When Israel created and worshipped the golden calf, it was likely in large part due to Egyptian influence. The calf itself was probably fashioned after the Egyptian bull god Apis, but the Israelites were borrowing more than an image. They were borrowing the mindset of empire.
Empire is seductive, it is powerful, and it is ordered. It is respectable and imperial. Israel had subtly become inoculated with it during their 400-some years in slavery in the Egyptian empire. The golden calf shows that you can take the people out of Egypt, but you can’t take the Egypt out of the people.
So what is our golden calf in 21st-century America? In what ways have we drunk the Kool-aid of contemporary empire?
Shane Claiborne, in his landmark book The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, points the finger at American patriotism as a major stumbling block for Christians. Not that Christians should not love their country. But patriotism, he contends, clouds our priorities and distorts our ability to offer Christ our exclusive allegiance in many ways. For instance, here’s what Claiborne has to say about 9/11 and the Iraq war:
I saw a banner hanging next to city hall in downtown Philadelphia that read, “Kill them all, and let God sort them out.” A bumper sticker read, “God will judge evildoers; we just have to get them to him.” I saw a T-shirt on a soldier that said, “US Air Force… we don’t die; we just go to hell to regroup.” Others were less dramatic- red, white, and blue billboards saying, “God bless our troops.” “God Bless America” became a marketing strategy. One store hung an ad in their window that said, “God bless America–$1 burgers.” Patriotism was everywhere, including in our altars and church buildings. In the aftermath of September 11th, most Christian bookstores had a section with books on the event, calendars, devotionals, buttons, all decorated in the colors of America, draped in stars and stripes, and sprinkled with golden eagles.
This burst of nationalism reveals the deep longing we all have for community, a natural thirst for intimacy… September 11th shattered the self-sufficient, autonomous individual, and we saw a country of broken fragile people who longed for community- for people to cry with, be angry with, to suffer with. People did not want to be alone in their sorrow, rage, and fear.
But what happened after September 11th broke my heart. Conservative Christians rallies around the drums of war. Liberal Christian took to the streets. The cross was smothered by the flag and trampled under the feet of angry protesters. The church community was lost, so the many hungry seekers found community in the civic religion of American patriotism. People were hurting and crying out for healing, for salvation in the best sense of the word, as in the salve with which you dress a wound. A people longing for a savior placed their faith in the fragile hands of human logic and military strength, which have always let us down. They have always fallen short of the glory of God.
…The tragedy of the church’s reaction to September 11th is not that we rallied around the families in New York and D.C. but that our love simply reflected the borders and allegiances of the world. We mourned the deaths of each soldier, as we should, but we did not feel the same anger and pain for each Iraqi death, or for the folks abused in the Abu Ghraib prison incident. We got farther and farther from Jesus’ vision, which extends beyond our rational love and the boundaries we have established. There is no doubt that we must mourn those lives on September 11th. We must mourn the lives of the soldiers. But with the same passion and outrage, we must mourn the lives of every Iraqi who is lost. They are just as precious, no more, no less. In our rebirth, every life lost in Iraq is just as tragic as a life lost in New York or D.C. And the lives of the thirty thousand children who die of starvation each day is like six September 11ths every single day, a silent tsunami that happens every week.
As Christians, our citizenship is in heaven, not in America or any earthly state. We are residents of the kingdom of God. I pray that we can begin to collectively repent of the ways that America’s empire mentality subtly colors our understanding of the gospel, and that by the Holy Spirit, those scales will begin to fall from our eyes.