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In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage … to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.” (“A Brief Statement of Faith,” 11.65-71)
The recent events in Charlottesville and the reactions to them have had me thinking once again about idols. There are two broad ways of thinking about idols in the Christian tradition, already clearly delineated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10:19-21. One is that “no idol in the world really exists” because “there is no God but one” (8:4), and the other is that idols are the very real demonic powers that exercise destructive control over people’s lives (cf. 10:20). As the years go by, I find myself more and more in the second camp.
My thinking about these matters was greatly shaped during the years of my post-graduate theological training by two individuals. From reading Walter Wink’s books on the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” (see Ephesians 6:12), I learned not to demythologize the language of the demonic in the New Testament but rather to remythologize it as the animating spirits within those institutions and structures that run counter to and actively oppose God’s justice. From my studies of Pauline theology with Daniel Patte, I learned to distinguish between two frames through which people have viewed God’s response to the demonic. One is an apocalyptic view that sees God as destroying from without both the idols and those under their sway, and the other a view that sees God unmasking and thereby destroying the power of idols from within so that those under their sway are liberated rather than destroyed. There is an ethical and moral choice we must all make in deciding whether we will view the world through the apocalyptic or the liberating frame.
Let there be no equivocation: racism, sexism, (neo-)fascism, and all other “isms” that dehumanize others who have all been created in God’s “image, according to [God’s] likeness” (Genesis 1:26-27) are demonic oppositions to God’s desire for creation, and those who parade with their flags in defense of their monuments are under the power of these idols. There can be no choice for those awakened by the Holy Spirit as to whether they will oppose these idolatrous ideologies. But we do have a choice as to whether that opposition will take apocalyptic or liberating forms. To dehumanize those under the sway of the idols only perpetuates the idols’ continuing sway over us. “If I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor” (so Galatians 2:18).
In “hear[ing] the voices of those long silenced” we can begin to unmask the idols and break their control over us. May “the Spirit give us courage” to “unmask idolatries in Church and culture” by naming the demonic without dehumanizing those still under its power until all “others [work] for justice, freedom, and peace.”
Reverend Timothy B. Cargal, Ph.D.
Assistant Stated Clerk, Preparation for Ministry
Office of the General Assembly
Rev. Timothy B. Cargal, Ph.D. is the Assistant Stated Clerk, Preparation for Ministry. You can learn more about him in this Outlook article.