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Idolatry and Loyalty


As a child, I definitely thought of idolatry as an old-fashioned sin. There just weren’t many requirements or even low-level peer pressure requests for worshipping other gods in the rural counties of West Virginia where I grew up. We did take a trip to a Hare Krishna temple when I was in middle school and it was quite a revelation to see that there were still people on earth who made offerings, burned incense, and treated golden statues with reverence.

Still, the commandment to have no other gods nor to reverence any images of competitive powers remains arcane to most of us in (what we like to think of as) “modern” societies. Yet the biblical story of the “fiery furnace” remains compelling. And I think we still have so much learn from it.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were asked by the monarch they worked for to bow down to a golden image. This was a multi-cultural empire with many “peoples, nations, languages,” according to the biblical/ historical record. Worship of the image that represented the state was the one way that everyone could be brought together. We can see the insecurity of Nebuchadnezzar throughout the book of Daniel, wanting to make sure everyone came together to support his throne and the empire. The book of Daniel places this test of the loyalty of the three Hebrew administrators immediately after the interpretation of the dream about the four kingdoms which are smashed by a fifth one. Nebuchadnezzar knows that Daniel is predicting the end of his empire. He doesn’t know by which means it will happen, but getting everyone to enact loyalty is important. Pre-modern states were held together by these rituals of loyalty and ceremonies of collective identity.

Pre-modern people also knew how to worship. We moderns have very few things we consider sacred. We have to “practice” worshipping all the time. As a teacher/historian, I find the most challenging bridge for my students and me to cross when studying the past is the notion of how seriously people before the modern era took the sacred. They thought there was such a thing as bowing before mystery. They had sacred symbols that held them together—some that seem more “political” to us, and some that we regard as “religious.” Most often, as in the Babylonian Empire, they were blended.

Modern nation-states are also held together through ceremonies and enactments of loyalty. We have downgraded the role of the religious sacred in our lives during the past 200 years. But the political sacred symbols are alive and well.  “Civil Religion” is the phrase used to describe the movement from the primacy of the religious sacred to the emphasis on the sacred state. In our world, where we assume the public sphere can/should be secular or open to religious diversity, we have transferred the traditional actions of sacred loyalty to our political units. This has its connections in our vows/pledges, items such as flags/uniforms, and in our commitments regarding life and death.

No longer is it considered appropriate to kill other people for the sake of religion, but blood shed for the state is considered sacred. Those who do the killing on behalf of the state are held up as the most loyal of citizens. Blood sacrifice is still required of those who most completely associate themselves with the national identity. The rest of us are also required to act in certain ways towards our state symbols such as songs, pledges, and flags—actions which have us saying things or acting in ways that commit us to high levels of loyalty. In fact, “worshipful” activity such as silence, bodily decorum, and submission are practiced by some of us primarily in the context of loyalty to government. We may have a “low church” worship decorum, but high standards for how we behave in the face of state symbols. In fact, the moral outrage toward people who don’t respect the symbols of the state is frequently accompanied by more physical and verbal threats than is than any criticism of those who don’t display respect toward our God in acts/contexts of worship.

My own parents taught us to sit quietly in church and to learn proper sacred behavior by saying “you don’t have to be actually worshipping God if you don’t want to, but you still need to learn how to behave in public settings. Some day you may have a chance to see the president of the United States and you should know how to behave respectfully.” It was a good argument (especially when combined with other examples of public behavior.) But the assumption was that respectful behavior toward the state was more compelling than that towards our Creator. I’m not saying that national loyalty or respect for the flag or for those who have died in wars on behalf of the state is idolatry. I am saying that we do need to consistently check our own loyalty hierarchies to make sure that we aren’t taking our political loyalties more seriously than the bonds of baptism.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego weren’t just Babylonian citizens—they were government officials. One could imagine that Nebuchadnezzar was well within his rights to request that government servants demonstrate their absolute loyalty to the state. We can sympathize with the fact that he had so much diversity and was trying to integrate so many different cultures into running the state (inclusion, not ethnic purity), that he needed such ceremonies from time to time to unify people around the goals of the state. The golden image smacks of the one in his dream—I was traditionally taught that he made it all of gold so as to communicate that his state would last forever, not being replaced by some sort of “silver” empire. So, this wasn’t a new “god”—it was the state they were being told to give loyalty to.

And these men, who were holding important posts within the government, and who no doubt wanted the king to know they had some sort of loyalty to him, refused to signal that loyalty in the way their society required. They could have said “this bowing down is just showing respect for the government of the land, demonstrating I’m not going to rebel against it and will enforce its laws.” After all, they had accepted government posts and were working for the good of the state.

But their refusal to “go along” with symbols even while they were loyal fits in well with the modus operandi of these men. They had refused to eat meat offered to idols, while finding a way to cooperate in other requests made of them. They had found ways to serve their state and taken positions while constantly signaling what was most important. They seemed to know where the line was for them between what laws/loyalties they were asked to obey/enact that allowed that allowed them to be seen first of all as servants of YHWH and which ones would signal worship of the state.

Perhaps this was really straightforward for them and perhaps it wasn’t. Maybe there were Israelites/Hebrews who were outraged at their very participation in the government of the empire. They clearly had to lean on their consciences. The fact that they did have lines they refused to cross at the risk of their reputations, status, and even lives, demonstrates they had no doubt about their hierarchy of loyalties.

In the modern world, where no loyalty/identity is permitted to trump that of the authority of and loyalty to one’s nation-state, we also may disagree about where those lines are. But we are part of the Body of Christ, where our most significant identity does and should cross national lines. And in the Adventist church around the world, we can find resources to help us engage in worshipful activity towards our God in ways that subordinate the actions/ceremonies we give to our state to those of our Creator. Never underestimate the outrage of those who want to guarantee loyalty toward the state when there’s any question we might have commitments that outrank citizenship identity. But we have Worthies from the past and present who can help us keep the commandments of God and put the powers of this world in their rightful (subordinate) place.

What elements or actions in your life help you worship God? What activities/rituals signal your ultimate loyalties? How can we cultivate the sacred /worship in our lives in ways that orient us to our Creator rather than the powers of this earth?

Lisa Clark Diller teaches early modern world history at Southern Adventist University.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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