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The Sin of the Golden Calf

April 20, 2016

The story of the golden calf appears both in the Bible and the Koran. The bare bones version is that Moses leaves the people in the camp – after they had left the slavery of Egypt -- and goes up on the mountain for 40 days to learn from God the terms of the communal covenant; some individuals in the camp grow impatient and begin agitating to build a golden calf to worship. They build the calf and they begin dancing around it, just as Moses comes down from the mountain, he smashes the Ten Commandments - the basis of the new covenant -in disgust.  The golden calf is then ground to dust and sprinkled on the water, the leaders are punished and the people repent. Moses then re-ascends the mountain to get new tablets.

At the moment, I am not concerned with the actual truth of the story.

I want to look at it mythically: the covenant was not made by individuals, it was made by a people, and it was a covenant about how they would treat each other. It was a covenant to create a society based on love, justice, and compassion, and it was a covenant with God -- there are many varieties of belief about God in this crowd -- however you understand God, think of it as a covenant with whatever calls you to create a society based on love, justice and compassion.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, “What binds society, is not a contract but a covenant. The difference between them is this: Parties can disengage from a contract when it is no longer in their interest to continue with it. A covenant binds them even— perhaps especially—in difficult times. The reason is that a covenant is predicated not on [self]-interest, but rather on loyalty and fidelity. On the good of the whole.”

Unfortunately, our reigning American myth is based in contract, not the covenant. If you look at the founding myth of America rooted in the teachings of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, it is based on the idea that individuals came together, voluntarily gave up their power or rights for the sake of creating the best conditions for the individual to succeed,  not on the principles of what is good for the collective welfare. Never in the history of humanity have individuals ever been able to exist alone; it is an absolute necessity of human life that we live in groups. The idea of a social contract, that individuals come together to form a government for individual best interests, flies in the face of everything we know about the evolution of human society. Those myths of individualism overlooked the interdependence of all beings, it was rooted in a patriarchal, hierarchical, Eurocentric system.  We know that we live in a world of complete interdependence, of inter-being with each other and all life.

The golden calf of our society, our false idol, is individualism, and it is the drive for the accumulation of money that is the greatest expression of it. The greed for money is acting out the wants of the individualism over the well-being of the whole.

Any system of interests that puts the individual needs above the needs of the community can no longer be considered ethical or moral. We need a balance of the two.

We now have a society that is dedicated to creating the optimum conditions for an individual to get rich, but we want to have a society dedicated to creating the optimum conditions for love, justice and the well-being of all.

It is time to get rid of the golden calf of individualism and the worship of money. Having money in politics is how we allow the desire of some individuals to get rich to be more important than the good of the whole.

The well-being of all that is becomes sacrificed so that the 1 percent can be rich. Is that justice? Is that in the best interests of the earth and all that live on it? We need to replace the rule of money with the rule of the people.

As Pope Francis said, “Money should be made to serve people, not to rule them.”

The purpose of the original covenant in the Bible was to regulate the ethical and moral behavior of each person in the community to the other. It was founded on the centrality of two principles: justice and covenantal love. The Israelites were told that their relationship with God—that is, their connection to the ultimate Source of blessing, of goodness, of power—was contingent upon their treating one another with the proper balance of justice and love. In this covenant, the relationship of human beings with the Divine Mystery could not be separated from their relationships with one another. It required a life dedicated to love and justice.

In the covenantal values proclaimed by the Hebrew prophets, the community is judged by its treatment of its least powerful members. Everything is subject to covenantal obligations.

There is nothing and no one-- not private property, not wealth, not “the market,” nor any political leader — that stands beyond the demands made by the covenantal principles of covenantal love-distributive justice.  Just as the Israelites created new covenant when they left the oppression of slavery, we too need to create a new covenant based on the knowledge of our interdependence and equality.

We have come to such a point of interdependence that we are either all saved or all lost.

We need to create an alternative to the ruling model of the ownership society dedicated to individual gain that holds money, the market and license to obtain wealth as sacred. We need a society that holds love, justice, and equality for all as sacred; one that understands that the human community exists within the order of nature, and is rooted in environmental ethics. We need a democracy that is the servant of the people and not the slave of capitalism.

The effort to deliberately change the values of this social order involves an attempt to articulate a “new covenant” that challenges former covenantal understandings.  We will change the rule of money and individualism into an unconditional agreement about justice, peace and sustainability that establishes a fully inclusive community rooted in mutual respect and trust. We need a covenant that reflects our multicultural society.

A rejection of the golden calf is an affirmation of a life we joyfully celebrate and wish to protect, restore, and enrich.

It is an affirmation of the “reverence for the mystery of being” and of the “humility about the human place in nature” that is required if we are to feel “human solidarity and kinship with all life;” it is an affirmation that the responsibility of citizenship we are asked to assume is a “sacred trust;” that the peace we hope to find is a matter of right relationship to a greater whole than the Earth itself, “the larger whole of which all are a part.”  It is an affirmation of the democratic faith in the great mystery of creativity that is flowing through us as part of the evolutionary process and through our cooperative efforts for the common good.

The Ritual:

Will everyone please close your eyes and take a full breath…, feel yourself grounded in the earth…, what is it that calls you to create a society based on justice…, breathe into that….  Now slowly turn around away from the golden calf, what do you need to turn away from to dedicate yourself to working for democracy, what is your golden calf?....   Now open your eyes and turn to your neighbor and tell your neighbor what you need to turn towards to work for democracy…. Now call out some of those things that we will turn towards. 

Thank you and amen.

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