Smashing Barriers to Love

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    King Josiah Destroying the Idols of Baal. Gustave Dore



    The elephant dung affixed upon The Holy Virgin Mary, an allegedlyblasphemous image of the Madonna created by British artist Chris Offili andexhibited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art on October 2, 1999, resulted in an

    indignant uproar throughout the city and nation. Mr. Offilis allusion to hisAfrican heritage as the inspiration for the excremental adornment did notsatisfy the caustic conservative critics who demanded the immediateremoval of the insult and the withdrawal of public funding for the museum.

    Critics who believed the image was desecrated by the dung necessarilybelieved the image was otherwise sacred, wherefore they were idolaters

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    themselves, for images of beings are not the beings themselves. Indeed,staunch mystics have traditionally averred that any figurative representationwhatsoever of the only possible Holy One, no matter how lovely the imagemight be, is sacrilegious. For instance, the Divine Mother is Immaculate

    Space, the Maternal Ark of All, the Dark Womb, The Black Virgin; i.e.Nothing.

    Iconomachists, people who hate the worship of images, would normallyhave been too busy waging war on genuinely Catholic images to beconcerned with a single image at the Brooklyn Museum. In any case, peoplewho love images are better idolaters than those who hate them. The squabblebetween the two idolatrous camps might be called a dung fight. Indeed, theGreek word eidolon is used to translate the Hebrew word for dung Ezekiels favorite term for idol was gillotim, meaning dunghill. That is to

    say, idols are worthless vanities or nothing at all, as are fixed ideas carvedon stone or written in books and worshipped as such.

    For example, posting the Decalogue on the wall to be adored as some sort ofmagic charm or formula is absurd. The Ten Commandments should bediscussed for a few minutes every day, until the spirit in which they wereuttered circumscribes the hearts of every participant in the greatconversation. That conversation must not end in stone, for such a stonewould mark the gravesite of human civilization, which is, after all, morally

    and mentally that is to say spiritually inspired.

    No, the ultimate sacred power cannot be confined to an idol in a certainlocation, not even in the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem; as Jeremiah said:

    I will give you shepherds after my own heart, and these shall feed you onknowledge and discretion. And when you have increased and become manyin the land, then its Yahweh who speaks no one will ever say again:Where is the ark of the covenant of Yahweh? There will be no thought of it,no memory of it, no regret for it, no making of another. When that time

    comes, Jerusalem shall be called The Throne of Yahweh; all the nations willgather there in the name of Yahweh and will no longer follow the dictates oftheir own stubborn hearts. (The J erusalem Bible)

    Jeremiah took a dim view of things in his day (c.640-580 BCE). He wishedhe had not been born. He prayed for the death of his family. He shunnedsociety and avoided marriage. He thought his god Yahweh had raped him.

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    He was a traitor to his country: He believed it was Yahwehs will for Judahto submit to the Babylonians; surrender would be the way of life, andresistance the way of death, yet he turned down a handsome offer fromBabylon. He was eventually carried off by his people to Egypt, where he

    was presumably stoned to death.

    In contrast to his pessimistic outlook, Jeremiah had a bright place in mindfor his people, a utopian dream city; a dream city that could never berealized on Earth. Although his dream city was an impossibility, Jeremiahspoke with the authority of personal experience if not from divine revelationabout arks and political reform. He was born when eight-year-old Josiah waselevated to the throne of Judah by the revolutionary faction after theassassination of King Amon. Judah had been a vassal of the AssyrianEmpire, which had imposed its alien cults; but the Empire weakened, and

    fell into chaos. Egypt was also weak at the time therefore Judah waspresented with a golden opportunity. Josiah was king at the right place andright time for reformation, and acted accordingly. Jeremiah commended

    Josiah for being a just and righteous king. Indeed, Jeremiah might even havebeen an itinerant preacher of Josiahs reform in the early days. However,

    Jeremiah became greatly disillusioned with Josiahs reform.

