Reflections on seeing Moloch well-fed these days

11/04/2018 § 8 Comments

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live. Deut.30:19

I have been thinking a lot recently about idolatry — about what we focus on, revere, or serve, whether we are aware of it or not.

This reflection has felt more and more urgent as I watch our politlcal leadership — supported by a large proportion of the populace — make one decision after another that is demonstrably contrary to life. I realize that the accumulation, day after day,  is causing me a constant, low-level grief.  Particular instances might be explained by appeals to economic self-interest, or to racial fears, or anxiety about the current Great Enemy (communists, fascists, Democrats, Republicans, drug lords — them).

Yet the pattern that emerges is so consistent, and so consistently death-affirming, that single-issue explanations do not satisfy.  Some deeper systemic “tuning” seems to shape people’s feelings about what constitutes a satisfactory response, an acceptable solution to any particular problem.  This deeper “tuning” is what I mean by focus or loyalty. “Reverence” is reflected sometimes in how people decide that a particular idea, scheme, response, is “serious.”

I reach back, in my reflections, to great idols of the past, images that are sufficiently mythical that they express something deep and persistent in human nature, and their invocation can touch and activate those deep elements.  My search has not been driven by keywords, but by following the scent of evil emitted by three stories in which children’s lives are the offerings.

[1] On August 9th of this year, in Yemen, a busload of about 40 boys, around 10 or 11 years old, was returning from a school field trip.  You can hear the typical cheerful, field-trip hubbub in tweets or messages sent from cell phones on the bus (here is one story).  Even though I can’t understand Arabic, I know that they were laughing, teasing, skylarking with each other, retelling their day’s fun.  Then the bus, clearly marked as such, and moving along a road not adjacent to, say, a military installation, was bombed. On Nagasaki Day. One incident among thousands this year in which mistakes were made, or not.  Regrets are expressed, or not.  The deaths and wounds are counted (well, not the wounds to souls and hearts, and what vessel can measure the spilled joy, the lost innocence, the crushed hopes?).  This is then moved into the box labelled “collateral damage,” or “cost of doing business.”

[2] Last March, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would not implement a ban on chlorpyrifos, a chemical in the organophosphate group which is among the most heavily used insecticides in the US (see stories here and here.  It has been shown to have neurotoxic effects on children (and farmworkers spraying it) which is not surprising, since chemicals of this group were used in Nazi weapons — the effects on children being life-long, as it induces brain damage in fetuses and small children, which leads to reduced intelligence and impulse control, among other possible consequences. Oh, and it has also been shown to have extensive environmental effects on insects, amphibians, fish, etc. Big agribusiness (in this instance, Dow Chemical) can’t imagine how we could get along without it, as reflected in this press release:

According to Dow AgroSciences, chlorpyrifos is a critical tool for growers of more than
50 different types of crops in the United States. For many important pests, growers face limited or no viable alternatives to chlorpyrifos. When an outbreak of a new pest occurs, growers look to chlorpyrifos as a proven first-line of defense

This from the company that has brought us other chemical weapons, such as napalm and Agent Orange, managed the Rocky Flats nuclear site, and bought the company responsible for the Bhopal disaster- resolving its financial debts, but never its moral ones.

[3]  Recently, the International Panel on Climate Change issued its most recent report (see a NY Times story here, and go to IPCC for the whole report). This is, like all these docments, a pretty conservative one, and climate scientists and journalists have noted important positive feedbacks not included in their projections.  Still, this “cautious” study gives us about 10 years before near catastrophic warming becomes unavoidable.  Yet even if we miss that target, there is much that can be done to limit the damage — It can always get worse!

Not long before, however,  the current administration in Washington, which officially denies the reality of climate change so vehemently that it as expunged the term from government publications wherever possible, issued a draft environmental  impact statement explaining why it will not implement Obama-era mandates controlling vehicle emissions (I quote here from the Science Alert story, where you can find a link to the draft policy:

the Trump administration made a startling assumption: On its current course, the planet will warm a disastrous seven degrees Fahrenheit (3.9 degrees Celsius) by the end of this century… But the administration did not offer this dire forecast…as part of an argument to combat climate change. Just the opposite: The analysis assumes the planet’s fate is already sealed….The world would have to make deep cuts in carbon emissions to avoid this drastic warming, the analysis states. And that “would require substantial increases in technology innovation and adoption compared to today’s levels and would require the economy and the vehicle fleet to move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible.”

I have lived to see the first wave of measurable, damaging climate change impacts.  I do not expect to live the additional 22 years to see whether these latest predictions are accurate.  I do expect to see this and other environmental processes accelerate their impoverishment of the world — the loss or degredation of soils, desertification, and the entry of more and more species into extinction vortices (in Michael Soulé’s phrase), as populations dwindle, fragment, and become less viable — opening the door to cascades of instability.

The ancient idol most associated with child sacrifice in the Mediterranean region was Moloch (other names were used).  In the Bible, Moloch was a Canaanite idol whose worship included the sacrifice of children by fire, to appease the god’s wrath and seek favor in war or tribulation.  More detailed stories come from Roman propaganda about the Phoenician colony Carthage, the great opponent of early expansionist Rome.  The Romans excelled at painting opponents in the worst possible light, but the reports are circumstantial and made by more than one author:  In times of trouble, the Carthaginian idol was heated by great internal fires, and children were placed on its outstretched arms, to roll downwards into the oven, feeding the god’s insatiable desire, to appease his anger, and entice him to safe the nation.  Contemporary accounts are bolstered by archeological evidence, which shows the bones of children mixed with the bones of animals in the ash-heaps of sacrifice.

