Religious Symbols and Political Exploitation: A Biblical reflection

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Vincenzo Anselmo, SJ

 Vincenzo Anselmo, SJ / Church Thought / 24 March 2020


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Religious symbols have recently been increasingly appearing in the political arena. Often God is exploited, improperly invoked as testifying for a political party or as a label to promote a party. The subject is certainly topical, but the problem has ancient roots. That is why the Hebrew-Christian scriptures themselves contain antibodies against any instrumentalization of the divine.

If, on the one hand, the Lord is the God of a particular people, Israel, on the other hand, the sacred text is aware that God is “holy” (cf. Exod 15:11; Isa 6:3; Hos 11:9), “set apart,” that is, “distinct” from the world.[1] The Lord says through the prophet: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isa 55:8). This God who is so close to his people that he intervened to free them from the slavery of Egypt and lead them to the Promised Land is also Other than Israel. An eloquent sign of this is the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God that cannot be pronounced.[2]

This prohibition protects God’s otherness, because it is not possible to grasp the mystery of the Lord by calling Him by name.[3] This divine transcendence and equally divine immanence is recalled by the Prophet Isaiah: “Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isa 12:6). Holy God makes himself present in the history of a particular community, Israel, which he chose from among all the nations of the earth (cf. Deut 14:2).

The ark of the covenant or of the alliance is a sign of this concrete presence of God in the midst of his people in a dynamic that prefigures the incarnation of Emmanuel, God with us (cf. Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23). What is Israel’s relationship with the God who walks beside it? Will it be able to respect God’s otherness, or will it try to make this God an idol? What happens when the Lord of hosts is improperly pushed onto the battlefield?

In biblical history the power entrusted to sovereigns gives them great responsibility, because their actions can lead many to death or life. What happens when he who is put in charge of the people uses God for his own gain? In this regard, the case of Jeroboam, King of Israel, is emblematic.

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