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Idolatry – A Reflection

April 15, 2023
The US Military Cemetery outside of Cambridge, England where I took part in the annual Memorial Day observance in 2006

In a journal entry from April 17, 1965, Thomas Merton wrote the following reflection on our nation’s idolatry and Christianity’s explicit involvement in supporting that idolatry.

The great sin, the source of all other sins, is idolatry. And never has it been greater, more prevalent, than now. It is almost completely unrecognized—precisely because it is so overwhelming, total. It takes in everything. There is nothing else left. Fetishism of power, machines, possessions, medicine, sports, clothes, etc., all kept going by greed for money and power. The Bomb is only one accidental aspect of the cult. Indeed, the Bomb is not the worst. We should be thankful for it as a sign, a revelation of what all the rest of our civilization points to: the self-immolation of man to his own greed and his own despair. And behind it all are the principalities and powers whom man serves in his idolatry. Christians are as deeply involved in this as everyone else. A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals (pp. 161-162)

Fifty-eight years later, Merton’s words ring true in today’s world, in our nation, and in a significant portion of the church. Idols of all sorts are around us today. In fact, I am writing this blog on what might be considered an idol… an iPhone. When I consider some of the idols that I have struggled with over the years I am humbled. By taking a good, honest, in-depth look at myself I can readily see those idols—military rank, job titles, and educational degrees are just a few of them. Unfortunately, our issues are far greater and literally have global consequences.

I wonder if we really have learned anything from the “Bomb” as Merton hoped we would. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists “doomsday clock” was developed in 1945 by Albert Einstein and the University of Chicago. Today it is set at 90 seconds to midnight where midnight is the point of global nuclear catastrophe. Not only are nuclear continuing to proliferate and be a threat to the world, other weapons of war are flooding the streets and being used to slaughter innocents. We use the euphemism “military style” to describe these weapons but the fact is that they should never have been intended to be used outside of the military.

As a chaplain, one of my duties was to teach the introductory “core values” class at the Air Force technical training base where I was stationed. This base was one of the training bases where the new basic military training graduates came to learn the specifics of their military job specialty. I remember talking about individual rights and responsibilities and how they were integrated into the larger military’s mission. One example that I used was the right to swing your fist. While they had the right to swing their fist, that right ended at my nose.

Today I think that society has idolized a false notion of “individual” rights at the expense of considering the rights of others. The Golden Rule (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is too often replaced with a “my way or the highway” mentality. I look at the ministry of Jesus and see the exact opposite of the individualistic power of the us versus them system. Love God with all that you are and love your neighbor (even your enemies) as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)

The sooner that we can put down our idols and love as he taught us to love, the call of the prophet Micah can truly begin. He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

The first step toward that justice and kindness is to put away our swords (literally and metaphorically) as Jesus commanded one of the disciples in the garden on the night of his arrest—Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:51-52)

  1. “The sooner that we can put down our idols and love as he taught us to love, the call of the prophet Micah can truly begin.” Remembering the turbulence of the 60’s, it feels like we’ve only found more idols to worship since then. Thanks for your message.

  2. Totally awesome post – and O So True.

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