During a recent social media discussion on homosexuality ensuing from Steve Chalke’s recent – and potentially game-changing – announcement of his support for marriage equality, I was confronted by one conservative member of the Presbyterian Church telling me that same-sex relationships are a “first commandment issue”.
The first commandment is the prohibition against idolatry, against worshipping strange gods. At first I was rather bemused by this – in what way are two people who love one another indulging in idolatry? People can, of course, love one another in such a narcissistic and selfish way that it amounts to worship of something other than the creator. I can’t for the life of me see how the danger is any greater for same-sex couples than it is for opposite-sex couples.
Oh no, scream outraged conservatives, this isn’t about love, this is about sex. And we can all agree, it’s definitely possible to worship sex as an idol and put in the place of God. But again, it’s difficult to see how this danger is any greater for gay people than it is for straights.
I simply can’t understand how it can be argued that being in a same-sex relationship amounts to idolatry, unless one tortures Scripture to the point where one strains at a gnat while swallowing a camel.
Idolatry is, however, a potential danger for all of us. Few, if any of us, can attempt to live a Christian life without at many points worshipping an object, a person, an idea or even a pastime more than we worship almighty God. The world abounds with idolatry on a national and global scale. How are the churches responding to this?
Northern Ireland has been consumed over the past few months with the issue of how many days the Union Flag should fly over Belfast City Hall. Regardless of one’s own personal take on the matter, this surely can only ever be one of second order importance to Christians – our primary citizenship must always be of the Kingdom of God. In Revelation 7, the great multitude worshipping God consists of people from all nations and tribes and languages. Our true citizenship is in a body which Scripture tells us will include us and them, Nationalists and Unionists, Fenians and Prods.
The leaders of the Protestant churches (and it is, pretty obviously, an issue where leadership by them rather their Roman counterparts is required) have been very quiet. The Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Dromore, in whose Diocese the worst of the violence has taken place, has put out a few statements ritually denouncing violence without attempting to address the underlying theological views that underpin it. The Presbyterian response has also amounted to low key and formulaic condemnations of the violence.
The teenagers and preteens rioting on the Albertbridge Road may not care about theology, but the politicians who have done most to exacerbate tensions almost universally proclaim themselves to be Christians. A theological response is required, and worship of flag – yes, many of the attitudes on display have transparently been vexillolatrous – is a first commandment issue. That it is so difficult to find a consensus within Northern Ireland Protestantism on this matter, and yet so easy to find a consensus on marriage equality, speaks volumes.
Another issue of transparent idol worship, one of greater significance and one which extends well beyond our shores, is that of the worship of Mammon. In Exodus, the Hebrews started worshipping a golden calf while Moses was up on Mount Horeb receiving the commandments. In our time, the golden calf has been replaced by the brass bull of Wall Street. The economic system of the West is increasingly dependent on the electronic transfer of money, not used for any purposeful investment function to the greater good of society, but instead used to gamble on future fluctuations of commodity prices or of the price of money itself.
Investment instruments have become ever more opaque and ever more distantly related to the provision of any real world good or commodity. This opacity has been used to enrich a tiny clique of global plutocrats at the expense of the many – from the young couple in Dungannon trapped in negative equity, to the young man in Dublin forced to emigrate to Canada to find work, to the young woman in Uganda who can no longer access healthcare for her children because the NGO which funded the local clinic has seen its investments wiped out. While the middle-class and middle-aged have largely seen their standard of living remain stable or even rise, the young and the poor, locally and globally, have suffered.
In the Republic a whole generation has quite literally had its future mortgaged to bail out bankers, builders and brokers who remain among the richest 0.1% of people on the planet. The more diversified British economy and the massive annual Westminster subvention of Stormont has ensured the pain has not been as intense north of the border.
But the as the UK heads for a triple-dip recession, things are getting worse. Under a British government that took office claiming that in a time of austerity “we’re all in this together”, money can be found to fund tax cuts for millionaires while the while poor and disabled face massive reductions in income due to changes to the benefits system. While money is borrowed to ensure that bankers don’t have to sell second homes in the Caribbean, older working-class couples will be forced to leave homes they have lived in and loved for decades.
I have yet to see a meaningful response from any of the churches in Ireland to the economic crisis. Economics is seen on this island as subject on which the Christian tradition has nothing to say. Why are the churches comfortable making political interventions on the subject of love when they aren’t on the subject of Mammon? Christ, silent in the Gospels on homosexuality, was unambiguous on money: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24) Writing at a time of economic failure and international political crisis almost 3,000 years ago, the prophet Amos continues to speak to us today – God is not interested in our obsession with purity and adherence to ritual, if our political system is based on the oppression of the poor and needy.
Why are the churches so afraid to amplify his voice in the Ireland of 2013? Which are the really important ‘first commandment issues’ facing our society today?