Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Rhetorical Excess - Religious Persecution and Idolatry

Rhetorical flourishes are like any other form of emphasis.  They work well when used occasionally and accurately, and not when used constantly and diffusely.

In her book, The Myth of Persecution, Dr. Moss complains that the religious right in the U.S. is too quick to decry leftist politics as religious persecution.  Claiming that "Christianity is under attack" when Christians suffer any minor harm overshadows the very serious persecution of Christians in places like Africa (the "Voice of the Martyrs" website, which I mention for information only, not endorsement, has many details).

The same thing is true when call everything "idolatry."  An idol is a manufactured likeness or image of something.  It can be a painted likeness, an engraved likeness, a carved likeness, a molten likeness, etc.  Worshiping even the true God using idols is strictly forbidden.  Moreover, through metonymy we refer to the worship of false gods as "idolatry," since they are normally worshiped in this way.

But not every sin is literally "idolatry."  The X-Box game console that your son hasn't stopped playing for the past ten years is not literally an idol.  It's sinful that he hasn't bothered even to try to go get a job, and it's wrong for him to be so obsessed with something so trivial.  The sports team that your brother can't get enough of is not an "idol."  American Idol features living human beings, made in the image of God, not idols.

Not every form of devotion is religious devotion.  While the American Idol contestants are honored in some sense, they are not honored religiously.  Even if someone skips church to go watch football, he is not engaging in a religious observance of football.  

His church skipping is a violation of the 4th commandment (Remember the Sabbath Day) not the 2nd commandment (Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image ...).  The X-Box aficionado is probably violating the eighth commandment through indolence and sloth.  When we call a Muslim an "idolater," we should feel how odd the claim sounds, since Islam is not closely associated with idols.

There is a place for rhetorical flourishes.  The Scriptures actually do this with idolatry in a couple of places.
1 Samuel 15:23For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king.
Samuel is condemning Saul.  Saul tried to eliminate witchcraft and idolatry from the land.  Then Saul turned around and was stubborn and rebelled against God.  So, Samuel drew a comparison between rebellion and witchcraft and between stubbornness and idolatry.

The point here is to emphasize the heinousness of rebellion and stubbornness, by tying them rhetorically to the heinous and well-recognized sins of witchcraft and idolatry.
Colossians 3:4-7 When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: for which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: in the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them.
Here again, the point of referring to covetousness as "idolatry" is to emphasize its heinousness.  It's not saying that the 10th commandment is the 2nd commandment (or the 1st commandment).  It's saying that covetousness is a serious sin.

These are legitimate rhetorical uses of the term "idolatry."  Yet we can risk watering down the word "idolatry" for using it gratuitously for every sin.  Anything that leads us into sin becomes an "idol" in this rhetorical soup, and thus every sin is "idolatry," the serving of the thing (the "idol") that leads one to sin.

At which point people lose sight of both the very real problem of making images supposedly of God (2nd commandment) and of the very real problem of actually worshiping false gods (1st commandment).  By constantly associating less heinous sins with the more heinous sins, we actually can lose sight of the heinousness of the heinous sins.

Christians in the U.S. are not suffering under Diocletian persecution, even if Christians lack full religious freedom, or even if they are being forced to endure laws that bear decreasing resemblance to the laws given to Old Testament Israel in terms of the ideals of Justice.

While some of Dr. Moss' concerns are probably oversensitive, she makes a good point about the need to avoid rhetorical flourishes.  If we call everything "persecution," what will we call it when we are forced to pay a "Christian tax" in order to be Christians?  What will we call it when our churches are required to meet secretly and in groups of 20 or fewer?


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