Idolatry 1

I want to begin a series of posts on the topic of idolatry. The fact that idolatry is considered a sin in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity–maybe in some forms of other religions too–raises several interesting questions.

First, I want to point out what monotheism and the rejection of idolatry does not mean, at least in the religion of the Bible. It does not mean intolerance.

A few years ago, in an address at Harvard, Gore Vidal made this remark: “The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism.” Why? Because, in his view, monotheism is responsible for intolerance and therefore war and strife among nations.

The world has seen it’s share of religious intolerance, hatred, and war. The point I want to make, though, is this kind of intolerance is not based on the teaching of the Bible.

First, in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament–the commandment against idolatry is given to people who have voluntarily entered a covenant relationship with the God of Israel, who is also the universal God of all people. When Israel is unfaithful to the covenant with God, God sends prophets to call them back to faithfulness. These prophetic indictments against unfaithfulness and idolatry are not given to other nations.

When the prophets speak to other nations, they call them to universal standards of justice and human rights. The prophets do not condemn other nations for practicing the wrong religion, but for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The New Testament does portray the mission of the early church with the apostles calling people from all nations to turn from “vain idols to the living god.” They use persuasion, not force to proclaim the good news. The Gentiles who worship their own gods defended the apostles: “These men are not blasphemers of our goddess.”

I am not saying that the Bible teaches tolerance for idols in the sense that serving idols is just as valid as believing in the God of Israel and of Jesus Christ. I am saying that it does not encourage violence against those who practice other religions.

A Setback

Benazir Bhutto As far as I can tell, God’s favorite project is the human race.  I’m sure there are plenty of other things in the universe that interest him, but according to the testimonies of people who had an encounter with God, he has a personal investment in what happens on earth.  His project is that trying to save the human race from its own stupidity and meanness.

The murder of Benazir Bhutto must grieve God deeply.  First, because he cares for her as he does for all individuals.  But more than that, she represented hope for her country, for the Muslim world, and maybe for the whole human race.

She might have brought peace and prosperity to her own country.   She might have been able to reconcile feuding factions.  She might have shown other middle eastern cultures what Islam with a human face might look like, a moderate form of Islam compatible with the modern world, a spiritual force for peace.

Benazir Bhutto’s murder cannot be Gods will, because he has expressly presented his opinion on the topic of murder: he is against it.

Covenant is the primary term used in the Bible to describe God’s relationship with  humans.    The covenant is God’s pledge of faithfulness to his creation; and it is expressed in two forms.  The first is the universal covenant God made with all life.  It is his pledge to preserve life on the earth and his demand of humans to respect life.  All people, in fact all life forms, are bound to God by this covenant, whether they recognize it or not.

The second form the covenant takes is a personal relationship.  This is very important, and I will have more to say about it later.  But right now, I want to stress God’s concern for all people regardless of religion or nationality.  God desires freedom, opportunity, human rights, the opportunity to thrive for all people.  For this reason, the murder of Benazir Bhutto was a setback for God.