Shalom Mennonite Congregation, Harrisonburg, VA—May 17, 2009
Exodus 20:1-7; Matthew 22:34-40; 1 John 4:18-21
My sermon today is about “idolatry.” Before I share my thoughts, though, I would like to start with word associations from you after I read three passages that speak of idols and of God’s priorities. As I read, think about what you think of when you think of “idolatry.” What are “idols?” How do we know if something is an “idol”?
Exodus 20:1-7: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of slavery in Egypt; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make idols, nothing in the form of any created entity. You shall not worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, there will be consequences to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but I will show steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses the Lord’s name.
Matthew 22:34-40: One of the Pharisees, a lawyer, tested Jesus with a question. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ Jesus answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
1 John 4:18-21: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. We love because God first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their neighbors are liars; for those who do not love a neighbor whom they have seen, cannot love God who they have not seen. The commandment we have from Jesus is this: those who love God must love their neighbors also.
So, “idolatry”—what do you associate with idolatry?…
Pacifism as an “Idol”?
One of the last things I would have expected to see associated with idolatry would be pacifism—especially among Mennonites. But life is full of surprises. This month is now thirty-three years since I first found a strong sense of clarity and realized that I could never participate in war. That clarity was followed by discovering the writings of John Howard Yoder a few months later—theology that helped me understand my new commitment as biblically and intellectually valid. And that was followed a couple of years later by discovering the small Mennonite fellowship in Eugene, Oregon. Kathleen and I still talk about our first encounters with that congregation—Christian pacifists with a strong tradition to back them up. So after a time at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary studying with Yoder and others, an experience that deepened our sense of at-homeness with the Mennonite tradition, we were ready to throw in our lot with this peace-oriented community.
Then my eyes were opened a bit in my first experience of preaching in a Mennonite congregation other than Eugene. I was asked to talk about a pacifist response to nuclear weapons—and my sermon set off a bitter debate among some church members, a few of whom found my pacifism and its critical stance toward US militarism to be offensive.
A number of years later, when we moved to South Dakota and I preached on peace I was quickly warned not to push this theme too hard—“remember, we have proud military veterans in our congregation and we don’t want to offend them.” Then, we ended up among the Mennonites in Virginia and not long after moving here we learned of congregations leaving the Mennonite Church, in part, they said, because the church had made pacifism an idol.
The impetus for this particular sermon came a few months ago. A review of my book, Embodying the Way of Jesus, came out and the reviewer wrote that my discussion of God and pacifism “comes perilously close to idolatry.” I thought, wow, what’s going on here? I am challenged to ask, is pacifism ever an idol?
One way to address this question is to go back to the Bible and to try to think carefully about what we might have in mind when we talk both about “pacifism” and about “idolatry.” I believe when we carefully define both pacifism and idolatry, and look at them in light of the Bible’s core message, we will be led to conclude that, no, pacifism (when properly understood) can never be an idol.
Pacifism as Boundary-less Love
We need to start by defining “pacifism.” We could go on and on about this—as I do every year in my “History and Philosophy of Nonviolence” class. Several years ago a bright student suggested we try to change the pronunciation from “passive-ism” to “pach-ifism” since the root word is the Latin term for peace, pacem. But this hasn’t caught on yet—and I’m not sure a mere pronunciation change would solve that much.
But this is what I believe “pacifism” means: The belief that no value or conviction or cause ever makes it morally acceptable to act violently toward another person. The best way to talk about what pacifism means is to speak in terms of basic human rights or basic respect for others or the kind of compassion and concern we call love.
The point pacifism makes is that we place no boundaries on what kind of people deserve these rights, this respect, this love. Other ways of thinking allow for some kind of boundary, under some circumstances, regarding to whom we owe love—like, maybe we don’t owe love to our nation’s enemies, convicted murderers, people of the wrong age, gender, ethnicity, or sexual identity. A pacifist simply says that every person under every circumstance retains their value and humanity—and thus must not be treated with violence.
We see this boundary-less love in the costly welcome Christian pacifists gave Jewish refugees in LeChambon, France, during World War II. We see it in the Rev. James Lawson’s life of active pacifism—from working to integrate Nashville fifty years ago to very recent witness against the war on Iraq.
Now, it could be, I suppose, that pacifism understood in this way might become an idol—if we discover something more important than love for each person. Pacifism might be an idol if our pacifist commitment causes us to minimize something that is more important to God than love. But is there such a thing?
Idols and the Commandments
Let’s look at a few texts from the Bible that talk about idolatry and God’s priorities. The passage from Exodus 20, the beginning of the Ten Commandments, may perhaps be the most fundamental statement about idolatry in all of the Bible. But before we get to the commands we must notice what we learn about the God who is contrasted with the idols. God here is characterized in quite specific terms—this is the God who liberated the Hebrew people from slavery.
The commands do tell us about this God being supreme, a jealous God, in fact. But, we must remember this is not a God above and separate from life on earth. This God is not apolitical, one who relativizes all human concerns and convictions.
In at least some of the talk about pacifism as idolatry, one gets the sense of a basic contrast between worshiping a God who opposes all violence and oppression and worshiping what we could call an autonomous God, separated from human interests.
Well, the God who begins these great commands by forbidding the making of idols is very much an engaged, committed God. You listen to this God, you offer this God your basic loyalty, because this God liberates you from slavery. This God takes sides—over against the injustice and violence of the Pharaoh, on the side of the vulnerable and oppressed.
The very first command God gives, “You shall not make idols.” This command tells us that the problem with idols is that they compete for loyalty with the God who liberates and brings healing to brokenness. We learn as the story goes on what the competing gods are like—the idols underwrite kings’ land grabs that drive people off the land, the idols stand with the rulers of empires who conquer and dominate, and—ultimately—the idols transform Israel itself from a community of liberated slaves to a place following all too closely the injustices of the nations. We see the problem in the book of Amos—when the people go to worship, they sin. They can’t worship the true God and oppress the vulnerable at the same time.
