America is symbolic – citizens of this country are a mixed-bag of ethnicities, countries of origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, background and co-culture. We have to rely on organizing symbols in order to create unity, otherwise, we’d be pulled in several directions by the force of human nature, which is, to separate into our own little groups. These symbols, like the Flag, the Bald Eagle, the Washington Monument, Representative Democracy/Constitutional Republicanism, whatever, are imbued with meaning. We have, as Robert Bellah calls it, a civil religion, wherin we’ve sanctified these symbols. We can’t have the flag desicrated because desicrated means “de-santanctification.” Making the secular sacred is a form of idolatry. Even my typing that will set some people on edge – how DARE she suggest that the my honest respect for the flag and all that it stands for is idolatry?! That righteous indignation is indicative of the problem.
I feel compelled here to say that I join those people in honoring the Flag and Constitution and Declaration of Independence and the Bald Eagle. I think all Americans are Idolaters. Those who are patriotic usually state they believe in God, Country and Family. I respect that – for those Patriots, God and Country are somewhat inseparable, in my experience. What does the Bible say about idolatry?
“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” – Exodus 20:4
That’s some tough teaching. Even the most fervant fundamentalist Christians I know still make likenesses of things in heaven, earth or sea. My mom, by God’s definition here in the 10 Commandments, is an idolater, because she painted a mural in my playroom with fish and seahorses on it. BAD MAMMA! I took a video and photos at yesterday’s Chrysalis Graduation ceremony, which is, a likeness of something on earth. How many times do we draw pictures of animals, portraits of people, take a picture, sculpt a statue. So, moving past strict adherence to the Commandment, what does it mean?
A.J. Jacobs, in The Year of Living Biblically, says, “Aside from provoking idolatry, images were thought to be a sign of human vanity. People were trying to compete with the God of creation …The Bible is right: A deluge of images does encourage idolatry. Look at the cults of personality in America today. Look at Hollywood. Look at Washington…” I pointed out a fact once about Ronald Reagan’s conflation of movie plots and history, and someone got highly offended. They shot back that Reagan, unlike me, was a true Patriot, and he stood for all that this country held dear, and I was trying to destroy that nation… I, being a great fan of Reagan’s speeches and several of his policies, was flabbergasted. More than that, I was curious, is Reagan, or Lincoln or Obama, for that matter, an American Idol?
Anne Lamott once wrote, “Assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do,” in Bird by Bird. Maybe that’s what the commandment is really all about. We intepret Scripture to draw a picture of God that is very much like us, only stronger, bigger, angrier. Hate is a strong word, but I’ve heard the sentiment often enough; I’ve felt that sentiment often enough, to recognize it for what it is, it’s a stumbling block to unity. Wait, earlier, I said that we use symbols to create unity, and now I’m saying we use those to get around it… which is it?
It is possible that those symbols (and all language is symbolic, by the way) are used to reaffirm the unity of a smaller and smaller section of the population, while marginalizing those who still interpret those symbols under a different principle? In other words, “I’m in unity with all those who think as I do, and those who don’t think as I do are Anti-American.” We do this in the church. Again, I’m preaching to myself, because I have effectively left a church before because I did not feel they treated their communion (which, for them, was entirely symbolic) with enough respect. I’m trying, as Pastor Brad noted in the sermon a couple weeks ago, to move beyond “tolerance” of others who don’t look, act or think like me, to showing grace. Tolerance, he said, is a form of forebearance, putting up with them, grace, on the other hand, is what God has for us. God doesn’t “put up” with us, he loves us, and shows us that love daily.
I’m an idolater; you’re an idolater; I buy into cults of personality; you buy into cults of personality; I make likenesses of people and animals and objects in heaven (angels), earth (family, friends, pets), and the sea (fish, whales, kelp); you probably do something similar. I am very much guilty of making God say what I want him to say; I am guilty of thinking that God thinks as I do; I am guilty of making idols of the Flag, our Country, low taxes… I am also guilty of villifying the symbols of others by saying those symbols are idolatrous. I am, guilty, guilty, guilty, and this is my confession.