The Golden Calf

golden-bull

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 2Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mould,* and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. (Exodus 32:1-6)

In January of this year, Cindy Jacobs was in a worship service when the Lord spoke to her, “Cindy, the strongman over America doesn’t live in Washington, DC – the strongman lives in New York City! Call My people to pray for the economy.” The Lord further said, “October 29 was Black Tuesday, the day the stock market crashed, and Satan wants to do it again.” We must be proactive in prayer.

“We are going to intercede at the site of the statue of the bull on Wall Street to ask God to begin a shift from the bull and bear markets to what we feel will be the ‘Lion’s Market,’ or God’s control over the economic systems,” she said. “While we do not have the full revelation of all this will entail, we do know that without intercession, economies will crumble.” (Christian Broadcasting Network, CBN.com)

I’ve been scratching my head attempting to figure out how I missed this story last fall. It occurred just before the presidential election. I (along with eighty-five million other Americans) was so preoccupied with all things presidential that it escaped my radar screen. Of course, I don’t visit CBN’s web site with any regularity, either!

The reported event did in fact take place on October 29, 2008, the anniversary of the third catastrophic day of the 1929 stock market crash (known as Black Tuesday). Apparently the irony of laying hands upon and worshiping at the foot of an actual golden calf was lost on the good Ms. Jacobs.

In the Exodus story, the Israelites have grown impatient with God. Rather than viewing the long road before them as a journey of promise, the Israelites see it only as a wilderness, something to be escaped in favor of lives of greater ease. The Israelites don’t much care for this God who asks that they put him first, that they trust in his purposes for them. And so while Moses tarries with God on the mountain, the people convince Aaron (who, let’s admit, doesn’t require much cajoling) to melt down their gold and silver and craft for them a new god in the form of a golden calf.

In so doing, the people lapse in their fidelity to the first commandment, already given them by God: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Adding insult to injury, in their error they abrogate the second commandment as well: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

The truth of Holy Scripture is often more about patterns than discrete facts, and the story of the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai surely reveals to us the pattern in our own lives that led to the current economic crisis. Eschewing a life journey that includes prudence, restraint, and patience in our fiscal dealings, we have engaged in devil-may-care consumption, predatory lending practices, and unsound investment in things such as mortgage-backed securities.

Lest we claim that the culprits are all out-of-control investment bankers, we must acknowledge that all of us are complicit in the creation of a culture obsessed with accouterments that far exceed our ability pay for them. For years middle class income has stagnated or fallen (see “For Many, a Boom that Wasn’t,” in the April 9, 2008 issue of The New York Times), and yet our standard of living has unrelentingly advanced through unsustainable practices. Mortgage debt, consumer debt, and unsound investments have all combined to bring us—socially and individually—to our knees.

We Christians ought to be doubly chastened. Unlike Gordon Gecko, we bear a responsibility—a primary Gospel responsibility—to tend to others before ourselves. This responsibility has implications for charity (such as St. John’s vital Tuesday morning emergency outreach program), but it also has implications for justice. We are called to labor against the things of this world that deprive some of their human dignity, that raise up the proud-hearted and lay low the weak. In other words, we are called to be active participants in nurturing an economic order that is not soulless. As examples, Christians should advocate for legal protections against predatory mortgage lending and for punishing those who willfully defraud others of their life savings. Because for us it is unacceptable that anyone ultimately be chewed up and spit out by the economy. Shrugging our shoulders at the “casualties of the system” is not an option. (For reference to the centrality of these claims for our Christian faith, see Leviticus 19, Matthew 25, Mark 10:17, and the entire Gospel of Luke.)

To this primary Christian calling and the God from whom it comes we have not responded. We have instead worshiped at the golden calf of our own self-centered and unsustainable lifestyles.

And so we must ask, now that our current economic situation has brought us to our knees–the traditional posture of prayer–to what and for what should we pray? This brings us back to Cindy Jacob’s prayer vigil at the Wall Street Bull. Cindy Jacobs agrees that prayer is needed. What is troubling is the eerie resonance between her prayer and that of the ancient Israelites. By literally laying hands upon an actual golden calf, Jacobs’ followers ominously reveal the depth at which the wealth it represents is, for them, an idol…or more accurately, is God. Their prayer was that God restore our economic fortunes. In other words, the emphasis was apparently on a return to our easy road, though this time without the mistakes that led to our economic fall. Though we wouldn’t be so blatant as to pray on the Wall Street Bull, we have to ask, does Cindy Jacobs represent us, too? Is the language of her public prayer the content of our silent ones?

On October 29, nowhere was the confession of our callousness toward our brothers and sisters in need. Nowhere was repentance for neglecting the impoverished, for failing to fight the structures in our system that raise some up to grotesque heights while pushing others to the bottom. Nowhere was a commitment to walk the long and hard path through what today looks like wilderness but may someday be revealed to us as the road of promise and redemption.

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