Idols and Tyranny

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One of the reasons we have trouble dealing realistically with evil in this world is that we have drawn mental cartoons of the evil beforehand. When someone says “tyranny,” we think of goose-stepping armies, missile parades, and funny looking helmets. But then, when something genuinely bad happens in our own lives, and we see it with our own eyes, because it doesn’t match the cartoon we treat it as an anomaly, a one-off occurrence . . . a thing we don’t have a category for. But we need to have a category for something this common.

I am a child of the Cold War, and my first glimpse of an actual communist country taught me this lesson. Don’t fight the caricature—fight the real thing. In the early seventies the submarine I was on was pulling into Guantanamo Bay, and when I came topside I was astonished and taken aback because this commie land was emerald green. Bright green. But all my childhood images of communist countries resembled something like a grainy black and white newspaper photo of Budapest in the rain.

The Text:

“And it came to pass the same night, that the Lord said unto him, Take thy father’s young bullock, even the second bullock of seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that thy father hath, and cut down the grove that is by it . . .” (Judg. 6:25–32).

Summary of the Text:

Earlier in this chapter, an angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon and told him that he would be the instrument for saving Israel from the oppression of the Midianites. After his interaction with that angel, that same night the Lord spoke to Gideon and told him to use his father’s bullock to tear down his father’s altar to Baal, along with the grove by it (v. 25). The groves were part of the way the idols were set apart as holy. They would have been planted, and tended, and cultivated. Idol worship does not occur in fits of absent-mindedness.

Gideon was then to take the bullock and sacrifice it on an altar to God, using wood from the grove he cut down (v. 26). Gideon took ten of his servants and did it at night, presumably that night (v. 27). The men of the town arose in the morning, and discovered that a reformation had occurred while they were sleeping (v. 28). They made inquiries and found out that Gideon was the culprit (v. 29). The men of the town told Joash (whose altar it was) to bring out Gideon to be executed for the sacrilege (v. 30). This shows that Gideon’s family had significant influence—their altar in some way “belonged” to the town. Joash turned the tables—how dare you defend Baal! Defending Baal should be a capital crime. Shouldn’t he be able to defend himself (v. 31)? So Joash then named Gideon Jerubbaal, which means “let Baal contend.”

The Archetypical Pattern:

This incident records a pattern which happens in Scripture again and again. When the people serve the true God, they live under His blessing. When they veer off into the worship of false gods, they come under his chastisement. We have countless historical examples of this pattern in Scripture, but we are also taught this truth as being proverbially true. “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: But when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn” (Prov. 29:2). This means that the pattern remains a pattern down to the present. Being ruled by fools is never a picnic.

The Vending Machine Problem:

Wisdom in this world largely consists of learning how to read cause and effect. We can only learn to do this right by reading what Scripture teaches us, and then reading that into our lives, our histories, our family stories, our politics, in the light that the reading lamp of Scripture supplies.

This means that causation is not to be read in a simplistic vending machine sort of way—put the money in, and get the product out. God frequently tests the wisdom of our faith by having His causal intervention act very much not like a vending machine. Nevertheless, it is still recognizably causal. What is the causal relationship, for example, for countless hours of piano practice as a child and wining a music competition twenty years later? Is there a causal relationship? Of course, but it is not like putting the 8 ball in the corner pocket.

In short, our choices are not simplistic causation on the one hand, or randomness on the other. Now, that said, idolatry causes tyranny.

Back to Tyranny:

An abusive marriage is not to be defined as one in which a husband is beating his wife in a non-stop or constant way. Rather, an abusive relationship is one in which the abusive spouse reserves the right to behave this way, whenever he feels like it. This kind of marital tyranny need not be a 24-7 thing. Often the worst situations are the most erratic, and extended periods of time can pass between explosions. But the relationship is a mess all the time, whether or not something really bad is actually happening right this minute. The thing that makes it a mess is the arbitrary and capricious nature of it.

Jesus and the Tyrants:

The fundamental Christian confession is this: Jesus is Lord. This confession excludes, of necessity, the equivalent lordship of anything or anyone else. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. If Jesus is Lord, then Mammon is not. If Jesus is Lord, then porn is not. If Jesus is Lord, then drone strikes are not.

When there is no God above the state, the state becomes god—the highest authority in the lives of those governed. When the true God is recognized, then the law becomes stable. This is because we become like what we worship. God is immutable, and worshiping Him establishes us in constancy.

The true Christian serves the one who will judge all kings, presidents and emperors at the end of all things, and so the true Christian knows that there is always a court of appeal. We can always say (must always say) that it is necessary for us to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

One more thing. Jesus established His authority by bleeding. The tyrants establish their authority by blood-letting. Jesus fed the multitudes by the sea, and did this just after the episode where Herod had John the Baptist beheaded, and his head was brought out on a serving platter (Mark 6:32). The Lord Jesus feeds the saints of God, while the godless rulers feed on the saints of God.

And this is why our fundamental political activity is that of giving our lives away to one another. This is imitation of Christ, and is truly potent.

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Jane Dunsworth
Jane Dunsworth
9 years ago

when I came topside I was astonished and taken aback because this commie land was emerald green. Bright green. But all my childhood images of communist countries resembled something like a grainy black and white newspaper photo of Budapest in the rain.

I still have to fight this tendency. I don’t think I would have thought of Cuba that way, but I still have a hard time picturing any part of eastern Europe or the Balkans in color. And the people in the images are always dressed for cold weather, are hunched over, and don’t smile.

Larger point taken, BTW.

Curt Day
9 years ago

There is the other end of tyranny. That end is seen by those who exercise control over others. And while we so strongly associate tyranny with multiple shades of gray, that it the side of tyranny seen by its victims. Its practitioners see brighter colors from sunnier skies. I write this because of the 50+ post WW II interventions our country has perpetrated, we have to wonder about whether we are practicing tyranny and, if so, which colors we’re seeing. Our interventions include Iran (’53), Guatemala (’54), Greece (’67), and Chile (’73). I mention these interventions because in each one,… Read more »

William Wallace
William Wallace
9 years ago

Curt, I agree with the general direction of your point: tyranny doesn’t seem so bad if you are one of the people stealing from the oppressed. However, I do want to set straight a historical point: I don’t know much about three of your examples, but the Chilean military abuses of 1973-74 were a shocked reaction to the tyranny of Salvador Allende, who was elected president by a plurality in a three-way race and abused his position to take the lives, liberty and property of his opponents. In a democracy threatened by its president in such an obvious way, it… Read more »