In Illusion We Trust

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on the subject of freedom vs. safety which I deleted the next day after deciding it had far more to say about the subject of the present Corona-crisis than I wanted it to say. As I said in the post, I’ve been avoiding saying anything publicly that could come back to bite me on that subject because a) I don’t know what I’m talking about, and b) everyone else is talking about it. Why add my ignorance to the mix? I wrote the post because I did want to comment more broadly on the subject of freedom vs. safety and the general trend in our modern culture to chase after “safety” at the cost of our freedom and how that trend relates to the present Corona-crisis. It’s been a discussion that’s risen to the surface often lately in the political-commentary world with the extreme measures being taken on account of this latest pandemic. And it will be interesting to watch the results of the Swedish experiment in the months that follow.

From what I understand, Sweden decided on employing less extreme measures than other countries, allowing most businesses to stay open and trusting to its people to abide by social-distancing recommendations voluntarily. Will Sweden regret its COVID-19 strategy? Will it decide that the higher number of fatalities early on (getting the “second wave” out of the way in one, fell swoop) was not worth keeping the economy alive and its people leading relatively normal lives?

We were told at one time that the purpose of all our various lockdowns was not the for the sake of eradicating the virus (which wouldn’t work, anyway) but for the sake of “flattening the curve,” keeping the hospitals from being overwhelmed all at once and giving the health-care system time to make adequate provisions. If that really was the (sensible) point to the lockdowns, I would speculate that Sweden will have no regrets in not participating in them. From what I’ve been hearing, Sweden’s curve seems to have levelled off without its health system reaching swamping-levels. Life has carried on for Swedish citizens. They seem to have weathered the worst of the crisis and now have no fear and uncertainty of what will happen once people finally do begin to creep out of hiding in their houses. And they still have an economy.

And that is the point that the “freedom” side in the freedom vs. safety debate tends to focus heavily on. I’ve noticed that “freedom (plus the economy)” is the argument made by the side pushing to end the lockdowns. Which is interesting. It occurs to me that (for some) the debate is not really “freedom vs. safety” but “safety vs. a different kind of safety.” And when I couch it in those terms, I realize that a more accurate re-wording of those terms would be “the illusion of safety vs. the illusion of a different kind of safety.”

I’ve fallen into that illusion-trap myself with my own worries about the economy side of the argument. I’ve been reading and thinking about a story from the Bible today that has me seeing this illusion-trap for what it is.

In the story of the fall of the Babylonian empire from Daniel 5, Belshazzar (whose name means “Bel,” a.k.a. Baal a.k.a lord or master, “preserves the king”) hosts a drunken bash for his nobles on the very night that the Medes and the Persians invade the kingdom, killing Belshazzar and upending the Chaldean domination. You may be unfamiliar with the story from Daniel 5, but you’re no doubt familiar with the common expression that comes from the account: “…saw the handwriting on the wall/saw the writing on the wall.” In Daniel 5, Belshazzar was given supernatural warning as to his impending doom in the form of an apparently-disembodied hand that appeared as an uninvited guest at the party and wrote the words, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” on the wall for all to see. It would be enough to make a man swear off strong drink then and there.

No one except the exiled Hebrew prophet, Daniel, a courtier from the time of Nebuchadnezzar, could decipher the meaning of the words. When Daniel was eventually called for, he interpreted the message to Belshazzar to mean that God (the God Daniel worshipped) had numbered the days of Belshazzar’s kingdom, that Belshazzar had been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and that his kingdom would be divided between the Medes and the Persians. The margin notes of my Bible may not be the equal of the prophet, but they interpret the words to mean, “Literally a mina (50 shekels) from the verb ‘to number.’ Literally a shekel from the verb ‘to weigh.’ Literally and half-shekels from the verb ‘to divide.’” Very, very interesting.

I didn’t need either Daniel or my Bible’s margin notes to interpret the shekel for me. I knew that the shekel was then (and still is today, I believe) the name of a currency. Money.

On some earlier occasions, I underlined four verses on the pages in my Bible where this story is found. I underlined Daniel’s words to Belshazzar in Daniel 5:23, “And you have praised the gods of silver and gold…” I underlined Daniel 5:30 which records, “That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain.” And on the facing page I underlined a verse from Daniel 6, the account of Daniel being thrown into a den of lions. “[…] he [Daniel] knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days” (Dan. 6:10). That act got Daniel into trouble and a lion’s den, but I also underlined Darius’, king of the Medes, words to Daniel in 6:16 as he (Darius) reluctantly carried out his own unbreakable law of the Medes and Persians by throwing Daniel into the aforementioned den of lions. “Your God, whom you serve continually, He will deliver you.”

I don’t remember when or why I underlined all the bits I underlined when I underlined them, but taken all together, the message jumped out at me from the pages. Are you seeing it?

