Lenten Reflection

Ed White, a friend from my home church, shares a lenten reflection on Five Favorite Gods in America (after the jump) …

Reflections: Lent 2010
by Ed White
Five Favorite Gods In America
“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.
Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments … lest when you have eaten and are full , and have built goodly houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna … that he might humble you and test you to do you good in the end.
Beware lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” You shall remember the lord your god for it is he who gives you the power to get wealth, that he may confirm the covenant that he swore to your fathers…
If you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the Lord makes to perish before you, so shall you perish because you would not obey the voice of ghe Lord your God.”
Deuteronomy 8: 7 – 20
Everyone has a god. Your god is whatever is at the center of your life. Your god shapes and forms your life and determines your decisions. For some alcohol is their god, for others drugs, for others gambling. Perhaps the down home way to put it is that your god is whatever you are addicted to.
Some of us have more than one god. It’s possible to worship several gods at once. One can be addicted to alcohol, to greed and to lust simultaneously. False gods are more than willing to share the task of destroying the human soul.
There are at least five gods that are extremely popular in this country:
1. There is the god of unrestrained greed. This is the god of Bernie Madoff who cheated his investors out of more than 50 billion dollars. It’s the god of Kenneth Lay, Geoffrey Skilling and Arthur Fastow who destroyed the Enron corporation. It’s the god of politicians who sell their souls to special interests in order to raise the millions of dollars that they need to get elected. It’s the god of those false prophets who proclaim the so called “prosperity gospel”, namely that following Jesus is the way to get rich.
Which of the original disciples got rich by following Jesus?
Didn’t Jesus specifically instruct his followers not to lay up treasures for themselves on earth.
Didn’t Jesus tell the rich young man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor in order to follow him?
Didn’t Jesus say that whoever seeks their life will lose it?
Many are saying that corporate greed resulted in the present Great Recession. Greed is the god of Wall Street which provides multi million dollar bonuses for the rich few, even when they lead us into a financial crisis.
The god of free market capitalism thrives on the basis of three illusions:
Illusion A: That a corporation is or should be treated like a person. A corporation is not a person. Persons have hearts and souls and corporations do not. Corporations exist to make money. During the first decade of the twenty first century many corporations demonstrated their patriotism by abandoning the United States and their more than seven million American workers and moving to other countries in order to take advantage of cheap labor and avoid paying taxes.
Illusion B. The “Trickle Down Theory”: that when the rich get richer, everyone else benefits too. “A rising tide lifts all boats”. What nonsense! The rising tide may have increased the profits for corporations who left our country but it certainly did not lift the boats of all those workers who lost their jobs and often their homes as well. Wall street may have prospered but main street suffered.
Illusion C. Adam Smith’s myth of the “Invisible Hand” which claims that the common good will best be achieved if all of us concentrate on pursuing our own selfish interests. Alan Greenspan preached this for years but now in the wake of the Great Recession acknowledges that he was wrong.
Actually there is an invisible hand but it’s not Adam Smith’s. When corporate greed resulted in the Crash of 1929 God’s invisible hand taught us a lesson in humility. We learned that lesson during the Great Depression and experienced a new solidarity in suffering . We learned that what mattered was “US” and “The Future”. Solidarity produced legislation like Social Security and Medicare which were for all of us.
But we have short memories. We forget so quickly. Certainly as a society we have forgotten the God who speaks in Deuteronomy Chapter 8. Greed has once again created a society where all that matters is “ME” and “NOW” So once again the invisible hand of God is teaching us a lesson in humility.
Do we believe like Wall Street that greed is good? Or do we believe that enough is enough?
Worshippers of the god of greed pay a heavy price. David Walker, the former comptroller general of the United States has written a book entitled COMEBACK AMERICA: TURNING THE COUNTRY AROUND AND RESTORING FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY. Whereas Americans have been agonizing over the twelve trillion dollar debt that was generated in the first decade of the twenty first century, Walker maintains that our actual deficit is FIFTY SIX TRILLION DOLLARS! As a nation we are careening towards bankruptcy.
