Studies in Jeremiah have typically summarized his assessment of Judah’s waywardness from covenant faithfulness under the two sins of injustice and idolatry.
He clearly joins his predecessors in calling out the patterns of social and economic life that allowed the privileged few to exploit the poor and to feel entitled to do so.
His indictments are clear and harsh, as has been the prophetic voice for centuries, even back to the time of Elijah.
And, in the crossroads culture of his time, the appeal of “alien” deities was a persistent temptation, with their practical application, beneficial results and stimulating worship practices.
A God of wilderness covenant was hard-pressed to compete with these ancient equivalents of a “prosperity gospel” and “with it” worship styles.
Reflecting on these ancient features of what had become of the covenant community as it neared the threshold of exile, and being surrounded by reminders of the complex mix of political and religious dynamics in our current circumstances, I have begun to wonder if injustice and idolatry are not two separate expressions of human failure to realize true community, but actually two sides of the same coin.
Injustice of the sort that was prevalent in ancient Judah and the modern forms that are fueled by greed, racism and xenophobia is clearly a problem that must be addressed by political and economic correctives.
Reform that leads to laws and policies that address and seek to correct the blatant forms of injustice is an obvious necessity.
But there is another side, or perhaps a deeper level, to the injustice that is so evident on the surface; this is where I wonder if a modern form of idolatry enters the picture.
When the systemic injustice that is part of a society’s structure and normal practice is challenged, the defensive response of those who benefit from it is often clothed in a religious mantle that claims divine sanction for the way things are.
We can recall the elaborate “Bible defenses” of slavery that emerged in the 30 years prior to the Civil War in response to the work of the abolitionists.
And, we can be amused at the arguments that sought to defend so egregious a wrong as slavery in the name of “God’s order” for society.
Here is where injustice moves from being a social and political problem that cries for correction and becomes a theological problem that calls for a response on another level.
Defenses of the status quo clothed in religious appeal carry the subtle implication, and sometimes the explicit affirmation, that God is supportive of the “way of life” that is being challenged by the calling out of specific expressions of injustice embedded in it.
Idolatry is generally understood as the claim of ultimacy for that which is not ultimate, and the claim is often more implicit than explicit. Symbols that helpfully point beyond themselves to deeper truths can become objects of worship.
The Bible, doctrines, sacred rituals, even concepts and beliefs about God can become conceptual idols that can be shaped to conform to a people’s desires and commitments.
Responses to a challenge to various forms of injustice often appeal to a fear that a “way of life” or “the order of society” will not survive if changes are made to alleviate the effects of the injustice.
Implicit, and sometimes explicit, in these appeals is an assumption of the sacredness of a way of life or a social pattern, whose privileges are supported by the challenged injustice.
There seems to be no shortage of “official” religious voices who are eager to give affirmation and support to the preservation of patterns that conform to the prejudices of the privileged.
Every age seems to have its “court prophets,” who, like those of Micaiah’s time (1 Kings 22:5-28), are willing to tell the king what he wants to hear, rather than to speak the truth about a situation.
Not all manifestations of injustice are accompanied by religious underpinnings, and many require legal, political and economic correction.
But, within a society permeated by religious commitments and values, the assumption of divine support for an injustice places something other than the core of a religious faith in the place of authority. Every defense of an injustice can create a theology to support it. This is a subtle, yet very real, form of idolatry.
The immediate forms of injustice require corrective reform, but the deeper idolatry that supports it requires transformational redemption. Jeremiah seems to invite us to attend to both of these needs.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).