I am part of a Benedictine community that regularly prays the words of the book of Psalms. It’s a monastic practice that goes back centuries, to the earliest monastic communities in the desert, where the desert Abbas and Ammas would pray through the entire book of Psalms each day. Going back even further than that, the Psalms were the original prayer book or song book of the Jewish people.
One of the beautiful aspects of praying through the Psalms is that they provide you with plentiful imagery for the many varieties of human experience. You name an emotion or a life experience, and there’s probably at least a line or two from a psalm that would fit just perfectly. The Psalms speak of great joy and praise for God (“May all the peoples praise you”) and also of great pain and agony (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) Lately, as the United States of America has gone through an attempted coup following the unsuccessful re-election bid by our president, the Psalms have hit me in a different way than usual. Phrases that once didn’t seem to apply to me or my situation (mostly about enemies and seeking vengeance from God) have suddenly stuck in my throat as I feel the pain and anger the ancient Israelites must have felt when they witnessed their homeland being ransacked by invading forces. Suddenly, from my very privileged position in this society, I was aware of how it feels to be practically helpless, as I watched the citadel of freedom be overrun by a violent mob.
Another thing that praying the Psalms has done is make me acutely aware of the idols all around me. The Psalms do not speak well of idols, such as in Psalm 115:
4 Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
5 They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
6 They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
7 They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
they make no sound in their throats.
8 Those who make them are like them;
so are all who trust in them.
Typically, praying those verses is simply an exercise in being faithful to the discipline of praying all the Psalms. As our community’s Amma once pointed out, while we may not feel the words of every psalm apply to us, they certainly apply to how someone else is feeling at the moment, and we are praying the words for them. While that is a profound way of looking at the praying of the Psalms, it’s only been in the last few days that the words of Psalm 115 have hit me in a very real way. In speaking of idols, the psalmist wrote of lumps of clay, wood, or metal that had been fashioned into the false gods of the tribes that surrounded Israel. Today, our idols aren’t necessarily made out of those materials, but they do take on many forms. Idolatry can take the form of a flag that trumpets the name of one political figure above all the values of our democratic society. An idol may be a belief that one race or one religion are the only moral forces in a society. An idol may even be believing things that simply aren’t true simply because they fit a specific political agenda. We’ve seen a lot of idolatry in our country lately, and it’s time that we call it out.
I’m not going to “both sides” this issue, either. There is a time and a place to have a healthy critique of the idols from my own political and religious tribe, but right now is neither the time nor the place. Right now, we all need to be calling out the idols of those who would destroy everything we hold dear. So, I condemn the idols of Trumpism–the flags, the posters, the social media posts, and all the conspiracy theories about our government. I condemn the idols of whiteness and white supremacy, and the systemic racism that pervades culture and society in America. I condemn the idol of “America First,” and even the idol of the American flag–or at least our worship of it as something more than it is, which is a symbol of our country which belongs to us all. I condemn the idolatry that believes that people from certain countries or religions are inherently dangerous or suspicious. I condemn the idolatry that says that people who are identified as LGBTQ+ are not human beings, and I condemn the idolatry that says that Black, Latinx, Indigenous, People of Color are second class citizens. I condemn the idol of the president as being the “most powerful man in the world,” and “the leader of the free world.” I condemn the idolatry of America as being a bastion of democracy that can do no wrong. I condemn the militarization of the police, and of society in general, and the idol of never-ending war.
There are many more idols I could condemn–and as I said, I’ll get around to my own idols eventually–but now is the time to proclaim loudly and clearly that the idols of white supremacy, American exceptionalism, and Trumpism are all anathema to true worship of God. To put any person, symbol, or political agenda above God is to create an idol, and it must stop now. We must not tolerate it any longer. This is the battle for the hearts and minds of our generation, to free our country from the idolatries that have bound us and held us captive for too long.
So, when you see a friend carrying that Trump flag, or flashing the white power symbols, or talking about “America First,” I invite you to gently (but firmly) remind them that what they are doing is not showing pride in their country, but participating in idolatry and the worship of false gods. And if they don’t listen, just remind them of what the One True God does to idolaters in the Bible. And if they still don’t listen, then they were never really your friend to begin with.