2. Then there is the god of Violence and Death. Countless Americans worship this god. Seven years ago our nation initiated a war of aggression against the nation of Iraq. Since “9/11” almost 5,000 young Americans have died in that war and we rightly mourn their loss. We have no idea how many Iraqi people have died. Apparently we decided that Iraqi lives don’t count so we never bothered to count them.
But what amazes me is this. Since 9/11/2001, over 200,000 Americans have been killed by other Americans right here in this country, mostly with hand guns! No one seems to even notice. The god of violence and death is incredibly popular in this country. Just watch television and go to the movies.
Notice what’s happening in our prisons. Thirty five years ago we had about 300,000 people in our prisons. Today the figure is 2,300,000. That’s an eight fold increase in just 35 years. If the prison population continues to increase at this rate then thirty five years from now there will be twenty million Americans in prison.
How is this happening? Jim Wallis gives us a clue in his book Recovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street: “Mt heart broke on March 2009 when I saw the unfolding of a “kids for cash” scandal in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, as two juvenile court justices were arrested for accepting $2.6 million in payoffs over the course of six years in exchange for locking up kids. How did this work? PA Child Care LLC and its sister company Western PA Child Care LLC are privately run prisons that these youth were being sent to. If juvenile crime rates decreased in Pennsylvania, or youth were spending less time in detention facilities, the bottom line of these companies would be hurt; but the more kids going to prison, the higher the profits. So now the market has found a way to make locking up our nation’s children a profit generator.” (p 165)
3. There is the god of Lust. This is the god of Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina who went hiking on the Appalachian Trail and discovered a prostitute from Latin America. It’s the god of Senator Ensign from Nevada who kept his mistress in a house on C street in Washington DC which is supposed to house “Christian” politicians. Lust is the god of former governor Elliot Spitzer of New York and of course former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.
We often bemoan the fact that Republicans and Democrats cannot cooperate across party lines. Adultery seems to be the one activity that they enthusiastically engage in on a fully bipartisan basis.
It’s not just the politicians. I first took up golf at the age of seventy. I used to joke that I took up golf so that I could grow up to be like Tiger Woods. I can’t use that line any more. It’s not funny.
4. There is the god of Fear which has an intense grip on our society. If you scratch beneath the surface of this outwardly powerful society you will find deep fear. For example I have to fly frequently in my work which means that when I go to the airport I have to “go through security”. Because I have a pacemaker I cannot go through the machine and instead I am “patted down” by a guard to make sure I don’t have any explosives on my body. I don’t know why they call it “going through security”. The whole procedure reveals our extreme insecurity. We are a nation in the grip of a god called fear.
5. There is the god of Hate. If you want a steady diet of hate, just listen to Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck on the Fox channel. On the left one can mention Keith Olbermann. Or listen to Pat Robertson who at one time wanted to drop a nuclear bomb on the State Department and who recently claimed that the impoverished people of Haiti suffered the earthquake because 200 years ago they made a pact with the devil. This happens to simply not be true but that doesn’t matter to Pat Robertson. He has to have someone to Hate.
I believe we are living out the scenario portrayed in Deuteronomy Chapter 8. We are doing the very thing that God warned the Hebrews not to do. God has given us this promised land and God has blessed us with incredible wealth. Ever since the end of World War II we in America have been on an escalator of affluence.
But what has been the effect on us of God’s prodigious generosity? Has it caused us to be profoundly grateful and in turn to become more and more generous? It seems to me that the opposite has happened. As God warned we have become ever more greedy and mean spirited. As we live in fine houses with all our silver and gold we have become puffed up in our hearts and said to ourselves, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth”. And we have forgotten God and gone after other gods.
Have you ever noticed how politicians always end their speeches by instructing God to bless America. It seems a bit presumptuous to be giving orders to Almighty God. But when have you heard a politician acknowledge how prodigiously generous God has been to us? When has a politician ended a speech by saying, “Hey folks, let’s get down on our knees right now and thank God for such immense generosity”?
