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When Religion Becomes Idolatry: Part 2

The idolatry of shaping God in our own image has been the root of much evil in the world.

It has perpetuated systems of oppression. And racism. And hate. It has led to genocide. And apartheid. And rape.

Tell me that the church’s hands are clean from the blood of even the past century, and I will tell you that you are complicit in upholding the kind of bloodguilt the church lives with every single day.

And this is one of the most dangerous sins of all: apathy.

I have often pondered over Gandhi’s confession, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians.” Yet its historical significance did not fully dawn on me until recently.

I was reading Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain,” when the following description of the then tragically misled solidarity of the Church of England pierced me to the heart.

“It is a class religion, the cult of a special society and group, not even of the whole nation, but of the ruling minority in a nation … The thing that holds them together is the powerful attraction of their own social tradition, and the stubborn tenacity with which they cling to certain social standards and customs, more or less for their own sake,” Merton observed.

“Its strength is not in anything supernatural, but in the strong social and racial instincts which bind the members of this caste together; and the English cling to their Church the way they cling to their King and to their schools: because of a big, vague, sweet complex of subjective dispositions,” he further lamented.

While this is the type of blunt critique that perhaps only a Trappist monk could safely deliver, it still gives one pause that this religious solidarity was the very force that drove colonialism.

It was the worldview that sought to “tame the Orient” and “convert the heathen.” It produced the privileged social class that E.M. Forster and Tagore decried, and against which Gandhi so famously protested.

And its characteristic ethos is painfully familiar.

In his seminal work, “The Prophetic Imagination,” theologian Walter Brueggemann further reflects on the subtle political motivations that shape our perceptions of the divine.

He aptly observes, “For those who regulate and benefit from the order of the day a truly free God is not necessary, desirable or perhaps even possible.”

If we have managed to successfully chain God to our own bandwagon, or at the very least, to put him into a box, then he is surely not God. He must be an idol.

In light of this, I cannot help but ask: When we are confronted by the tragedies of this region and the suffering of the world, do we fall back on easy answers born of our cultural/political norms and our socialization?

Do we attempt to put a Band-Aid on the gushing wound of the world’s brokenness so that we can rest assured at night that this is “the will of God” and that we have “done our part”?

Do we slam our doors in the faces of the refugee and the destitute, or turn a blind eye, justifying our actions with religious truisms that serve to maintain the status quo? Do we sacrifice the other on the altar of self, claiming that God is on our side?

Yes, my identity is in Christ. But who is Christ? And who am I? And who is my neighbor?

These are the questions that I will spend the rest of my life grappling with. And the moment I think I’ve found all the answers, I have slipped into an easy idolatry fashioned in no other image than my own.

The first other we do violence against is always God.

Suzie Lahoud serves with a Lebanese, faith-based nongovernmental organization that has been providing relief assistance in response to the Syrian Crisis since 2011. She is also currently enrolled in the Institute of Middle East Studies’ master of religion in Middle Eastern and North African studies program. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.