that we turn to without giving them a second thought.

Our Politics

Politics is such a loaded word in American culture. The assumption is that you are for one side or for the other. Christianity and politics have become so intertwined that it’s sometimes hard for a potential convert or new Christian to tell the difference between secular opinions that insinuate themselves into Bible classes and pulpits and the spiritual truths we should be holding as sacred.

The problem with politics is that we begin to let our chosen side’s platform inform how we interpret Scripture. We try to turn secular issues into Biblical ones. We try to use the Bible to defend the second amendment (as if Jesus would ever shoot anyone), to disprove the climate crisis, to promote capitalism as the way. In doing so, we turn people away from God who might otherwise be open to His word.

II Timothy 2:24-25 simply says we should never be quarrelsome but should rather be kind, patient, and gentle teachers. Allowing politics into our hearts leads to the opposite behavior. James 4:1 rhetorically asks what causes quarrels, and the answer is found in our worldly passions. James goes on to call friendship with the world adultery to God, the same word God would use to describe idolatry in the Old Testament. When we elevate political struggles to the same level as spiritual ones, when we allow politics to inform our attitudes and conduct as much as Scripture, then we are committing spiritual idolatry.

Our Nationalism

In Hebrews 11, the author of that book talks about how Abraham left the land of his fathers to seek after God’s promise. It talks about how he did not look back, that he considered himself a foreigner and temporary resident of this world. Philippians 3:20 states that our citizenship is in Heaven, and Ephesians 2:19 calls us citizens of God’s household with Christ as the cornerstone of that house.

How does that harmonize when we then post things online about America first? How does that harmonize with the doctrine of American exceptionalism? When we treat our country’s flag like a sacred object, when we allow patriotism to enter our worship, or when we refuse aid to people based purely on their nationality, we make an idol of our earthly citizenship. While we are to be good citizens as Christians, that does not mean our citizenship defines our Christianity.

Our Freedoms

Have you noticed how closely related these are? These items are more than some car on a showroom floor. They are more than a paycheck. They are deeply integrated with who we are as a culture, and nothing is more deeply rooted in Americanism than freedom. It’s as American a bald eagle wearing a flag bandanna and eating an apple pie.

The problem is that, while we may have certain governmental documents ostensibly to protect things like freedom of religion and freedom of speech, God makes us no such promises in His word. When Galatians 5:1, II Corinthians 3:17, or I Peter 2:16 are talking about freedom, they are talking about spiritual freedom — freedom from sin and the eternal consequences thereof. These passages have nothing to do with our secular liberties.

Yes, it’s great to live in a country where we can express ourselves freely without unreasonable fear of government censorship. Yes, it’s nice that we can gather to worship without fear. It’s even nice that taxation gets coupled with representation. But these are not rights handed down by God, as I’ve heard some put it. They are rights and freedom’s in man’s eyes.

Certainly, First Century Christians didn’t spontaneously gain these rights upon baptism into Christ, nor does God promise them to us. The preamble to our Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not inspired documents. They may invoke God’s name, but that does not make them God’s will. We are blessed that God has allowed us to live and thrive in such a nation with such freedoms, but let’s not idolize our freedoms in the process.

Tearing Down High Places

The trouble we see in so many Old Testament kings is that, while they might have tried honoring God by enforcing the feasts or adding to the temple, they often left the high places installed. These high places served as a constant pull away from God and toward idols. We, in turn, have a choice about what we’re going to fill our minds and hearts with. We can allow these high places of nationality, freedoms, and politics to become idols in our hearts. Or we can abandon them.

Idols like these are difficult to talk about honestly, but we have to be able to separate these things out if we are going to reach the world with Christ’s message. Whether or not someone believes in climate change has no impact on their relationship with God, and it should have no impact on our spiritual relationship with them. Whether or not someone is an American has no impact on their relationship with God. Our earthly freedoms have no effect on our relationship with God. Unless we put them on par with God. Then they become idols.

American Idols

American Idols In a recent Facebook discussion, someone asserted that as long as we consider being Christians more important than being Americans, then our nationalism isn’t idolatrous. But it’s not that simple. In the Bible, we find that the Israelites struggled with polytheism throughout the Old Testament. It wasn’t so much an outright rejection of […]