We Embody What We Worship
And you do not have to be religious to worship something
When you walk into a church, what is the first thing you see? I am not talking about the breezeway or the coffee spot or the table with all the pamphlets and signup sheets for various events and classes.
Your walk into the sanctuary and what do you see? Traditionally, you will see an aisle. Rows of pews. And at the front and center, a cross. In a Catholic or Orthodox church, that cross will also have Jesus hanging on it. In Protestant churches, that cross will be empty. Growing up, I was told that was because we worshipped a living savior who was no longer on the cross. The implication was obvious: the Jesus of the Catholics was a dead one. He was still hanging on the cross to this day because he had never truly risen.
Ironically enough, I heard more about the resurrection from my encounters with Catholics than I did within my protestant upbringing, despite all the talk about the empty cross.
It also seemed like, in some ways, my Catholic friends acted a bit more like their Jesus was alive than my Protestant ones.
I believe this is because we tend to take on the characteristics of that which we worship.
Worship runs throughout human history and culture. Every culture and generation worships something. Earlier in human evolution, this took the form of religions and rituals aimed at appeasing the gods, who always seemed to be angry about something. The gods seemed to always be fighting and killing, both each other and also human beings. One of the big stories that echo throughout nearly all human cultures is a flood narrative. The names change, but the main plot point is basically the same: God is angry with humanity and decides to wipe them all out, except for the one guy and his family who were trying to do things right.
It is no wonder, then, that people have been so violent. They were only following the example of their gods. It is as if people, despite consistently claiming to believe that the gods will come down and intervene for us miraculously, actually think that we have to do that work for them.
There is a story in the Old Testament about the prophet Elijah. He sees the people abandoning the god they were supposed to be worshipping, being Israelites, and instead turning to another one. So he goes to the king and has him assemble all 450 prophets that god has and he tells them it is time to prove who the real god is. Since they have 450 prophets and he is the only prophet of his god, it should be a sinch to tell who the real one is. He even lets them go first in calling on the gods to show up.
So the prophets of Baal sacrifice a bull and begin their ritual that would call the god down. They dance and shout around the altar for half the day. When nothing happens, Elijah begins to mock them.
“Call a little louder — he is a god, after all. Maybe he’s off meditating somewhere or other, or maybe he’s gotten involved in a project, or maybe he’s on vacation. You don’t suppose he’s overslept, do you, and needs to be waked up?” (1 Kings 18)
I think Elija’s mockery, though, is how a lot of us think of God. They are not going to intervene, so we need to do it ourselves. “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” is what Ghandi said. And author Jim Palmer often says something to the effect that we should not be asking why God allows bad things to happen and instead, be asking why we allow bad things to happen.
And when you look at the history of religions, you see a common theme: people acting on behalf of the gods to make things happen and then cloaking it in the language of “God’s will”.
Maybe that is how it is supposed to work. Maybe God is not going to come back and do all of the work for us. Maybe if we want the world to be different or better we have to do the work of making it so.
According to the story, before Jesus was arrested and crucified, he told his followers,
My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 14:2–3)
And most of the story of Jesus centers on him telling people how to build the kingdom of God, which, according to him, is right here. Jesus spent all that time telling us that god wanted us to do the work. He wanted us to embody the god we were claiming to worship.
Or maybe it was more subversive than that. Maybe, underlying all the commands and all the stories is the subtle line that we are going to put in motion the will of the god that we claim to worship.
And all of us worship something.
This is why we see so much evil in our world. The god we worship is absent or nonexistent, and so we have replaced them with something else. Power, control, guns.
America really loves these things, especially the guns. Guns were designed to kill, and as time has gone on and attitudes have shifted from protecting the right to having them to protecting the firearms themselves, we also see the shift in our behavior towards them. They have become sacred.
They hold a place of prominence now that the founders likely did not have in mind.
So when our god kills innocent children in our schools, it is only natural that we put our hands up and step back. Because who are we to stand in the way of the will of God? We pretend to be concerned for a moment, after all the death of the innocent makes us a bit queasy, as I am sure the sight of slaughtering baby animals on an altar to a god in ancient times likely did, but it is a price we have to be willing to pay. It is a sacrifice we have to be willing to make in order to appease our god.
So it makes perfect sense that there would be resistance to banning or taking away our god.
This is not about the guns, though. It is about our attitudes.
As Christianity and religious affiliation decline, people are going to cling harder to different things. They are going to cling more tightly to things that make them feel safe in the torrent of change all around them. Some are going to cling to guns. Some are going to cling to ideologies. Some will cling to their bigotries. Some will cling to the hope that we are moving in the right direction.
But the certain thing here is that all of us will begin to embody the things that we cling to. We will begin to act on behalf of our god. Because we know that our god cannot act on its own. A gun cannot shoot itself. Our ideologies and our bigotries will not spread themselves. We have to do it for them.
Throughout the Old Testament, there are stories about the Israelites fighting bloody battles. They are “told” by God, or someone says that God told them, that they needed to wipe out an entire nation and leave no survivors. This happens more than once. And more than once, in the heat of the battle, the Israelites have compassion on someone or animals or children. Whatever the case, they end up leaving some of those people they were supposed to kill alive. All kinds of practical reasons are given, but I think deep down, compassion won the day.
Because they were a people who had been saved from a life of slavery by a big god who told them go and settle a land that they were going to give them and there were laws about how to treat people who lived in the land but were not ethnically the same as them or who came from other lands to live with them. They, at some level, knew that killing innocent children or raping women was not the way their god portrayed themself.
It was not the god that they worshipped.
And so they chose acts of disobedience against the false god.
And, as the stories go, the angry god would curse them. The Israelites were cursed a lot, so it is a wonder they even still exist today. If the angry god was real, he would have done to them what he did to the people back near the beginning and just wiped them out and started over.
The point is, we know what the real gods are. We know what the real gods look like. We know what it means to be a man and we know what toxic masculinity is and the dangers it poses. We know how dangerous the god of the gun can be. We know what love looks like.
We all, religious or not, worship something. We all give our lives and sacrifice our time and resources for something and in defense of something. And we all, inevitably, embody that which we worship.