Little children, guard yourselves from idols.1 John 5:21
With those words the apostle John ends his first letter. And this makes sense given that in the culture of the time there were plenty of false idols available, plenty of religions from which to choose. John, therefore, is applying the first and second commandments (from Exodus 20) to his own situation.
Fast-forward two millenia and things are different, right? If I walk or drive through my community there aren’t temples dedicated to false gods. People where I live don’t have household shrines complete with a wooden or stone representation of their particular deity.
Does that mean John’s admonition doesn’t apply to us? Do the first two commandments from the Decalogue matter anymore?
Let me suggest one specific way in which idolatry does show up in our society. It’s one that can affect all of us.
Tomorrow in the United States they are having their midterm elections. It’s when they elect members of congress, senators, governors, and all kinds of other public officials. And if you’ve been paying any attention at all, you will know that the temperature of American politics is at an all time high. Anticipation of a possible Republican party “red wave” has the media and the Democratic party in panic mode.
Making it worse is the degree to which civil discourse around political and social concerns has almost evaporated. No longer is it merely about having political–or even ideological–differences; it’s become a zero-sum game where the goal is to eviscerate your opponent at all costs.
What we see happening in the US is not without its echo in other nations, including our own.
The reason I bring this up in relation to idolatry is that in the absence of a shared narrative or collective sense of meaning or over-arching worldview that transcends and mitigates against our differences, politics becomes a religious force. When all that remains to effect cultural and societal transformation is a political system and preferred political candidates, ideological civil war seems the inevitable result. We retreat to our respective camps and toss grenades at the others.
What else can explain the persistence of President Biden’s divisive and foolish rhetoric in recent speeches, where he implies that voting Republican is akin to destroying democracy?
In the absence of God, politics fills the vacuum.
And, really, when politics becomes a religion, we make ourselves gods.
Unfortunately, in the US the evangelical church has allowed itself to be co-opted by the political system. In doing so, it has largely forsaken its prophetic call and instead acquiesced to the culture wars. Instead of being a voice of discernment, wisdom, and humility, often it is a voice just as divisive and foolish as those we see in the media and online.
Am I saying that the church and that Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics or speak to cultural issues? No. What I am saying is that when the church (or at least influential voices within the church) insists that to be faithful to Christ you must vote one way or another, then it’s possible it has traded its inheritance for a bowel of stew, its eternal perspective for the easy but inadequate satisfaction of a human solution. Esau is not a healthy example for how the church should engage with political life.
More importantly, those of us who are followers of Jesus simply need to understand that politics, as crucial as they are to our collective life as citizens, do not provide our ultimate horizon of meaning. Whatever we make of our country, no nation can ever be a “Christian” nation. Whatever politicians get elected or whatever legislation gets passed, it only takes another election or two to swing things in the opposite direction. We cannot seek peace or find hope at the ballot box.
Evidence that Christians reject John’s admonishment against idols in the realm of politics can be seen whenever the rhetoric of Christians and their leaders echoes the partisan rhetoric of secular pundits. It can be seen in the way we characterize those with whom we disagree. It’s one thing to hold a particular belief or policy position; it’s another to dehumanize those who see things differently. I have seen very few examples of wise Christian leaders who exemplify the character of Christ and who have the ability to speak to both sides of the political divide without siding with either.
And it’s hard, I know, because it can often seem as though there’s a lot at stake. We can feel strongly. We can have deeply held convictions. We see ideas and changes in our culture that cut against many principles and values and beliefs we hold dear. Christians in the West especially are not accustomed to being a cultural minority. We no longer hold a place of societal privilege. Alignment between the Christian faith and our national institutions and political processes has been disappearing for decades. But the pace of this shift has increased incredibly even over the last 10 to 15 years.
However, if we are going to be followers of Jesus in this cultural and political landscape, we have to find ways of doing so that more clearly reflects not only the beliefs we hold but the character with which we should hold them. We may want Jesus to be the Lord of our nation, but first he needs to be the Lord of our hearts and minds, our attitudes, and the ways in which we conduct ourselves as citizens and neighbours.
Otherwise, we run the risk of having John’s admonishment about idols fall on deaf ears.