Our times are much more refined, of course, and elaborate social structures have developed so that most people can avoid any direct personal responsibility (See Ursula LeGuin’s story “The ones who walk away from Omelas”  here for a mythical account of the truth of the system) .

But surely we are sacrificing our children to some god, some focus of loyalty  — nation, economic system, ideology, whatever — some abstraction, in whose service actual people’s lives are destroyed or blighted.  Is this not idolatry? Is not Moloch fat with our sacrifices?

The Truth in which I try to live, to which I seek to be faithful, from which I try to learn (however I may fall short, Lord, help thou my unbelief!)  says that our greatest calling is service, that anyone is our neighbor, that we should not mistake the kingdoms of this world, and its methods, for his kingdom, nor seek revenge, but bless those who curse us, and pray for those that despitefully use us  — and if faithfulness to the just God of love means sacrifice of some kind, even unto death, then that is the path of freedom.  “Inasmuch as you have done this to these, the least of my brethren, ye do it unto me.”

The elaborate rationalizations for our no-responsibilty death culture includes lots of reasons  why none of the constraints of Christ’s love need to be taken seriously, in contrast to the serious imperatives of money-making, convenience, or the satisfaction of unnatural desires for wealth, power, control, and consumption. Lots of serious people tell us so.  Christ by this reckoning is a fool, and so  are we, if (God willing) we become in truth “Christinanoi” – “little Christs.”

The fire of the Holy Spirit, by which we are to be baptized,  burns us with insight, and tempers us to follow love with more abandon, wise as serpents, but innocent as doves.  It does not smugly gourmandize bodies to feed its servants’ pleasures, waxing fat on tribulation.  From the beginning that Spirit has worked alongside God as a master creator, building and creating with joy in the world and its abundant, diverse inhabitants, encouraging them to thrive in love, and invites us to choose life, not death, even as we confront the challenges of embodied life in a finite world.  God grant us the courage to choose the abundant, celebratory, generous life Christ calls us to, to pray for our share of the Spirit’s Wisdom, and to proclaim it with joy!



§ 8 Responses to Reflections on seeing Moloch well-fed these days

  • TPWard says:

    Modern scholarship suggests rather strongly that a deity named Moloch never was actually worshipped; a compelling line of inquiry presents as an alternative that it was Yahweh who received children as sacrifice until a reformation. To me this serves as a reminder that how we honor our gods is and always will be a human expression, and that to shift blame to the god instead for our behavior is nothing but a dodge.


    • briandrayton says:

      Thanks — Yes, people like Mary Beard make a strong case for Roman propaganda about the Carthaginians. The M-L-CH stem seems to have been used for lots of different local “notables,” divine and human, in the eastern Mediterranean– reasonable enough since it is the stem for “king.”
      But as a mythological idea it expresses something important about human/social potentialities and processes that is worth some attention. Or so it seems to me.


      • TPWard says:

        I see it differently. Mythology is not metaphor, which is what I think you might mean there. Mythology — be it the writings of Homer and in the Bible, or stories in cultures where no one got around to transcribing them until much later — are mortal attempts to explain experiences of the ineffable. “Human/social potentialities and processes” have nothing to do with mythology, as they are entirely effable, even if we struggle to eff our own natures.
        Rather, this perpetuation of what is essentially racist propaganda has been adopted as part of the entire complex of monotheist privilege, marginalizing those Africans who did — and do — worship gods other than Yahweh.


    • Nitpicking about the exact identity of the demonic Power that devours children while praying on our fear is like arguing about whether their pyre is fueled by wood or sheep dung. It utterly misses the point.

      Moloch and Mammon are brothers behind the current devolution of the human condition. The addictions and the suffering they cause are real no matter how the shadows obscure their origins. And they are spiritual forces—gods, if you will—precisely because of the immense immaterial power of their foundational addictions.

      For us, Moloch is a god of child sacrifice in time—our children will bleed on the altar we have erected sometime later, preferably after we ourselves are gone. Mammon is a god of the here and now, of the quarterly statement or, at the most distant horizon, the Christmas bonus.

      We can read the Bible or the Romans for the origins, and Milton for the aesthetics. We can read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for the details.


      • briandrayton says:

        Thanks for putting it so well.


      • TPWard says:

        …the problem lies in humans themselves, and to metaphorically or literally place the blame for our heinous actions over countless generations instead on one or another deity is an abdication of responsibility which gets us nowhere. Render unto the Romans the consequences of their actions, but we today must bear the weight of all our ancestors did for any reason. This is why American politics remains impacted by slavery, even though many justified it at the time with theology.

        What we do in the name of any god is not the responsibility of that god, any more than it would fall on you should I choose to murder in your name.


  • briandrayton says:

    Not what I mean by mythology, but not quite the point of the blog post. Aslo I note, about the “god” Moloch, which may or may not have existed: 1. It was the polytheist Romans BCE who gave the some of the most elaborate (and lurid) accounts of Carthaginian Moloch-worship, and 2. Moloch was/would have been an African god the way Ahura Mazda or YHWH are North American gods.


  • Thank you, Brian, important words. As a relatively new grandfather, your words have extra power. I am sharing them with Friends around here.
    ps The visit to Olympia went well. Grateful for your counsel and wisdom, which were part of that.


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