The economic meltdown – and the idolatry of security
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By Soong-Chan Rah

November 2008
RECENTLY at North Park Theological Seminary, we conducted our annual Scripture Symposium. This year’s topic was ‘The Idolatry of Security.’ The topic was picked years ahead of time, so the organizers had no idea how appropriate it would be in light of the economic meltdown of the past several weeks. I offer a few observations on the topic.

One of the presenters, Daniel Carroll of Denver Seminary, referred to the proper exegesis of Amos 7:7-8:

“The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord asked me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ ‘A plumb line,’ I replied. Then the Lord said, ‘Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer.’”

As Prof. Carroll explains: “The key term there is anak, usually translated ‘plumb line.’ Recent studies, however, make clear that a more correct rendering is ‘tin.’ This translation conveys the self-deceiving ideology of Israel’s defences.

“From a distance, the walls of their fortresses might appear to be made of iron, a strong metal; surely, they could resist attack. In reality, however, they are but tin. Perhaps the meaning of the vision is that Yahweh has reached down and ripped out a piece of this fragile wall and thrown it in the midst of his people, as if to say, ‘This is nothing!’”

No trust in God

Amos 7:7-8 reveals the fallen capacity of the people of God.  We have the fallen capacity to trust in everything and anything but God. But God has the capacity to reveal our walls to be nothing more than tin.

God reveals our idols, even the idol of security in all its forms: national security, economic security, military security, social security, securities and exchanges, and so forth.

Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that God and God alone is directly responsible for the current economic crisis. Nor am I indulging in the common mistake of confusing God’s words to the kingdom of Israel as words intended for 21st century secular United States.  

But can this economic crisis help reveal the idolatry of security to American Christians? Can the tearing down of the tin wall allow the light to shine upon Christians who have placed their security in securities?

Theologian Walter Wink writes about how mediating narratives are necessary to prop up the powers that be. In American society, the mediating narrative of materialism and capitalism provides an undergirding that sustains our way of life.

I would raise the challenge that American Christianity operates under the narrative of materialism and capitalism, that there are times when American Christians are more enamored with materialistic and capitalistic values above biblical values ­– in how we shop for churches, how we look to church to meet our needs, how we value success, and in the type of books which push us towards a materialistic worldview.

Captivity to materialism

But what happens when the economic security and materialistic value system we have trusted more than God begins to collapse? What happens when this wall is revealed to be nothing more than tin? At that moment, will we do all it takes to restore the wall of tin, or will we willingly embrace God’s revelation to examine the American church’s captivity to materialism and consumerism?

In his paper at the symposium, theologian and ethicist Scott Bader-Saye contrasted the perception of security in two different gardens found in the Bible: the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam responds to the possibility of insecurity with fear, and an attempt to trap and control God’s blessing. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus responds to the possibility of insecurity with faithful obedience, yielding his blessed position for the sake of the cross.

A common thread in the two gardens is that there is an imminent state of emergency. In a state of emergency, the temptation is to change the rules we live by. Fear of the unknown, fear of loss, and fear of insecurity can lead to the shutting down of the “ordinary processes of deliberation, reflection and conversation in favor of quick and decisive measures,” stated Bader-Saye.

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In some sense, the idolatry of security leads to the loss of freedom and democracy. National crisis leads to national panic and insecurity, which can yield unprecedented power to the government without civilian/citizen oversight.

Case in point: the suspension of many democratic principles in order to fight the war on terror. In a state of emergency, those who idolize security will do everything possible to preserve their way of life. Concessions will be given and drastic measures taken to help our nation out of the crisis.

The stark difference in the two gardens is in the response of Adam versus the response of Jesus. Adam responds in crisis mode, seeking to preserve his own life and preserve his own assets – even to the point of hiding from judgment. Jesus simply states: “Thy will be done.” Jesus seeks the blessing and salvation of others – even at the cost of his own life.

In this state of emergency, the temptation will be to preserve our own security at the expense of others – and to uncritically accept hasty solutions that benefit some but not others.

Concern for the marginalized

If Christians idolize security more than Christ alone, then we will also fall into the trap of doing everything to preserve our own security rather than caring for the poor among us. However, I believe the call for the Christian is to be even more concerned for the very least of these, the marginalized in our society, rather than to protect our own assets.

Wall Street will not be the first to feel the pain of this crisis. While the parachute may not be golden, it’s still a parachute ­– something the poor among us do not have at all. Brokers and bankers have enough of a nest egg that they won’t be out on the street anytime soon. But there are many low income and middle class families which are feeling the pain. They have already lost homes and jobs. Already marginalized, the margin for error just got a lot smaller.

I am not stating a position on the Wall Street bailout. I’m asking Christians to consider what values are being exhibited when we discuss and reflect on the bailout. Is our first priority caring for the poor among us, or the preservation of our right to worship at the foot of the idol of economic security?

I close with a citation from Bader-Saye’s paper:

“And so we are left with two gardens and two choices in the face of fear. One is to hide and sacrifice the other for our own safety, making security the highest good.

“The other is to embrace a cruciform ethic of risk, losing our lives to find them – extending blessing in the face of curse because we trust that our flourishing comes not from controlling or consuming the good, but from extending it.”

Soong-Chan Rah is assistant professor of evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. This article was originally published by God’s Politics (www.godspolitics.com), the blog of Jim Wallis and Sojourners (www.sojo.net).

November 2008