Recently I (Veronica) traveled to Memphis to visit Church Health, an incredible faith-based charitable clinic providing a holistic “model for healthy living” for their community. I was inspired and encouraged. Despite the bickering and pettiness we see in the news media, real people on the ground are working tirelessly for those who are marginalized. Quality care, compassion, and kindness still exist!
I decided to drive instead of fly because I have been wanting to read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk for months and I knew driving would provide 12 hours of audio listening. So I set off for Memphis with a double shot Vanilla latte and this brilliant book on trauma.
The book, which is too complex and beautiful to summarize here, was hard to listen to. I think I cringed most of the way through. It hit on what many of us would call our worst nightmares: war stories of veterans from combat, child sexual abuse and incest, domestic violence, abandonment… the very worst of what can happen to humanity. The book outlines the very deep costs of these experiences, particularly on the physical body, and how important trauma-informed recovery is in today’s world given the sad prevalence of the issues mentioned above. It was sobering to say the least and as someone who myself struggles with panic attacks and is a highly empathetic person, I wondered if it was even healthy for me to read the book at all. Yet I persisted because, the people my clinic serves have lived through intense trauma. The least I can do is understand it.
On returning from Memphis the next morning I was having my quiet time with the Lord and while trauma was still on my heart, I felt compelled to study idolatry. But I wondered, what in the world do these two topics have to do with each other? Isn’t idolatry more about graven images and bowing down (physically) to other gods? Isn’t it about shrines and astrology and horoscopes? Isn’t that what God hates? Isn’t it just a matter of avoiding golden calves and Asherah poles and anything with the name Ba’al?
But when I looked into this matter further I learned that in ancient times there were actually a lot of similarities between the philosophy, writings, and worship of Yahweh and Ba’al. In fact, many of the poems used to describe Ba’al are strikingly similar to poems King David penned about God. But there were two distinct things that set Ba’al worship apart:
1) the use of ritual sex (sometimes very public and demeaning) to appease or cause the god to act
2) child sacrifice for the purpose of bringing prosperity to the family or people
I was stunned by the fact that the things God hates about idolatry are the very same things that have been proven to cause significant, damaging trauma to humans. Sexual trauma and childhood trauma or abuse are some of the greatest tragedies in our society today. In many parts of scripture God says of these practices (particularly child sacrifice) “it never even entered my mind” (Jeremiah 19:5). This is not what God intended.
Could it be that what God really hated about idol worship has less to do with bowing down to bronze images or giving gifts to statues and more to do with how we treat one another? Could it be that the real issue inherent in these “detestable” practices was abuse of innocent people? This suddenly made more sense to me. Of course a God of love, redemption, and familial inheritance would despise confusing abuse with worship. God doesn’t require us to harm each other or sacrifice our children to appease him or to get our prayers answered. Rather, he gives of himself for those who hate him. He is the epitome of kindness, not a God who endorses brutality. No wonder God fought so hard and sometimes so extremely to keep his people in line and on point- the stakes were high and he simply could not allow us to hurt one another out of our misguided ideas about God.
Can we as Christians stop giving ourselves a pass because we don’t worship images of precious metals and instead fight harder to protect the vulnerable from exploitation? Can we call out things done in the name of God that aren’t holy and instead cause trauma? Can we look ourselves in the mirror and ask the hard questions about our relationships? What a kind God that his great concern with “right worship” was that we don’t abuse each other.
We don’t get a pass on idolatry until the vulnerable are no longer abused and exploited. This work is the work of true worship.