Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Lord reigns

I want to skip ahead in the "Selah Project" to an entry in my journal written today, in order to talk about a book that I just finished reading, Losing Moses on the Freeway: the 10 Commandments in America, by Chris Hedges. For those who are interested, the poem "Decalogue" was partially inspired by an interview with Chris Hedges I heard on NPR. A few days later, some good friends gave me a gift card to a co-op bookstore in town, and I bought the book and read it.

I think the best chapter in the book is chapter two, "Idols." I want to give a couple of quotes from the book, followed by today's reflection on Psalm 97, which draws from Hedge's book and thought.

And yes, I highly recommend the book.

"We depend on our idols to to give us order and meaning. We depend on our idols to define our place in the world. Idols give us a world that appears logical and coherent. Idols free us from moral choice. Idols render judgment. We follow. We conform.

"When we see the hollowness of our idols, how they have led us to waste time and energy, when we smash these false gods and peer at the uncertainty of life, those who continue to revere the idol turn against us. We are expelled from the cult, stripped of its identifying power and left alone. It is easier to remain silent, to pay homage to a false god even after this god is exposed as a fraud. Those who worship idols deal harshly with those who become apostates.

"No institution or cause will remember or reward us for the sacrifices we make. There are no shortages of lives wrecked by idols. Those who spend their final years waiting forlornly for a call from children they were too busy to know because they were too busy building careers, must peer into the empty face of the idol they worshipped. Idols, when they are finished with us, discard us. They keep us from God."

Psalm 97
Journal entry dated June 22, 2005

"The Lord reigns! Let the earth rejoice! Let the distant shores be glad!"

This exclamation "the Lord reigns!" is found throughout the so-called "royal psalms." In this psalm, God's reign is described as universal in scope, and is contrasted with the worship of idols. God's reign is identified with justice, which constitutes the foundation of God's throne, the basis of God's rule. God's reign, God's kingdom, is present wherever justice is found.

The draw of idolatry, its allure, has always been its promise of comfort and security. The children of Israel, liberated from slavery and led by Moses into the wilderness, immediately began to long for the comforts they had left behind, for the "fleshpots of Egypt," for the "cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic" (Num. 11:5). The making of the golden calf, one of the objects of Egyptian worship, is an expression of this nostalgic yearning for comfort and security.

In order to discover within ourselves the idolatrous strongholds that must be rooted out in order for God's reign to become truly universal, we have to ask ourselves, "what are the places in our life that promise us comfort and security?" These are the zones where we are most likely to sacrifice justice on the altar of the false gods; that is, of self-interest, for all idolatry is, in the final analysis, self-worship. Tearing down these shrines is a frightening prospect, an act of self-deconstruction that leaves us feeling uncomfortable and insecure, yet it is only by this process of deconstruction that the reign of God is extended and becomes truly universal within us.

What are these loci of security and comfort in our lives? Our jobs, which not only provide us with economic security, but also with a feeling of personal identity and worth. Patriotism, our national identity, which provides us with a sense of security for which we are often willing to sacrifice the security of others. Our churches, which have at times been guilty of holding up obedience as a higher value than justice, in blatant disregard of the teachings of the Gospels and the prophets. In all these contexts, we are more likely to "look the other way" when we encounter injustice rather than risk our security and identity by challenging it. We understand that the potential cost of speaking out is disownment, the loss of both security and identity. In biblical terms, we "harden our hearts" like Pharaoh, resisting our impulses towards compassion and justice in order to preserve a status quo that is favorable to us.

I think that the temptation to idolatry is especially strong for those of us for whom religious identity and vocational identity coincide. Within this context, to challenge institutionalized injustice jeopardizes, not only our membership in the religious community, but our economic security as well.

There was once a time when I put my place in the church on the line by marching in a rally against the Iraq war. And this was, simultaneously, one of the most frightening and liberating experiences of my life. It was a moment of personal deconstruction.

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