The Old Testament commands work this way—first, God brings salvation, frees slaves, gives them Torah to guide their live, gives them the land where they may embody the healing work of God among humanity. Then, in response, the people offer this God their highest loyalty. They prove their loyalty when they follow the commands to care for vulnerable ones, and to maintain a society that practices genuine justice for all.
The Greatest Command According to Jesus
When Jesus comes onto the scene, he does not (contrary to what all too many Christians have assumed) turn away from Torah and proclaim a new beginning. Very succinctly, our words from Matthew make clear that Jesus understood himself to be firmly in line with Torah and the prophets.
What’s the greatest command? We could reword this question in light of our reflections on idolatry—how do we avoid idolatry and follow the true God? In a word, we love. We love God. And remember, as Jesus’ entire ministry makes very clear, to love God is not to love a disengaged spirit being who takes us away from the nitty gritty of real life. Jesus says it this way: “A second command is like the first”—or maybe, we could say, the command that is the greatest includes both to love God and to love neighbor. And Jesus insists this is the same command that Moses reported from God on Mt. Sinai and the same command the prophets challenged Israel to follow amidst their violences and injustices.
We get a fuller sense of Jesus’ understanding of this great commandment when the gospel of Luke reports on a similar encounter. Jesus plays like Socrates and gets his questioner to supply the answer—the central command, the one that leads to eternal life, involves whole-hearted love for God and joins that with love for neighbor.
The lawyer zeroes in. He knows that to love God means to love the neighbor—and that how one carries this out determines one’s salvation. So, who’s my neighbor? he asks. How is it, in particular, that I am being asked to love God? How might I commit myself to God and not to an idol?
Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan. He makes it painfully clear to the lawyer that to love God means to love the neighbor—and the neighbor to be loved is the person in need, the victim of violence, the vulnerable and oppressed person. And the model of this kind of love is a Samaritan—the enemy of faithful Jews.
Jesus tells us here that there is nothing as important as love for the neighbor—and that the neighbor includes the enemy. Nothing is as important as this—it is the command upon which salvation rests. Let’s go back to our definition of pacifism. No boundaries mark off who deserves our love. First-century Jews and Samaritans, believed there was a boundary—loyalty to the truth about where and how God is to be worshiped was more important than loving those who disagree. Jesus’ response to the question about the greatest commandment undercuts that kind of boundary.
Paul and John on What Matters Most
So, we get a clear sense that the greatest command centered on love of neighbor. In Romans, Paul leaves the “love God” part only implied and zeroes in on the part that matters most: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (13:9-10).
Paul quotes Exodus 20’s commandments. Though he doesn’t mention the first commandment about idolatry, he clearly directly links all the commands with the call to love. The clearest and one reliable criterion that tells us when we cross the line into idolatry is when we fail to love. We may think something takes priority over the call to love. We may think something justifies placing boundaries for what kind of people toward whom we show kindness, compassion, and respect. But when we do so, we have almost certainly crossed the line into idolatry.
Paul, like Jesus, denies the possibility that pacifism can ever be an idol. Pacifism, in fact, when we understand it as meaning simply that we don’t place boundaries on who deserves our kindness and respect, may be seen as our most helpful and clear criterion to help us understand idolatry.
Let me add one more voice. The verses from 1 John 4:18-21 make the same kinds of points, actually more or less summarizing what we have seen in Exodus, Amos, Matthew, Luke, and Romans.
“We love because God first loved us.” Exodus 20 begins the commands with the affirmation that first God loved the Hebrews enough from liberate them from slavery. Everything that follows stems from that first love of God.
“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their neighbors are liars.” We cannot separate the call to love God and to love neighbor. Any claim or desire to love God that allows one to practice disrespect, violence, or even disregard toward our fellow human beings is actually an act of idolatry. We may claim to love God but our actions and attitudes show that we do not.
“Those who do not love a neighbor whom they have seen, cannot love God who they have not seen.” This is why we need to see that Jesus’ love command states that the only way we can love God is to love our fellow human beings. God as unseen spirit, an autonomous God, is an abstraction, a principle, a mere figment of the human imagination. This kind of God cannot be loved. The way we love God is most centrally to love our neighbors—who we see, the people with whom we share life.
“The commandment we have from Jesus is this: those who love God must love their neighbors also.” And, as we saw, Jesus insists that this is the commandment we have from Moses as well. The antidote to idolatry is to love God—the way to love God is to love the neighbor.
Pacifism and Idolatry
So, is pacifism ever an idol? I think not. In fact, pacifism should be the Christian’s measure for discernment concerning idolatry. If we seek to worship the true God, we find ourselves with this basic choice. Will we see this worship leading us directly to love of others, without boundaries, recognizing the value and worth of each person? Will we understand our worship of God to lead us to affirm the sacredness of each human life? Or is worship of God something self-contained, an end in itself, the worship of a disembodied, non-engaged spirit?
Well, I have, of course, only touched on a few small passages from the Bible. I find it highly ironic, though, to think of some of the people I have encountered who portray pacifism as perilously close to idolatry. They critique pacifism in the name of the Bible. They accuse pacifists of being unbiblical.
Well, I find the evidence to point in precisely the opposite direction. We seek to read the Bible front to back, hold the pieces together, and understand the story to culminate in Jesus. Then, we see that loving our neighbor without boundaries is precisely the one thing that can never be an idol. Let us worship the true God—and seek genuine freedom from any idol that would lead us to compromise that worship by placing boundaries on who and when we love.