Maybe you don’t think the words idolatry and piety belong together. Afterall, one of the ways Merriam-Webster defines piety is:
“The quality or state of being pious: such as dutifulness in religion: Devoutness.”
The word pious is interesting. Here’s a screen shot with definitions of that word:
Pious can mean two opposing ideas. It can mean serious reverence towards God. It can be legitimate worship and practice. In this piety can be a good thing.
As the definition also states, pious can be “marked by sham or hypocriscy.” One only need think of Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees from time to time. How many times did he call the pious acting Pharisees “hypocrites” or worse – “You snakes” or “you brood of vipers!”
Piety can be a double-edged sword – it can be good and it can be a idolatry. Idolatry, according to Dictionary.com can mean: “extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone.” (Source: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/idolatry?s=t)
When piety is idolatrous, it is dangerous. This kind of piety is about acting as if salvation and faith are only matters of how we act individually and what we do personally, without any consideration of how it impacts others. There is no consideration of others in fact. And this goes against the great commandments – to love God and to love neighbor.
This kind of piety becomes focused on our works and what we do. It sets us up to judge others in relation to us and what we are doing to determine rank – who is better? Or who is more faithful based on what they are doing? It focuses us on being respectable.
This individual faith, or personal piety, is nothing more than the idea that salvation is only about a personal relationship with God.
There are many problems with this.
For example, we can say that we are for welcoming the stranger – Jesus told us to do so and we would if we ever came across a stranger. Yet, if we support policies that exclude and push away strangers so that we never have an opportunity to encounter a stranger, are we really living into welcoming the stranger?
Personal piety is not enough. Faith is more than just personal. It has a public impact. And it is in the communal and public impact that we are then impacted personally.
We can claim to follow Jesus’ command to love our enemies, but never really have to because we have pushed away anyone who disagrees with us or that we see as a threat. In this, we are personally valuing loving our enemies – at least in word. But our actions actually negate the value of loving our enemies. Instead, we actually value maintaining the status quo and doing everything we can to not upset the apple cart – our comfort becomes more important that being engaged in relationship with enemies. If we never interact with enemies, we don’t have to worry about not loving our enemies.
We can dehumanize enemies because we don’t have contact with them. They are no longer actual people to us with names and lives and loved ones and stories of their own. They are abstract. And so we have no need to love the abstract.
Our personal piety should not create a divide that separates us away from others around us, but instead should move us to be more loving towards others and ultimately towards God. Our piety should point us towards the life example of Jesus. Our piety should not be about rules, purity, and judgement.