Saturday, March 15, 2014

Irrelevant Faith (Judges 8:22-25,27)

     Then the Israelites said to Gideon, "Rule over us, you as well as your sons and your grandsons, for you delivered us from the power of Midian."
     But Gideon said to them, "I will not rule over you and my son will not rule over you: the Lord will rule over you." Then he said to them, "Let me make a request of you: Everyone give me an earring from his plunder: …
     They said, "We agree to give them." So they spread out a mantle, and everyone threw an earring from his plunder on it… Gideon made an ephod from all this and put it in Ophra, his hometown. Then all Israel prostituted themselves with it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his household."
Judges 8:22-25, 27 HCSB

It's easy to think that power lies in a person or the memory of a powerful event. The Stonewall riots which sparked the contemporary gay rights movement in the US is both a place and date of empowerment. Gay pride celebrations taking place at the end of June do so to mark June 28, the date of the fateful police raid on Stonewall Inn. It is good to have a date, a celebration, even a place of empowerment for we need this connection to look within ourselves and find the integrity and character to carry on. 

It is easy though, to believe that the date, or the place, or the object, even the person carries power within itself. This is Gideon's bind. He has lead a successful war against the oppressive power of the Midianites. The ancient Israelites are so impressed they are willing to lift him up as a prototype king, albeit given the circumstances it would have been more of a high chieftain or warlord. However, the aim is still the same - a popular personality and his lineage governing a loose confederation of tribes. 

To Gideon's credit he refuses the crown, or whatever would have been put on his head. In so doing he also seals the fate of his lineage as something other than royal. The consequences of this decision will play out a little further in the narrative of the book of Judges. For now what captures our attention is that while Gideon has the sense to refuse the advances to make him a king, he nonetheless ask for gold, specifically plundered gold. Which tells us that this gold carries with it a certain psychological power and is understood as the very riches of the people who made themselves rich off the Israelites. This gold is melted down and turned into an "ephod": presumably the breast plate of the high priest with twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel (although later King David would be described as dancing in an "ephod" before the Ark of the Covenant as it was brought to Jerusalem, there indicating some sort of garment gathered around the waist).

For those sensitive to the biblical stories the use of gold to make an object of veneration is a red flag warning that we are entering the territory of idolatry. The problem with idolatry is that it takes a metaphor or understanding of the sacred and freezes it, declaring this is what God is like, has been like, and will continue to be like, world without end, amen. For the queer community the idolatry of a heterosexual god has been the bane of our existence. Texts that were intended to be mailable have been hardened as our need for certainty provokes us to infuse metaphors with an eternal quality they were never meant to bear. This ephod proved a stumbling block for it froze God in a particular role, leaving God no longer free to respond in different and adaptive ways. 

For most people, including queer people, there is a tendency to seek the Sacred among more solid images than to dwell in the images which are liquid and flowing. We have made the mistake of confusing flowing with fleeting and solid with firm. I agree that fleeting ideas of the Sacred bring little comfort, for unless our faith is a firm rock it will not see us through. But liquid is not fleeting, it is flowing, ever washing us anew and even moving us along with a buoyancy that both gives way to us and cradles us. Solid does not necessarily mean unbending and never giving, it can mean committed and sure. In the face of an idol - whether a person, date, or object - it is easy to think our sense of empowerment comes from that very thing, rather than from our response to it. 

This is the stumbling block of the ephod, it takes a living faith and stagnates it to one aspect, one quality, one characteristic and raises it above all others. God becomes crucially anemic and we become unbearably rutted in our sense of what is right and life blessing, often participating in attitudes that are wrong and life denying. Far from mediating the presence of God, idols often block and hinder the flow of the Sacred into our living.

It is an interesting scene which closes out Gideon's story. He has remained singularly humble, yet provided for an idol to which future generations will turn with less and less assurance as the god it represents becomes less and less relevant. This is a spiritual quandary for all people, but one I think very active in the life of queer folk. What metaphors of Ultimate Reality do I grasp tightly as a way to get through the week? Have I invested them with a solidness that will one day cause God to become irrelevant to me for while I have movd on, God remains frozen in an understanding I no longer relate too?

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