    The Deuteronomy book, purportedly the record of farewell address deliveredby Moses on the verge of the Promised Land, was found and brought to

    Josiah during repairs to the Temple, whose cult and priests Jeremiah sharplycriticized. Deuteronomy includes a revised covenant between Yahweh andhis vassal, Israel. Josiah was so taken aback when he read it that he rent hisgarments and proceeded with the reformation forthwith. The Deuteronomywe have today is not what it was then, but the gist of the old text is apparentin the new, and one legal clause of the code is particularly striking:

    You must destroy completely all the places where the nations youdispossess have served their gods, on high mountains, on hills, under anyspreading tree; you must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down

    their sacred poles, set fire to the carved images of their gods and wipe outtheir name from that place.

    That injunction was even more severe than the proclamations of Akhenaton,the sun-worshipping, monotheistic pharaoh who ordered the obliteration ofall inscribed references to plural gods. Akhenatons one-god was actually atrinity-in-Aton. Furthermore, he was obliged to tolerate some of the lesser,

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    more popular personifications, particularly those enjoyed by the populace inthe privacy of their abodes. Yahweh was certainly not as tolerant as thelegendary Pharaoh of Love, at least not according to Mosaic lore. Yahwehmade only one exception to absolute iconoclasm:

    Not so are you to behave towards Yahweh your God. You must seekYahweh your God only in the place he himself will choose from among allyour tribes, to set down His name there and give it a home. There you shallbring your sacrifices, tithes, and offerings.

    That commandment dovetailed nicely with Josiahs agenda: thecentralization of government and worship in Jerusalem. It was an agendaboth religious and political. People did not draw nice distinctions betweenreligion and politics in those days. Religion was about power, and politics

    was about who had it. The early monarch was the penultimate if not ultimatepersonification of power for his people, whether he was an agent of god orwas presumed to be a god himself, hence the modern argument over whetherancient iconoclasm was religiously or politically motivated does notcoincide with the nature of the beast. Like David, Josiah was anointed by

    Yahweh. Like Moses, he was leading his people to freedom. He was theinstrument of Yahwehs law. Obedience to that law would save Israel,

    Yahwehs chosen people, from bondage to despised foreign and localenemies.

    Josiahs people went on a rampage, smashing and burning the shrines andidols of the enemy. The discrimination was justified because only Israel hada valid contract with Yahweh: Canaanites, Moabites, Ammonites, andmembers of the reviled ruling class had no absolute right to exist in

    Yahwehs domain. Although the Hebrew Lord was a loving god whoseaffection extended even to birds, trees, and oxen, he was also a jealouslandlord who must not be provoked.

    Even the local shrines to Yahweh were abolished, their priests ousted or

    slain; only one temple good enough for Yahweh: the Temple of Jerusalem.And at one curtained, windowless end of the Temple was placed the Ark ofthe Covenant of the Lord, the receptacle of the true Yahweh legislation, thecentral symbol of Josiahs administration in the name of Yahweh, the verythrone or stool of god.

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    The idolatrous cult of the ark, perfected by ancient Egyptians and Hebrews,was derived from prehistoric Black Africa, where even today a sacred stoolis covered, carried in procession, and then re-lodged in a holy chamber onone end of the lodge, where the holy stoolstanding for the law excreted by

    divinityand its occupant, now invisible to the public, are protected byspirits and privileged attendants.

    All priests and prophets were now under Josiahs control. The formerlypolitical authority of local priests was vested in his provincial magistrates.As the revenue flowed into Jerusalem, King Josiah sought to centralize andstrengthen his army and extend his territory. He decided to engage in battlethe forces of Pharaoh Necho, who was on his way to help Assyria againstBabylonia. Josiah believed that if he were to defeat Nechos forces, he couldunite Judah with Israel to the south. But Josiah was slain: Assyria was

    defeated; the Egyptians withdrew. Israel thus weakened was forced tosubmit to Babylonia, the New Mesopotamian Empire.

    As in the case of Akhenaton, Josiahs reforms died with him: the old idolsand high places were soon restored; Jerusalem and its fine Temple wereeventually destroyed. Jeremiah had prophesied the Temples destruction,denouncing the peoples dependence on it.

    Thus do we have an instructive historical occasion of i