Belshazzar (“Bel preserves the king.” Except, uh, no, he doesn’t) praised the gods of silver and gold. Yes, technically, he likely worshipped idols of silver and gold, but in a wider sense, his greed and love of “filthy lucre” was emphasized repeatedly throughout Daniel 5. I don’t think it was any coincidence that God spoke through the handwriting on the wall to Belshazzar in a language he should have been well-familiar with: the language of money.

But the gods Belshazzar praised did not and could not deliver him. All the wealth he had amassed and was showing off at his great feast did nothing to keep him from the disaster that overtook him that night. The gods of silver and gold are dead and helpless. They can’t deliver anyone, even themselves.

Daniel, on the other hand, praised the One True God. Did that God have the power to deliver Daniel as Darius fervently hoped in Daniel 6:16? Well, you remember the ending to the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, I hope. Yes, Daniel’s God certainly did have the power to deliver him and did, in fact, choose to deliver him.

On the U.S. currency are written the words, “In God we trust.” Atheists need not cry, “Separation of church and state,” over the design of the dollar. The statement is simply truism. One’s god (or God) will be what one trusts most. What one trusts most will be one’s god (or God). Sadly, the gods many, many, many trust are the dead, helpless pieces of paper on which the truism is written, the gods that populate their wallets.

Even Christians are prone to sliding into this idolatry in a thousand, subtle little ways. We will all carry around little pockets of idolatry with us that need conscious combatting till the day we die. For most of us, one of those pockets of idolatry we carry around with us is the idol we carry around with us in our pockets.

It’s not that money itself is an evil. It’s not that having money is an evil. It’s the replacement of the One True God with money that is the evil. It’s our misplaced trust in the gods of gold and silver rather than the One True God that is the idolatry. And it is misplaced trust because money provides only the illusion of safety.

I find myself combatting my own slide into this little pocket of idolatry constantly. Many people see it as crass to discuss one’s finances publicly (after all, that which is sacred shouldn’t be dragged out into common daylight for all to see), but I tend to be crass, anyway, so here goes the public discussion of my finances (the public declaration online that I have none should at least help protect me from online scam artists): I quit my most recent job at the end of December 2019 with no cushion of savings as a safety net. This may have been partially due to misplaced trust (or at least misplaced hope) in the illusion of online work but also due to the decline in my mental health that I noticed after going back to work in 2019. (I’m also crass enough to be very open about my depression.) The online work did not materialize as hoped, so for the five months of 2020 that have elapsed, I’ve had no regular income and no savings to live on. I also wasn’t eligible for the Canadian government’s bailout of workers who lost their jobs due to lockdowns, seeing that I quit my job before the lockdowns. And with the lockdowns still in place, I have no likely prospects of going back to work any time soon (even if my mental health were ready for a return to the workplace). To the general observer, I would imagine it looks like I am in dire financial straits. I wouldn’t ordinarily bother to mention all this in a blog post (and believe me! I’m not asking for money! I never have! I didn’t need to! And please! No more! I can’t sufficiently thank those of you who gave without my asking, but it’s time to stop!). Except that I feel I must mention it. I feel I must mention my finances in order to praise the One True God who promised to meet all our needs if we seek first His kingdom. I’ve had no savings and no regular income for five months, and yet, I’ve had all my needs met (and all that without even any conspicuous, strenuous effort on my part to seek first God’s kingdom. Sometimes, He meets our needs even without us meeting His conditions, I find.) . I have all my bills paid and never once lacked food in my cupboards or fridge. These needs were met in various, unexpected ways. A generous gift here and there. The odd job that landed in my lap. The sale of items I didn’t need anymore. It’s been so spectacular to watch these needs be met right when they needed to be and just exactly how they needed to be that it’s astonishing I should still be capable of falling into the subtle idolatry of worrying over silver and gold, as though it has any power to deliver me.

For those who shake their heads over my laziness and irresponsibility and lack of regard for my future, you’re probably right. I have been lazy and irresponsible and careless of my future. But many who worked hard and valued their jobs have now found themselves out of work. Many who were prudent with their money may find that the stocks and bonds and portfolios and 401ks (and I am not speaking my own language now, so I have no idea what I’m saying here) can’t deliver them. Many who are trusting in the government to find the solutions may discover that the government doesn’t have the solutions, and we are now heading for a different kind of crisis. I don’t want to be alarmist, but I don’t know. We just don’t know. The future is always uncertain. Failing to recognize that fact is always illusion. It wouldn’t be the first time the gods of silver and gold have let us down. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend setting about decreasing one’s trust in the illusion of safety and increasing one’s trust in the One True God the way I inadvertently set about it, I would recommend the end result of decreasing our trust in the illusion of safety and increasing our trust in the One True God.

And that’s about it. Those are really the main COVID recommendations that I would recommend. It’s up to you, though. Those recommendations must always be taken on-board freely or not at all. The only true safety we can find, the safety of trusting God, is never about coercion. In the end, true freedom and true safety are not “versus” each other at all.

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