Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for July 24th, 2009

An astrologer was arrested in Sri Lanka last month. His crime? Predicting that the President’s popularity would decline and that he would soon be ousted from power. It didn’t help that the astrologer had connections with the opposition political party. Many politicians and their acolytes are buried neck-high in superstition; and despite modern institutions such as a constitution, a parliament and a professional bureaucracy, political decisions are often controlled by feudal notions of patronage, beliefs about “auspicious” periods, and practices involving “charms” and other occult protective powers.

The astrologer was subsequently released when produced before a magistrate. But the incident well revealed, ad absurdum, the paranoia and deep-seated insecurity that lies behind the arrogant masks of would-be autocrats everywhere. Also the way that the police cease to be a law-enforcement agency and become instead the private employees of such men. But the deeper question which it raised is rarely addressed in contemporary political discussions, either in South Asia or Western Europe. Can democracy, social responsibility and respect for the rule of law flourish in societies when the underlying cultural worldviews are made immune to criticism, either in the name of “multicultural tolerance” or because they are regarded as irrelevant to politics?

The Hebrew Bible tells the story of the creator God whose character is revealed, and purposes for the world put into effect, though his calling of ancient Israel. This God, known by his covenant name Yahweh (Exod. 3 14), was no tribal deity but the unrivalled lord of all nations and active in the histories of all peoples (e.g. Amos 9:7). Israel was called to bear witness to Yahweh’s unique character and purposes by worshiping him alone, a worship that involved seeking justice for the weak, the vulnerable and the forgotten, and rejecting the oppressive political and economic structures that marked its neighbours.

While the gods of their neighbours and the great empires of the day (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon) were identified with powerful males- kings, warriors, priests- the God of Israel identified himself with the “widow, the orphan and the stranger”. Thus, when the people of Israel turned their backs on Yahweh, or worshiped Yahweh as if he were just another fertility god like the Canaanite Baal, they also turned their backs on the poor. Idolatry and social injustice are two sides of the same coin. It was true then, and it is true today.

Idolatry involves a contractual approach to the deity: in return for the appropriate sacrifices, the gods are expected to give health, prosperity, military victory, and protection from evil forces.  Worship is thus about finding the right technique to obtain the end desired. The final stage in idol formation involves a role-reversal: the idol now controls the life of its worshipers, re-shaping them in its own image.

The worship of that which is inferior to us can only de-humanize us. It turns us into objects rather than persons. The prophets developed a rich language of mockery and satire directed at the false gods of the nations, proclaiming their impotence. They also taunted the arrogance of nations and cities that imagined themselves to be immortal “gods”.

It is here that the biblical language of demonology is relevant for modern politics. For, whether we take “demons” to refer to invisible sentient beings or, mythologically, as the spiritual ethos of deformed social, cultural and political structures, not only are individuals “possessed” by such malignant powers but so are entire societies. When human beings give to any aspect of God’s creation (e.g., sexuality, family) or to the works of their hands (e.g science, the nation-state, technology) the worship that is due to the Creator alone, they call up invisible forces that eventually dominate them. When what is meant to be a servant is treated as a master, it quickly becomes a tyrant. Having surrendered our hearts, individually and collectively, to idols, we become enslaved by demons. Such demons always demand human sacrifices. So idolatry leads to the sacrifice of the weak and apparently “useless” members of society, to the destruction of the earth’s eco-systems, and the abdication of all responsibility for each other and the non-human creation.

So idolatry is not found exclusively in what are called “traditional cultures” and “non-Christian” religions today. If the Hindu pantheon bears similarities with the amoral or immoral gods of Mesopotamia and Canaan, so does the “health and wealth” cult pervasive in many churches. Jesus repeatedly warned his disciples against the allure of wealth, which he personified as a rival god Mammon. The most powerful idols are not physical objects but mental concepts, including our concepts of God. When “God” is co-opted to bless our private or national projects, when pastors compete for bigger and richer churches, or when worship is evaluated by “how it makes me feel”, rather than how we are transformed into Christ-like service to the world, we are practicing idolatry.

Those who worship false gods, in order to secure power (whether religious or secular), live in a constant climate of suspicion, insecurity and fear. Their greatest enemies are within themselves. The only effective antidote to fear is a vision of the One who having all power at his command, humbled himself, embracing the role of a lowly servant to unmask and dethrone the powers that have ravaged his world.


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