Idols are subtle. They rarely reflect the golden calf of Exodus. Instead, idols are often intangible, hard to point out. They are people or things or philosophies that creep in and position themselves before God. Worship of them doesn’t come in the form of prayer and incense but in affiliation and time. Idols become a part of our life, pushing God into the corner. That’s why they are hard to see.
But sometimes, they are super obvious and look like this:
And we still don't see them.
In his latest encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis says, “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” Money is an idol that pervades our life (assuming ‘us’ is first-world). Capitalism promotes competition, consumerism, and efficiency. It is a survivor-of-the-fittest system that when unchecked, does not consider the weak, the marginalized, or the suffering.
People are only worth what they can put into the system. They must produce, accumulate wealth, purchase goods. Life has no value in and of itself. If you can’t put into the system, you are lazy, useless, and forgotten.
As Thanksgiving approaches, the arguments about consumerism arrive. Stores stay open on the holiday because the three-day weekend wasn’t long enough for the shopping frenzy that accompanies the holiday sales. For some, it’s a family tradition to stand in line overnight, rush into a store, and compete with other shoppers for that 60% electronic device. Others point out this absurd (and sometimes fatal) spectacle and denounce the idol of consumerism. Look at how much those people value discount goods over time with their family! Where are their priorities? But consumerism is a part of capitalism. Black Friday is just a magnified version of the daily pursuit of wealth and goods. Those that don't line up on Thanksgiving for Black Friday sales will still go out to purchase Christmas presents, and they will still look for good deals. Consumerism isn't really being criticized, just that extreme kind of consumerism. After all, consumption of goods is part of capitalism. In capitalist countries, we’re told competition is good. The average consumer is the backbone of the economy. We can fight terror by going to the mall. The wealth will trickle down.
But the wealth does not trickle down. It makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, because money can buy opportunity. The pope says, “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” Capitalism relies on individualism. From each according to his ability to each according to his ability. If you fail, it is your fault; you didn’t pull yourself up from your bootstraps hard enough.
While a person’s relationship with God is personal and individual, there is much about the faith that is also communal. There is the communion of saints, the caring for the poor, the corporate worship. Christians cannot grow in isolated vacuums. The pope says, “The individualism of our postmodern and globalized era favours a lifestyle which weakens the development and stability of personal relationships and distorts family bonds.”
If only idols were easy to recognize. Smash a statue, tut-tut Black Friday, avoid prayers to Baal before dinner. But idols are more complex than that because to be an idol, it must be held in a prominent place of our life. It’s easy to say, “Only worship God.” It’s much more difficult to see how the prevailing economic system can hinder one’s ability to love others as God commands. Few get to choose what economic system they live under. Capitalism is only an idol if we let it be, if we fall into the trap of seeing people for their utility instead of their humanity or if we place money and position over dignity and community. What’s important is to actively keep God at the center and keep the encroaching idols at bay.