Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus. . . . Do you not know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves to that one you obey – either of sin leading to death or of obedience leading to righteousness? Rom. 1:1; 6:16
From the Biblical perspective, we are in one of two camps: either we are slaves of sin by nature (driven by sin) and choice (directed toward sin), or we slaves of Christ Jesus in and due to a new nature (driven by the Holy Spirit) and choice (directed toward righteousness). Whatever freedom we may have politically, socially, and economically, it is encompassed by the spiritual reality of slavery, either to sin or to Christ. We may be free, but we are still slaves to something or someone, perhaps even to the very ideal of freedom! The bottom line, as Bob Dylan sang, “You gotta serve somebody.”
When we offer ourselves up to someone “as obedient slaves,” we are turning that someone or something into an idol. What we serve, in other words, is or becomes what we worship. Idolatry is simply rejecting the goodness of God or perverting his good gifts and putting something else in His place. Whether material possession, sexuality, rest and recreation, personal relationships, individual freedom, governing authorities, and the desire to worship, all are essentially and originally good within God’s plan. They are his gifts to us. It is when we pervert these, abuse them, take them to extremes outside of His moral authority that they become idols and we become slaves to them.
I want to address four major American idols to which we are enslaved (I address five in my book Facing the Change). There are certainly more than these, and these four are not uniquely American. They are perversions of God’s good creation and God’s good gifts, and really nothing new to the human condition. These are important to recognize because they are currently dominating our society in both activity and discussion. They fill the air waves; they drive and reflect much of our economy, and dominate our public and private conversations. And, because postmodern values dominate our contemporary society there are fewer and fewer grounds by which to critique these idols. In other words, relativism is the default position, if not ideologically then certainly practically, for all these idols.
The Right to Have Rights: Radical individualism
The freedom we Americans live, fight, and die for is primarily expressed as individual rights. The “unalienable rights” endowed to us by our Creator – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – we have understood primarily as the rights of each person. Without a doubt, what these rights are and should be has been debated and violently fought over throughout our history. The Civil War was all about rights, including state rights and the right to be free from slavery. Women marched for the right to vote. Laws were passed against child labor so children would have the right to a safe and healthy childhood. The rights in our Bill of Rights are regularly challenged ideologically and judicially: What is allowed under the right to free speech? What constitutes freedom of assembly? What can the press say without falling into libel? What is freedom of religion really supposed to mean? Many Americans have stood up for and fought for the rights of others who were oppressed and marginalized. We may not have always agreed with the cause or the methods, but many historical figures are considered heroes because they stood for the rights of those who could not or would not speak for themselves: slaves, women, children, the poor, the homeless, migrant workers, immigrants, religious sects, the unborn, and . . . now some say, the Gay population.
However we may see them play out in daily life, we hold these individual rights dearly. But what happens when individual rights – “my rights” – become the criteria by which we judge all concepts of freedom and happiness? Individual rights then become radical individualism. On the one hand, we agree with John Kennedy that the “rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.” On the other hand, when individual rights are at the expense of good taste, morality, and the greater good of the American community, then rights – individual rights – have become an idol.
Now, the political and sociological tensions between individual rights and community rights, or what constitutes acceptable individual freedom according to the Constitution will not be solved here. Neither will the opinions on morality and good taste. My point is that one of our great ideals has become one of our great idols. The beauty and necessity of individual rights have turned too many of us toward selfishness. We want what we want regardless of others. We want what we want, because it is our right, no matter what the community may think. The societal and moral consequences are many. A few include:
- A litigious society where every real or perceived slight is grounds for a lawsuit. The goal is not to see that justice is actually accomplished, but to force the other side to settle before the case has to go to court.
- A society where no-fault divorce is the norm. If “my rights” are not met in this marriage or if this marriage is not making “me happy,” then I have a right to get out of it and be happy. Even Christians fall into this trap, for certainly, as I have heard many times in marital counseling, “God wouldn’t want me to be unhappy.”
- A society where the “right to choose” and “women’s reproductive rights” automatically overrule the right to life. In this case, as in many cases of radical individual rights, a significant and often unaddressed underlying cause is the belief in the right to convenience. That is, how many abortions are really not about the right to choose, but about the “right” not to have one’s life inconvenienced?
- A society that is willing to redefine traditional understandings of sexuality, gender identity, and marriage based on the “right” to exercise one’s sexuality. Of course, the issues of homosexuality and gay marriage are much broader and more complex than just demanding one’s rights. However, when the debate is white hot, whatever is said about morality, traditional marriage, and the causes of homosexuality is trumped in the eyes of its defenders by an appeal to “rights.” Note, even the issue – gay rights – is wrapped in the entire language of rights.
Bigger and Better: Materialism
The American Dream is driven by “rugged individualism” where anyone with enough inventiveness and hard work can be “better, richer, and happier.” Because we are an immigrant nation, and because a great number of people left poverty in Europe to find or make their riches here, socioeconomic upward mobility is weaved into our worldview as much as individual rights. In fact, such upward mobility is the expressed content of the American Dream. It is what we are all about; it is our right. Working hard to improve one’s lot in life is good. Working hard to make life better and easier for future generations is good. Working to improve one’s material status becomes an idol, however, when:
- It erodes marriage, family, and other relationships. There are times in any job or business when time with family and friends is cut short. When deadlines are due, when a special project is underway, during certain cycles, or in times of financial straits when overtime or an extra job is needed then relationships may be sacrificed short term. When that sacrifice becomes a self-imposed pattern because the alternative would be less profit or a smaller paycheck, then the idol of materialism has crept in. Certainly, many people of limited economic means have to work long hours and many days – they wouldn’t eat if they didn’t. That is not idolatry but rather survival. In that case the spouse and the children understand and often pull together; the sacrifice is even seen as something admirable. But when the attitude is “just a few dollars (or a few million) more and I will be satisfied,” the family can’t be fooled. They know they have taken a back seat.
- It leads to unethical practices. Perhaps the temptation is not to neglect the family, but to cut ethical and legal corners. To cheat an employer, an employee, a customer, or the government, no matter how little or how much, indicates that the bottom line has become an idol.
- It becomes an end rather than a means. None of this is to say that wealth is in and of itself sinful. Without a doubt the Bible warns against the dangers and enticements of riches (Ps. 49:6; Prov. 11:28; Matt. 19:23-24; Luke 8:14), but God can also bless with riches and wealth if he so chooses. In most cases, those whom God blesses see their wealth not as an end, but as a means to the end of helping people, supporting missionaries and ministries, and as a tool to expand God’s Kingdom.
- It deteriorates into consumerism. Consumerism is the American Dream gone wild and out of control. No longer does demand drive supply, but marketing creates a demand. More and more is produced, and the trick is to convince consumers that they need all these products in order to experience fulfillment, satisfaction, and to fit in with their peers. In one sense this is nothing new to the American scene; however, too many Americans are no longer purchasing out of need or even with their disposable income. We buy what we don’t need with money we don’t have, and eventually the debt load catches up. This is nothing short of idolatry, for the focus of attention and the spending of resources is far from God.
Next week: Part 2