Paul is at his pastoral best in his advice to the church in Corinth concerning meat for idols (I Corinthians 8:1-13). He is not at all concerned with the ontological power of idols because “no idol in the world really exists” (v. 4).
To the contrary, “there is but one God.”
For that reason, he is not an absolutist and need not be. His concern rather is practical and pastoral, for he sees that devotion to idols is a divisive practice in the life the congregation. In his practical reasoning, he judges that “the strong” (those who are not at all drawn to or fearful of idols) should act in thoughtful deference for the “weak,” who are more vulnerable to the illusions of the idols. His concern is that members should act in generous, gracious ways to uphold the unity and peaceableness of the faith community.
The case is not different in the Old Testament concerning idols. On the one hand, Israel knows full well that idols are “zeros” without energy, power, or authority:
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
they make no sound in their throats (Psalm 115:4-7).
They are impotent and helpless and can do nothing … no need to be afraid of them or to worship them. Then the Psalmist adds an ominous derivative:
Those who make them are like them;
so are all who trust in them (v. 8).
Those who focus on what has no agency to act in the world will soon lose their agency to act in the world. It is the same in Psalm 135:
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
they have eyes but do not see;
they have ears, but they do not hear,
and there is no breath in their mouths.
Those who make them
and all who trust them
shall become like them (Psalm 135:15-18).
In Isaiah 44:9-20, the prophet mocks the process of making idols and then trusting them. Jeremiah, moreover, dismisses the idols as an empty irrelevance:
People deck it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so that it cannot move.
Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field,
and they cannot speak;
they have to be carried,
for they cannot walk.
Do not be afraid of them,
for the cannot do evil,
nor is it in them to do good (Jeremiah 10:4-5).
One is sure to notice that the idols are marked consistently by lavish gold and silver to decorate them and so exhibit extravagant wealth (see I Kings 6:1-22, 7:48-50). Thus the object of worship becomes attractive commodity that invites measuring worth by the value of commodity.
Such religious activity has within it the seed of reducing life to a transactional commoditization.
On the other hand, however, in a trajectory of much more severe rhetoric, Israel also urges that idols should be violently destroyed because they are seductive and lead Israel away from trust in and obedience to the one true God:
But this is how you must deal with them; break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire (Deuteronomy 7:5).
The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Do not covet the silver or gold that is on them and take it for yourself, because you could be ensnared by it; for it is abhorrent to the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 7:25; see Nahum 1:14).
The reasoning is the same here as with Paul. The idols have no substantive reality. But they can be a dangerous seduction in actual social life and therefore must be eliminated, even if violently.
...The idols are an affront to serious faith and to serious relational life.
...The idols are a distraction because they siphon off resources that are elsewhere better deployed.
...The idols are divisive because they cause the community to choose up sides in a dispute that is about nothing substantive.
...The idols are a distortion of reality that diminishes common sense and skews our capacity to see the world as it is under the rule of God.
Thus in both the Old Testament and Paul we see a total theological rejection of idols and an acute socio-political awareness of the toxic practice of idolatry that does damage to the community.
So now among us, we are witnessing social conflict over the removal and destruction (or maintenance) of statues of Lee, Jackson, and their company that have been erected to specify white domination and supremacy long after the Civil War was finished. The destruction of the statues is fueled by a claim that they convey (and are intended to convey) white supremacy and its tragic and abusive history. The defenders of the statues anemically insist that they are only memorials to a troubled but treasured history. But surely Jim Wallis, “What are White People, Especially White Christians, Willing to Risk?” Sojourners (August, 2020, 10) has it right:
Many white people are learning what Black people already know: that the white knee on a Black neck is system, a culture, a false idol, and a brutal violence that permeates every aspect of American life and structures.
The statues celebrate those who fought in defense of slavery and against the Union. It is not to be missed that the defense of slavery was adherence to an economy that depended upon cheap labor for the sake of a life of comfort and leisure without labor, that is, a defense of a monopoly of gold and silver (not unlike the gold and silver of ancient idols) and the easy life it made possible. Thus we might notice the nice linkage of idols-idle life without labor. There is no doubt that in a quite practical way the statues do indeed affront, distract, divide, and distort our social life, advocating an economy that required an unequal interplay of masters and slaves.
We could not be surprised that those with bodily memory of slavery should find these statues unbearable for what they not only remember but what they continue to evoke.
...These statues are an affront because they attest white domination and supremacy over Black people, a domination that after the War was expressed by indenture servitude made legal.
...These statues are a distraction from the real issues of racial justice and equality to which our society is committed in our deepest claims.
...These statues are a source of deep divisiveness between those who continue to long for a restoration of the good old white days, and those who yearn for an enactment of “the better angels of our nature.”
...These statues are a distortion of social reality because white racist ideology still tacitly imagines that it is possible to convert “humans into the totally compliant submissive accepting chattels symbolized by Aristotle’s ideal of the “natural slave” (David Brian Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation xiii). Of course it is not put that way, but every effort at keeping Black people from equity is a step toward that implied but unexpressed brutalizing goal.
These idols of racist domination should not be fed the “meat” of devotion, honor, or protection. Rather on a quite practical level, the “strong” who claim these statues are not racist should desist from offering “meat” that is affrontive to the “weak” who find them so offensive. In our present moment, however, those who are “strong” in Paul’s sense insist on offering “meat” that deliberately escalates the offense of the idols.
When the “strong” will not or cannot stop the “red meat” offered to “white idols,” according to the rhetoric of the Bible, they must be “hewn down.” They might be hewn down by the vigorous passion of those most offended. Or they might be hewn down by the wise action of government. Either way, they must be hewn down. The statues as idols still do not have any substantive reality, “because no idol in the world really exists.” But they nonetheless skew social reality. It is no stretch to see that the destruction of the idols is a proper service to make room for the rule of the true God of justice, mercy, and truth.
Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.
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