So we have forgotten God and gone after other gods.
And the God of the Bible warns us, “If you go after other Gods you will surely perish.”
I believe we are witnessing the decline and fall of this once great nation. We are committing corporate suicide. We need to learn that empires always turn out to be evil… because empires always violate the first and greatest commandment, namely, that there is only room for one God in this world and that is the God who created us.
Empires always try to take God’s place and run God’s world. ..
The ancient Pharaohs of Egypt thought that they were gods. The pyramids were built to house them in their pretension to eternal life. We read in the book of exodus of the contest between Pharaoh and God which results in the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery.
At the time of Jesus, the Roman Emperors thought that they were gods. Altars were scattered throughout the empire so that good Roman citizens could worship the emperor by burning incense. Jesus ended on a Cross because he insisted that the emperor was not God.
All through history empires have risen and tried to claim God’s throne. There was Charlemagne… There was Napoleon… There was Joseph Stalin who murdered twenty million of his own citizens in the effort to play god. There was Adolph Hitler whose Third Reich was supposed to rule for a thousand years. It lasted less than five.
Now it has been America’s turn to play god.
In the days of my youth American imperial aspirations were limited. Before World War II we were a nation of small towns and villages with millions of small family farms. Our primary desire was to be left alone by the rest of the world. There was a powerful inclination toward “isolationism”. We resisted getting into World War II until we were directly attacked by Japan.
But now our wealth and power have instilled in us a terrible arrogance. We know better than God what is best for Iraq… or Afghanistan… We believe that our power and the might of our hand have gotten us this wealth… and so we initiated a war of aggression against Iraq because we coveted their immense oil resources. But pride goeth before the Fall! I have a vivid memory of George W. Bush strutting on the deck of an aircraft carrier under a huge sign saying MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. At that time I think fewer than 200 soldiers had died in the Iraq invasion. If the mission was accomplished why have almost 5000 more soldiers died in Iraq since?
We never paid for the Iraq war. Our young men and women sacrificed their lives but most of us sacrificed nothing. We simply added the cost of the war to the national debt. Now we are slowly awakening to the reality that we have mortgaged the future of our own children and grandchildren. We are passing on to them a twelve trillion or perhaps more accurately a fifty six trillion dollar debt.
Pride goeth before the fall. The moral and spiritual character of the nation evaporates as we worship the false gods of greed and violence and lust.
“Well Ed this is a pretty hopeless picture that you are painting. I thought sermons were supposed to give us hope. Where’s the hope???”
Martin Luther taught us that our hope must be in Christ alone. That means that we must not place our hope in politicians or generals or celebrities or anyone other than Jesus. When push comes to shove, Jesus is the only one we can ultimately trust. Only Jesus is willing to die for us.
If you ask me what we should do in this situation I would offer the following suggestion. I would encourage you to do what many of our great great grandparents used to do regularly during the great depression in the 1930’s. When they awoke in the morning they would kneel down beside their bed and pray. They would have a conversation with God to begin the day. Then at night they would do the same thing before going to sleep. This relationship with God shaped and formed their lives , their decisions about life, and their behavior.
Since most of us probably haven’t been doing this and might be at a loss as to what to say to God let me suggest a prayer for you to begin with. It’s taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and it goes like this:
“Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against your holy laws,
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.
But thou, O Lord have mercy upon us,
spare thou those who confess their faults,
restore thou those who are penitent,
according to your promises declared unto us in Jesus Christ our Lord;
and grant O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may hereafter live a godly, righteous and sober life to the glory of your holy name. Amen”
It’s called repentance.
It’s what John the Baptist and Jesus and Peter and Paul are all about… repentance!
And it’s about more than just being sorry for our sins.
It’s about changing direction.
It’s about turning our back on the false gods like greed and violence in order to actually follow Jesus who alone is the source of our hope.
Cheers and God bless, Ed White