Before the gods I will sing

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Many gods? More than one?

Why does the psalmist speak of ‘gods’ — “before the gods I will sing Your praise” (Ps.138:1) –as though there is more than the One the psalmist proclaims? Why does the First Commandment of the Ten Commandments say, “You shall have no other gods before Me”?

These ‘gods’ are real. They do not exist only in our imagination. They make their appeals to our human need and aspirations in the midst of time. Like the First Commandment, Psalm 138 recognizes the ‘gods as contenders with the One God of heaven and earth. It goes to the heart of the human longing for closer-at-hand gods, the imposters of God that charm us with their melodies and promises.

...before the gods I will sing Your praise.” (Ps. 138:1 NIV)

We live among the ‘gods’. We see them with our own eyes. We hear them with our own ears.

  • Children held in squalid ‘detention’ camps in the name of national security. Parents whose children have been kidnapped and lost in the name of national security. The multitudes walking on blistered feet in hopes of crossing the Rio Grande to safety. The asylum-seekers fleeing cruel regimes. They are all living under the siege of the ‘gods’, resistance to which is commanded the First Commandment.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods. I will not sing in silence. I will not praise You in hiding. I will publicly defy the ‘gods’ that solicit my praise and obedience. I will place my hope and trust where it belongs. Before the gods that divide and terrorize I will sing Your praise.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of national security that kidnap babies, separate families, and stereotype those seeking safety as criminals, drug runners, rapists and terrorists.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods and not be silent when my president deceives the public, announcing that asylum-seekers may now apply for asylum in Guatemala, one of the nations from which the poor flee for safety because of human rights violations, whose military we train and whose arms we supply.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of homophily that erase the American aspiration of e pluribus from e pluribus unum, leaving the unum of whiteness.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of my country’s original sins: stealing the continent from its indigenous peoples’, and stealing African men, women, and children to become slaves.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods under which the constitutional checks and balances that protect a democratic republic from totalitarian rule are eroded.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of fossil fuel profiteers and a government that denies climate change, removes restraints protecting clean air and water, and scorns international cooperation necessary for responsible action in the face of climate change.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of greed that amass wealth, consolidate power, and skirt Congress to proved arms to Saudi Arabia in spite of an American journalist’s dismemberment and supplying arms for continuance of a proxy war in Yemen.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods of racist nationalism that excite the masses — Mein Kampf, the speeches of Hitler, and strategies for the seizure of power — now echoing from the Oval Office and campaign rallies.
  • I will sing Your praise before the gods that divert attention from atrocities at the Southern border with tweets describing the congressional district represented by the Chair of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as a “disgusting rat and rodent infested mess” immediately following the Rep. Elijah Cummingspointed criticism of inhumane conditions for which the Trump Administration is responsible.
I will praise You, LORD, with all my heart;
      before the gods I will sing Your praise. (Ps/ 138:1 NIV)
 For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly,
      but the haughty he knows from afar. (Ps. 138:6 NRSV)

Before the gods: Jesus of Nazareth

One of them . . . tested [Jesus] with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35-40 NIV)

Before these ‘gods’ — and so many more — I will sing Your praise.

  • So help me God, in the name of Jesus, Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 28, 2019

No other gods — Je suis Français!

Je suis Français! Remember when Je suis Français (I am French) was everywhere on Facebook? That was three years ago after the November 13, 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. Americans identified with the French. Yesterday I felt like that again.

Marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I — “the War to End all Wars” — at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the chaos and death unleashed by nationalism. Here’s an English translation of an excerpt:

Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying “our interests first, who cares about the others,” we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values. I know there are old demons which are coming back to the surface. They are ready to wreak chaos and death. History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course once again.

One need not be French to applaud Mr. Macron’s statement. Days before the national election in America, I wrote a piece on nationalism as the rising god of our time.  A wise friend advised against publishing it. He likely was right at the time. But Mr. Macron’s words at the Arc de Triomphe lead me to share a bit of what has been burdening my conscience.

Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009) RIP

Those of you who have followed Views from the Edge know how I see the world through the lens of faith. Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf & Stock) is dedicated to Japanese theologian Kosuka Koyama. “There is only one sin,” he said during a casual lunch. “Exceptionalism.” Born in 1929, Koyama had grown up with the myth of Japanese exceptionalism. The emperor could do no wrong. Japan had become its own god. Ko saw the same myth rising in America where he had settled with his his wife, Lois, a native Minnesotan.

Paul Tillich observed that whatever is one’s “ultimately concern” is a person’s or nation’s god. Tillich was one of earliest critics of the rising god of German nationalism that led to World War II and the Holocaust. Dismissed from his professorship at the University of Frankfurt i 1933, Paul Tillich, like Koyama, was invited to join the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York. It was Reinhold Niebuhr of Moral Man and Immoral Society who paved the way for Tillich, and later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to join the theological work of the academy on American soil.

My Christian understanding of faith and life is rooted in Niebuhr, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer’s friend Paul Lehmann, and Koyama. Only Koyama lived long enough to observe the old dead god rising to life again on American soil. All of them would have applauded Mr. Macron’s statement that nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. “History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course again.”

To be human is by nature to be anxious. We know we are not God. We are mortal. Our time is mortal. “Time, like an ever-flowing stream, Soon bears us all away. We fly forgotten as a dream Dies at the opening day.” People who profess faith in the tradition of Abraham — Jews, Christians, Muslims — understand how quickly we turn to the “other gods” for our identity and security.

Rembrandt Moses and Commandments

Rembrandt’s painting of Moses crashing the Ten Commandments

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage,” says the First Commandment. “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:2-3).

The “house of bondage” is not limited to geography or time. It is any nation that exalts itself as exceptional, any nation that practices hardness of heart to the foreigner, the alien, and sojourner. The First Commandment identifies “the house of bondage” as a god from which the LORD God of heaven and earth sets a person, a nation, and a planet, free.

I am an American. I love my country. But I don’t worship it. Today I say, again, “Je suis Français!”

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 12, 2018