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No One Said Destroying Our Idols Would Be Easy

It didn’t take long for the Israelites to start asking for idols once Moses went up to Mount Sinai. According to Exodus 32, they were pestering Aaron for something tangible to worship instead of this mysterious, invisible deity with a name that could not be pronounced. Aaron obliged, melting down golden trinkets and fashioning a calf. It worked. “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt,” the Israelites told each other.

Curiously, Aaron tells the Israelites that they’ll celebrate the new idol with “a festival to the LORD.” The Hebrew word used for “Lord” here is indeed Yahweh, the same God they’d been praising and following since they left Egypt. It seems like Aaron was trying to have it both ways, giving the Israelites something real and tangible they could worship while technically maintaining faith in the God of Israel.

We tend to think of idols as something tactile — usually some sort of metal figure — that stands in for God. But the Bible has a more nuanced view when it urges us away from idols. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature,” Paul urges in Colossians 3:5. “Sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” Here, idolatry is something more subtle than a wooden carving or a golden calf. It’s something internal.

Paul is writing to a Christian church, so one would imagine they wouldn’t need any more encouragement to take their idols and “put them to death.” Unless, of course, idols aren’t necessarily something you actively turn to after deliberately rejecting God. Instead, idols can be subtle. They can swap places with God in your heart when you’re not looking. You still say you’re honoring “the Lord.” You’re still going to church. Your language hasn’t changed. But deep down, you’ve put your faith in something besides God. And make no mistake, your new god is demanding sacrifice and obedience. That’s what idols do.

It’s a subtle trick of the heart, but there is a simple test for figuring out if you’re a victim of it. Ask yourself how you’d feel if you didn’t have it anymore. If the reaction is fear, panic or defensiveness, that should be a red flag.

As of this writing, the death toll in Uvalde, Texas stands at 21 — 19 little kids and two teachers. An 18-year-old man critically shot his grandmother and then went on a rampage in Robb Elementary School before he was killed by police. The enormity of the tragedy is too much to contemplate. The sheer senselessness of it is only compounded by the knowledge that, in this country, this is not unusual. Statistics about how the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, was 2022’s deadliest didn’t last ten days.

In the U.S., if a person between the ages of 0 and 19 dies, a gun is the most likely the cause. Many of these deaths are suicides — children in homes with guns in them are four times more likely to die by suicide than children in homes without guns. It is difficult to overstate just how much of an outlier this is on the global stage. 87 percent of all children 14 and under killed by guns in developed countries are from the U.S. There have been 288 school shootings in the U.S. since 2009, far more than any other developed nation. Our closest competition is Mexico, where there have been eight. It is a national embarrassment.

The math here is stunning but also distancing. Percentages and statistics can obscure the parents gathered outside a police station, waiting to find out if their child survived or not; the box of favorite breakfast cereal that will go uneaten; the little bed that will never again be unmade.

And yet, the very suggestion that such stunning and heart-wrenching realities might require some sort of action on our part is met with some of the fiercest opposition our cultural and political environment can muster. The thought of tightening access to these instruments of death is literally treated as unhinged radicalism, hatred of America, reactionary emotionalism or fascist sympathizing. People who call for gun control laws like closing background check loopholes, banning assault weapons and limiting magazine capacities are told that they are useless idiots trying to take all guns away and rolling out a welcome mat for future despots.

There may be reasonable debate on what gun control should look like. But when common sense pleas to bring America’s death rate by a gun a little more in line with the rest of the world’s are met with bad faith cries of “politicizing” the issue or “taking all guns” straw men, then reasonable debate isn’t even on the table. There is something else going on here.

What that something else might be becomes a little bit clearer when you start hearing alternative suggestions to gun law reform. The death toll hadn’t even been fully tallied yesterday before cable news pundits and politicians started suggesting arming teachers, stationing armed guards at the doors to every school and even crafting fantastical booby traps in the halls.

Setting aside the fact that, in this case, there were armed police on the scene who failed to stop the gunman before he entered Robb Elementary, these ideas all rely on meeting violence with violence. Warfare is so baked into our culture we cannot imagine a solution that does not invoke it. This is why, at this point, we must ask: Has violence become an idol?

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It’s a serious charge, but what more proof do we need? Violence is lauded in our entertainment, enshrined in our national myth, praised by our politicians and funded by hundreds of billions of our tax dollars. Violence is our language, the only tool in our box, the only answer to any question. The idea that a violent problem might have a non-violent solution strikes us as absurd, fanciful thinking. If this isn’t idolatry, what is? If this is not “living by the sword,” as Jesus put it, what would living by the sword look like? We trust in violence. We beg for violence to protect us. “Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen,” God tells the Israelites in Judges 10. “Let them save you when you are in trouble!”

If violence is an idol, then it demands sacrifice, and it is one we Americans have paid with the blood of our most vulnerable. And we’ll pay it again and again, because the thirst of our false god can never be sated.

And like the Israelites, we can still invoke the name of God even as we turn to an idol. Rep. Brian Babin told Newsmax, “The United States of America has always had guns. It’s our history. We were built on the Judeo-Christian foundation and with guns.” When guns are baptized like this, how can we tell exactly which part is God and which is the gun? We’re still saying we trust in God’s protection. But all available evidence suggests the actual object of our unwavering devotion is cold steel.

When Moses came down from Sinai and saw the golden calf his brother had made, he had the novel idea to melt it down again and spread the dust in the drinking water as punishment. It’s unpleasant business, but no one ever said casting down idols would be easy. False gods don’t go without a fight. We can either wrestle them off their thrones or continue to offer them our own human sacrifices, praying against hope every day that the person on today’s altar is not our child, our teacher, our husband, our own.

I’m not a rube. I do not believe that what happened at Robb Elementary will move our politicians to action. Nor do I believe that the relatively meager gun control measures considered up for debate would fully curb gun violence in this country, even if they did pass. But the fact that there is no collective will to take even the smallest practical step suggests the rot goes deep indeed. We offer up our prayers, but for what? What are we praying for, specifically? We dare not take action against our idols. They have fearsome power over us. And until that power is ground into powder and spread into the water, they will continue to exact their terrible demands.

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