Today, we invite you to explore the idol worship of white supremacy in the United States with the help of William Stringfellow; engage Catholic social thought from below with the help of leftist and secular movements, instead of from a narrow period of Catholic history; and embody the anti-idolatrous spirit of Reverend Smash the Patriarchy, the Charis Community, and the movement against Confederate statues.
Moses cut two stone tablets like the first,
and early the next morning he went up Mount Sinai
as YHWH had commanded, taking along the two stone tablets.
YHWH descended in a cloud and stood with Moses.
Thus the Most High passed before Moses and proclaimed,
“I AM. I AM, a God of tenderness and compassion,
slow to anger and rich in kindness and faithfulness.”
Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship, saying,
“If I have found favor with you, YHWH, come along in our company.
This is indeed a stiff-necked people;
yet pardon our wickedness and sins
and receive us as your own.”
Response: Be praised and extolled forever.
May You be praised, O God of our ancestors, / praised and extolled forever.
Blessed be Your glorious and holy Name, / praised and extolled forever.
R: Be praised and extolled forever.
May You be blessed / in the Temple of Your sacred glory.
Exalted and glorified / above all else forever.
R: Be praised and extolled forever.
Blessed are you on Your throne during Your reign.
Praised and exalted above all else forever.
R: Be praised and extolled forever.
Blessed, You fathomer of the great depths,
Seated in judgment on the cherubim, / praised and glorified above all forever.
R: Be praised and extolled forever.
Blessed are you in heaven, / exalted and glorified above all forever.
R: Be praised and glorified forever.
And now, sisters and brothers, I must say goodbye.
Mend your ways. Encourage one another.
Live in harmony and peace,
and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
All the holy ones send greetings to you.
The grace of our Savior Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the friendship of the Holy Spirit be
with you all!
“Yes, God so loved the world
as to give the Only Begotten One,
that whoever believes may not die
but have eternal life.
God sent the Only Begotten into the world
not to condemn the world,
but that through the Only Begotten
the world may be saved.
Whoever believes in the Only Begotten avoids judgment,
but whoever does not believe is judged already
for not believing in the name
of the Only Begotten of God.”
The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved.
The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.
In William Stringfellow’s 1969 book, Imposters of God, he examines the concept of idolatry and common forms it tends to take. Though idolatry is evident at all times and across all cultures, he says, we often associate it with ancient pagan ritual or biblical passages that hold little relevance today. Few consider it to be a current practice in modern, “civilized” societies in the present day, yet Stringfellow argues that we don’t need a direct command from King Nebuchadnezzar to bow before statues in order to identify them in our midst.
Stringfellow identifies a wide array of potential idols: religion, ancestors, children, power, money, fame, the body, sex, work, security, charitable acts, and the nation, among others, but the most relevant for today’s conversation is race. There are instances of entire groups engaging in idolatry together, he says, and “the notorious instance of such mass idolatry in the Western nations today is American white supremacy” (39).
He defines idols as imposters of God. People invest in certain ideas and objects, “that which renders the existence of the idolater morally significant, ultimately worthwhile,” he argues (6). Those engaged in idolatry, then, believe their virtue and value depend upon their devotion to the idol rather than God. He argues that this is in direct contrast to accepting God’s gift of grace, conveyed through the life of Christ. To reject this justification in the name of something else is to engage in idolatry.
But if the word choice “imposter of God” implies a certain kind of agency on behalf of the idol, that is no accident. Stringfellow’s theology holds that demons and idols are active forces in the world. Building on Galatians, which claims that services rendered to idols are “works of the flesh,” he concludes that idolatry is “infected by death,” ultimately an option against life (8-10). This concept of death is broad, including both physical and spiritual death, but also all that degrades others or moves them closer to death. Whatever form idolatry takes, then, “death is that which, under many disguises, idolaters really worship” (8). It is not merely a sin against God, as a result, but a crime against other people.
