Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

Dear American Christians, Do Not Worship the Idol of 'Safety.'

One of the major reasons I have remained a committed Christian in my adult life is because of the Biblical notion of 'idolatry.' It just makes so much sense to me.

At the risk of over-simplifying a massive theological/anthropological concept, the Biblical writers convey to us something like the following narrative: Humans were made to reflect God's image in the world. That's our purpose. However, doing this faithfully requires us to live with God, truly. In other words, to actually trust the God who made us to guide us through this lifelong experience of "image-reflecting." You could call this ongoing process "having a relationship with God," though that phrase can be so popularly over-used as to empty it of meaning.

In any case, this living-and-walking-daily-in-trust-of-our-Maker is far from easy, namely because it keeps us humble (because we must consistently admit God's power in the world eclipses our own) and vulnerable (because living this way, especially in the midst of a world that largely lives in direct contrast to it, confronts us with a risky, and possibly painful, lack of control) and patient (because, as mentioned already, it is a lifelong pattern that is never simply "solved" or "mastered"). 

Did you catch the reasons this type of life is hard? Humility. Vulnerability. Patience.

Life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.
— Thomas Merton

This is far from an exhaustive list, but exercising these virtues while we live in and among other humans is consistently difficult. To put it simply, it is very tempting to build a life in which we do not need to practice any of them. The idea of a life in which we can exercise powerful control without accountability (contra humility), protect ourselves from any meaningful risks (contra vulnerability), and see change and transformation occur on our own timelines (contra patience) is powerfully seductive. A life of unquestioned power and control, without risk? Sign me up, please!

Hopefully you see the cocktail that is brewing here. The Biblical authors (especially the prophets of old) saw this with clarity. Rather than living in daily, humble, risk-taking trust in God, we feel the constant pull to scrap that whole idea and find a replacement for God that ideally gives us license to carry out our lives without those uncomfortable virtues mentioned above. You might even say we are tempted to "exchange the glory of the immortal God" for something else.* But despite our moral gymnastics and maneuvering, something will still drive our existence, our telos, even if it's simply the notion that "I want to have as much leisure time as possible, so I'll work my tail off to get to retirement ASAP." Whatever it is, that "thing" will then tell us when we have finally arrived, finally achieved, and have finally fulfilled our purpose. Something drives us. Something tells us when we are "ok." We can't wriggle our way out of this reality. We just can't. 

The problem crops up when that "thing" isn't God. And this process, of swapping a "God-life" for a life that's easily controlled on our terms is well-attested to in Christian scriptures. It's called "idolatry," and while ancient cultures physically constructed idols out of metals and wood, sacrificing to them for strong harvests and fertility, we undergo the same exact process today through different cultural means.

You see, I believe such an idol has a stranglehold in my country right now. It's an idol that promises a life free of harm, and it's particularly seductive because it clothes itself in moralistic notions of protecting our children and our neighbors. This idol is Safety or Security. And, furthermore, if we imagine this idol as a ravenous lion, our current president is tossing juicy, raw steaks down it's throat.

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As has already been widely reported, Donald Trump threw the media, the transportation system, and the political establishment into a firestorm when he signed an Executive Order over the weekend, banning immigration from 7 Muslim-majority cultures in the Middle East. This action should not surprise us too much, as he was consistently vocal about restricting such immigration throughout his toxic campaign. And to be sure, while I have significant concerns about the politics of this order, as well as the likely backlash from it, my primary concern in this piece is specifically how Christians in America should respond.

So, if you don't call yourself a "Christian," then I encourage you to read what follows in a spirit of openness to the "Jesus Way." If you are a Christian, this might be challenging to you.

Allow me to be blunt. If the idea of a possible attack in our country (despite the repeated, verifiable, and overwhelming unlikelihood that refugees will ever be the source of such an attack) makes it impossible for you to extend compassion to our Middle Eastern neighbors who are fleeing war-torn destruction (many times with their own children in tow), then I humbly suggest that something other than God is enthroned in your life and heart.

Maybe, though, you are compassionate. Maybe you begrudgingly agree that many, if not all, refugees are probably innocent, and that you even feel bad for them and their situation. But if you still dig in your heels and believe they need to find somewhere else to go - after all, we need to be "America first" for a while - then I challenge you to recover the vision of a God who is no respecter of nations, who made it explicitly clear that our neighbor (whom we are to love without conditions) is not restricted to our own tribe.**

Finally, on a more sympathetic note, maybe you are simply scared, worried about the state of the world, and you are concerned for your family and friends, particularly those in large cities, who could be on the receiving end of a devastating terrorist attack. Maybe your heart is torn, but you feel that this imperfect immigration ban is still the best we can do in a bad situation. I get it. I really do, and I would be dishonest to say that I never have the same thoughts. But I would still challenge you on 2 counts:

1) I would argue that your notion of "neighbor" is still too small (see my note below on the Good Samaritan). We Christians cannot prioritize the safety of "our own" over anyone in need. I recognize that this flies in the face of the nationalist agenda of the current administration. So be it.

2) The impulse of self-protection is blatantly anti-Christ. Strong words, I know. But before your hackles go up, consider the radical notion of dying for your enemies. Consider the radical notion of an innocent man literally laying down his life for others, precisely while they were opposed to him.

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If we are to be shaped by such a life, and I believe we are, then we must take this seriously. It is simply impossible to use the logic of Jesus to legitimize the action taken by our president last weekend. Perhaps you can legitimize it on purely political logic, and that's fine with me. In fact, if you are not a Christian, and you earnestly believe this is best for our country, I don't have a quarrel with you (though I still remain unconvinced, even on political grounds), but the minute you call yourself a Jesus-person, Caesar must be replaced.

You see, Safety does indeed extend a promise (you can life a comfortable, risk-free existence) but smuggles alongside it a deadly condition (you must only ignore the real suffering of other image-bearing humans). We make this pact at our peril, and at the expense of our humanity.

Safety must be named for what it is: an idol, a false god. It must be unmasked. Because we cannot serve two gods, for surely one of them will master us.***

 

*See Romans chapter 1

**See the oft-quoted parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. It is crucial to note that Jesus told this parable explicitly in response to a man trying to test the boundaries of the question, "Who then is my neighbor?" It also should be noted that the Samaritans were despised and distrusted by the Jewish people, and the idea of a Samaritan as the hero of a story would have been remarkably distasteful.

**See Matthew 6.24