Tag Archives: idolatry

Justice Apart from the Law (and Empire): Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.8

[Paper presented to the Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity group, American Academy of Religion annual meeting, Chicago, November 10, 2008]

This paper comes out of my interest in Christianity and violence, focused especially on biblical and theological materials that point toward ways of overcoming violence.  The biblical story often portrays violence and injustice having roots in idolatry.  Trusting in things other than the creator God who made all human beings in the divine image leads to a diminishment of the value of some human beings—a prerequisite for injustice and violence.  Torah, the prophets, and Jesus all emphasize the centrality of loving the neighbor as part of what it means to love God above all else.

The struggle against idols characterizes the biblical story from the concern with “graven images” in the Ten Commandments down to the blasphemies of the Beast in Revelation.  Certainly at times the battle against idols itself crosses the line into violence and injustice.  However, for my purposes here I will assume that those accounts stand over against the overall biblical story.  When anti-idolatry takes the form of violence, a new idolatry has taken its place.  In Walter Wink’s terms, our challenge is to seek to overcome evil without becoming evil ourselves.[1]

I would like to suggest that we find in the biblical critique of idolatry perspectives that are important, even essential for responding to the problems of violence in our world today.  If we use violence as our criterion, we could say that whenever human beings justify violence against other human beings they give ultimate loyalty to some entity (or, “idol”) other than the God of Jesus Christ.

It could well be that forces that underwrite violence today—loyalty to warring nations, labeling those outside our religious or ethnic circle as less than fully human, placing a higher priority on gathering wealth than on social justice—are contemporary versions of the idolatrous dynamics that biblical prophets condemn.

In the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul offers an analysis and critique of idolatry that I believe remains useful today.  Paul takes on two types of idolatry.  First, he criticizes what I will call the idol of lust in the Roman Empire that underwrites violence and injustice.  And, second, he critiques the claims of those (like Paul himself before he met Jesus) who believed that loyalty to the Law requires violence in defense of the covenant community.

Our present-day analogs of the forces Paul critiques—nationalism, imperialism, religious fundamentalism—all gained power with the rise of modernity in the Western world.[2]  The much-heralded turn toward post-modernity may offer a sense of awareness to help us break free from such totalisms that foster so much violence in our world.  These various “’isms” all have been thrown into question in popular consciousness.

This task of resisting demands for ultimate loyalty unites biblical prophets (including Paul) with present-day Christians seeking to further life in the face of death-dealing violence.  Modernity did not create death-dealing idolatries so much as give them new impetus.  The task of breaking bondage to the idols of injustice that Paul engaged in remains ours today. Continue reading