Reading this in 2021, one such form is in the statues celebrating the Confederacy. Insofar as the unambiguously defining characteristic of that culture was slavery, the statues are public celebrations of white mastery over Black people. As seen in the reaction to efforts to remove the statues, huge swaths of white people have tethered their meaning, value, and self-understanding to the notion of white exaltation honored in these statues. They match both the overt understanding of idolatry one sees in the statues that Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego refuse to bow before in our reading from Daniel, but also the more subtle way that Stringfellow names.
Stringfellow meant for the idea of idolatry to carry historical relevance. He said it wasn’t just found in biblical tales but is “empirically verified in every moment and in every circumstance in our existence… when a ghetto burns or a rice field is defoliated; wherever people practice idolatry and take imposters for God” (9). With this contemporary example of Confederate statues in mind, Stringfellow’s connection between idols and death takes on an immediate import. It’s really fear of death that drives idolatry, as people idolize that which can help stave off death. These statues are then an attempt at immortality for the Confederacy, for ongoing white power on the back of stolen Black labor. And the fanatical grasping at the white icons of enslavement represents a lashing out against the death of the large cult that has feasted on death-dealing for centuries.
Yet the point of identifying idols is not to point fingers, Stringfellow insists, however cathartic that may feel. It is not to tear down, insult, or decry, but to construct a more Godly and humane world, to aid the public conscience. “Christians should be busy exposing idolatry in all its forms, restoring things and ideas to their true uses and functions in right relationship to one another and to human purposes” (10). To name these statues as idols serving death, then, becomes as important as the witness of Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego.
John A. Coleman, S.J., the longtime professor of Social Values at Loyola Marymount University, wrote an essay on “The Future of Catholic Social Thought” in the 2007 Modern Catholic Social Teaching that speaks to how we might navigate teachings from above and below regarding the idolatry of Confederate statues. Because Catholic social thought grew from responses to issues in the late 1800s and early 1900s – the industrial revolution and the rise of democratic liberal states – it must develop into the contemporary context in the 21st century if it is to remain relevant. Coleman draws on the sociologist Gordon Zahn’s concept of “Catholic social thought from below,” positing that Catholicism’s main contributions to thought and practice came from movements of people rather than Vatican or episcopal documents (documents issued by church officials, but not the Vatican). What we call Catholic social teaching is not an agent of change but rather a product of it, in this view.
Coleman uses the phrase social Catholicism to incorporate both the encyclicals and episcopal documents usually referred to as “Catholic social teaching” and the tradition of Catholic social thought (in figures like Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier) and spiritual movements (like the Catholic Worker). He draws on Gaudium et spes, a Vatican II document, to argue this precedent already exists in the ‘official’ teachings themselves, quoting Pope John XXIII:
“With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire people of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word.” Coleman takes this to mean that teachings from on high “cannot be overly privileged against unofficial forms of social Catholicism” (534).
Turning now to the issue of racist idolatry, even though the U.S. bishops voted not to condemn Confederate imagery (and ultimately opted not to even mention the symbol of slavery) in their letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts” the church can still find teachings from within to animate antiracist action while the officials fail to speak well. Further, this broader conception of Catholic thought and witness owes much to its dialogues with both Marxists and liberalist thinkers (531). That is, part of the Catholic social tradition is being influenced and, yes, changed by secular and leftist movements.
In a moment when Catholic social teaching from on high has little of use to say about white supremacy and the idolatry of the Confederacy, we can find within the history of our own social Catholicism the precedent for learning from (rather than merely preaching to) the anarchists and antifascists leading the movement against the presence of the statues. And perhaps – perhaps – they can hear the voices of Indigenous people tearing down statues of Catholics who committed genocide against them. With Coleman’s framework we can see that the precedent is already in the Catholic tradition.
