Bandwagons, Idols, and Charlottesville

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Professing to be wise, they became fools,  and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man .” (Romans 1:21-23).

During the mid-1800’s, circus impresario Phineas T. Barnum (yes, that P.T. Barnum) attracted the public to his legendary circuses with elaborate parades through town, complete with riotous noise and garish “bandwagons.” The showmanship worked, attracted countless thousands to pony up $0.50 or $1.00 in exchange for huge spectacles of tigers, elephants, horses, and trapeze artists.

“Jump on board! The band’s great!!”

Never ones to miss a sure thing, late 19th century politicians picked up on this way to attract crowds and began using bandwagons during their campaigns. In fact, Teddy Roosevelt created the modern usage of “jumping on the bandwagon” in a letter from 1899 where he wrote: “When I once became sure of one majority they tumbled over each other to get aboard the band wagon.”

Not much has changed.

Idols and bandwagons distract us from what matters

Yet, bandwagons are not recent inventions. They’ve been around as long as man has drawn breath and we know them by another name: idols. Simply put, idols (like bandwagons) are devices used by others to focus our attention away from what should matter, and onto what they want us believe.

God knew exactly why idols were to be avoided. After bringing Israel out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt, He realized mankind’s flawed nature and our tendency to believe in our own infinitely limited ability at self-salvation.

Hear God’s own words on this subject: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)

Left to their own inclinations, a fallen people would soon forget it was God and not Man who overcame Pharaoh’s enslavement and instead build inert and powerless monuments into which their focus and worship were channeled. And one man’s idol would likely become another man’s heresy. Eventually, dissension would lead to chaos and violence as the people fought over which idol was more powerful, forgetting God altogether.

One man’s idol is another man’s heresy

Does this have the ring of familiarity? When the recent events in Charlottesville unfolded live in real time, my very first thought was of the Second Commandment. My next thought was of its embodiment in Jesus’ words from Matthew 22: “And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.”

Without devolving into yet one more blogpost about who was right or wrong, and fully acknowledging the insidious behavior and words of those who would uphold so-called White Supremacy, I believe the tragedy that marked Charlottesville was both avoidable and predictable.

Nicolas Poussin, “The Adoration of the Golden Calf,” 1634

Here, in summary, is what happened: On August 12, extreme white supremacist groups of the political Right flocked to Charlottesville for the fourth time in as many months, protesting the decision to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee from one of the city’s parks. This time their protest attracted a counter-protest group including members of Antifa, an equally extreme faction of the political Left. The ensuing clash resulting in injury and death, and has virtually paralyzed a nation in debate and 24 hours news coverage.

Those are the essential facts. But what can we say about what was really the underlying truth of Charlottesville? Simply put, the clash of idols. Those on one side put their faith and trust in symbols and flags and monuments (idols), inflaming those on the other side who saw these idols as representing evil, racism and hatred.

The only power idols have is what we give them

I will leave to others the debate over which of these perspectives was and is more incendiary. For me, as a believing Christian seeking guidance in the Word, I can say this: I place no status or emotional investment in symbols or idols of any kind. As a citizen of the United States, I honor our flag, but if forced to choose I would proclaim the Word. Symbols are meaningless unless we imbue them with power. Both the defenders of the statue in Charlottesville and those supporting its removal suffer from the same lie: that these idols have any power whatsoever. The only power they have is what we give them.

The greater tragedies of Charlottesville, Berkley, Ferguson, Baltimore, Dallas, Paris, Nice, Boston, Barcelona, Berlin … is that the world has descended into an endless battle over idols.

  • “My (little) god is bigger than your (little) god.”
  • “My prophet is more powerful than your prophet.”
  • “My wealth makes me more righteous than your poverty.”
  • “My skin color makes me more entitled than your skin color.”
  • “My tolerance makes me more noble than you.”
  • “My flag is more important than your flag.”

These and 10,000 other idols consume our attention daily. As evangelist D.L. Moody declared, “You don’t have to go (far)to find false gods.  Whatever you love more than God is your idol.” These substitutes become modern-day bandwagons we jump on for a sense of belonging and meaning. They distract us from focusing on God’s charge: to love Him with every fiber of our being and to love each other as we love ourselves.

“Quick, kick it one more time to make sure it’s dead!”

American Pastor A.W. Tozer once wrote: “An idol of the mind is as offensive to God as an idol of the hand.”  Idolatry begins with an ever-diluted understanding of God.  We devalue His worthiness, ignore His holiness, reject His love, water down His truth, or dismiss or even ridicule His sovereignty (see this clip of Bill Maher in prime form).  We begin erecting idols in our minds and with our hands as our focus drifts from living in God’s Word, placing that focus in other thoughts and things.  Pastor John Piper refers to this as “the first dark exchange” in his commentaries on the first chapter of Romans.

God points us down the right road in times of strife like those we currently face. He speaks through the words of David in Psalm 46: “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

The path to peace lies not in slogans or flags or statues or bumper stickers or hashtags or cable news talking heads or memes. We cannot follow a painted bandwagon to Utopia. When we place our trust in idols we remove our trust in God. And God’s parade is the only parade that matters.

Colossians 1:17

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