Imagine, a tweak or two to the passage from Daniel. No need for an exalted ruler, call him Nebuchadnezzar or Jefferson Davis or Woodrow Wilson. No, instead the nobility, governors, counselors, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the provincial officials themselves order the great statues built. “Let us exalt the generals who led the cause for slavery, who were in charge of killing others in order for the white race to keep kidnapping, torturing, murdering, raping, commodifying, and stealing labor from Black people so whites could reap the benefits! Erect a statue for Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and set it upon a park in view of everyone! Set it outside the courts to let the people know who justice serves in this land!”
The statues arise, stone memorials to the nation’s most brutal criminals. Decades pass. The faces, the names, the busts become natural in the eyes of a new generation, architectural mainstays. No great voice commands anyone to bow before them. No great voice needs to. The idolatry passes unspoken, unconscious, unspectacular – from grandpappies and schoolbooks and even churches – to children. The idol is not, never has been, the general, but the false cause. The god behind the rock and stone was always the idea of white power, the master race. The idolatry had become by now codified, voluntary, an unnoticed soma where manna should rain.
Pause, consider: Can you see the Shadrachs, Meschachs, and Abednegos that have always refused to recognize this idol? Can you hear what they say? Who do they worship with their raised fists of resistance?
Reverend Smash, short for Reverend Smash the Patriarchy, otherwise known as Brittany Caine-Conley, is a pastor for the United Church of Christ. When a coalition of Republicans, neo-Nazis, the KKK, neo-Confederates, and the alt-right coalesced in the largest white supremacist gathering in recent U.S. history ostensibly to defend the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Charlottesville, North Carolina, Smash knew what to do. She would neither join the overt idolatry of white power nor the covert idolatry of what she called “the religion of American status quo and civility” which provides security for the overt form, policing any rebellions against naked worship against white supremacy. She wrote in her essay, “Jesus Was a Threat to Civility” that pointing to this or that racist individual is unhelpful, as “there are many, many white Christians, conservative, moderate, and liberal, who claim they are worshiping Jesus, but are actually worshiping American status quo and civility.”
When most clergy in town preached do-nothingism in the face of white terrorism that would eventually engage in human sacrifice to their god – rest in iconoclastic peace and power, Heather Heyer – Smash organized an interfaith response that would confront both overt and covert idolatry of white power at once. Working alongside local Anarchist People of Color, Black Lives Matter, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and other activists, Smash led Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and Christians to interrupt the Unite the Right riot in 2017, eventually putting her body in the way of their liturgy. Like her biblical ancestors, she proclaimed in deed, “we want you to know, false rulers, that we will not serve your ivory gods or worship your statues.”
Reverend Smash was a part of Charlottesville’s Charis community. Founded by Grace Aheron in 2015, Charis started as a community of young people “living together under the shared values of simplicity, prayer, and hospitality” on eight acres of an Episcopal church’s property. They grew a medicinal garden, tended the land, raised chickens, and organized life around a rhythm of prayer. Meeting local needs, Charis began acting as an organizing site in the face of the “Summer of Hate” in Charlottesville in 2017, becoming a hub of anti-white supremacist activity, a space where people vulnerable to alt-right violence could find refuge, and a place where community could join hands, sing, and feast while white terrorism loomed large. They formed a house church and led a “Lament, Repent, and Repair” series of liturgies after the Unite the Right riot, while continuing prayer services during the week. As a caravan of asylum seekers came through Central America, they raised funds for the release of four women to receive hospitality in their home, recognizing the increased danger they faced in ICE cages as trans. Members have now spread across the country and new ones continue hosting people in the Charlottesville woods.
Grace Aheron, like Smash and others in Charis, is another modern Meshach, walking through the fire of faith by refusing to bow before the false gods who come in the name of death, proclaiming with her acts the God of Life.
Image description: Standing amid green trees in the background and green hedges is a statue of Robert E. Lee riding on top of a horse. On the base of the statue is written in red spray paint: BLACK LIVES MATTER. A Black person with their back to the camera stands watering the hedges underneath the statue.