“The Steel Calf”
Exodus 19:20; 20:1-5a; 32:1-6
Eva Mireles, 4th grade teacher
Irma Garcia, 4th grade teacher
Xavier Lopez, age 10
Amerie Jo Garza, age 10
Nevaeh Bravo, age 10
Tess Marie Mata, age 10
Alexandria Aniyah Rubio, age 10
Uziyah Garcia, age 10
Rogelio Torres, age 10
Makenna Lee Elrod, age 10
Jayce Carmelo Luevanos, age 10
Jailah Nicole Silguero, age 11
Alithia Ramirez, age 10
Ellie Garcia, age 10
Annabell Guadalupe Rodríguez, age 10
Jacklyn Jaylen Cazares, age 10
Jose Flores, age 10
Miranda Mathis, age 11
Eliahna Torres, age 10
Maite Yuleana Rodriguez, age 10
Layla Salazar, age 10 1
Moses led the Israelites out of a land of violence, oppression, and exploitation and into a wilderness with unknown dangers, but with the covenant that they were moving toward the Promised Land — a place of boundless liberation and hope — if only they would be guided by the God who set them free.
In those days, God called Moses to the top of Mount Sinai so that God would proclaim the law to Moses and Moses would then proclaim the law to God ’s people. But after wandering the desert for 40 years without yet arriving at their home, not recognizing the presence of God around them and within them, forgetting that they had been saved from the Land of Bondage, the people grew impatient. They demanded to see God so that they could be assured of God’s presence and promises.
So the people came to Aaron, Moses’s brother who had been appointed as priest. “Moses has abandoned us,” they said, “and along with Moses, so has this God.” So Aaron instructed the people to gather all their wealth, all that they had for golden earrings, bracelets, necklaces — “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And he melted down these treasures to forge a Golden Calf. Building an altar before the idol and proclaiming a festival day of worship, Aaron proclaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
And so the people abandoned the God who truly led them out of the Land of Bondage, and they “offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being” to the Golden Calf — believing that it was this idol that had protected them — this human-made idol that guarded them and guided them — this metal idol to which they would make sacrifices to please and appease so that it would continue to keep them safe and victorious over enemies and evil-doers.
We hear this story and we might know where it goes and how it goes: God’s wrath “burned hot” against the people. Such idolatry was sure to lead to death. God’s mind was set to punish the people, but it was Moses who commanded the Levites to exact revenge, killing their own kindred: brothers, friends, neighbors, totaling 3,000 that day. 2
Surely, such idolatry lead to death, and the Golden Calf received one final sacrificial offering.
Any preacher set to expound on this scripture is bound to ask their congregation:
What is your Golden Calf? What do you worship in place of God? To what have you given over your devotion, your sacrifices, your offerings of well-being and gratitude in place of God? What idol have we forged from our own treasures and paid for with blood?
It is a theologically sound question, if not a predictable one.
Friends, to my mind, the answer to this is so painfully clear.
In our time and place, in our country, we have abandoned the God that led us and leads us out of bondage, and we have wrought not an idol made of gold, but an idol made of steel — cold hard steel in the form of a gun.
The Israelites had their Golden Calf. Ours is a Steel Calf.
The United States does not worship God. At least, the United States does not worship the One God of the Abrahamic faiths that so many claim: the God who commanded that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. The United States does not worship the God who became flesh and dwelt among us: The God who proclaimed liberation and love, who decried violence and retaliation, the God who cried out “No more of this!” in the face of violence. 3
No, the United States does not worship that God.
The god of the United States is made visible, made into an idol in the form of a gun — the Steel Calf.
As a country, we have offered up countless sacrifices to the gun god: sacrificing our literal well-being and sacrificing in the vain hope that this gun god will ensure our well-being. We have sacrificed wives and girlfriends and intimate partners, co-workers and employers, bystanders, neighbors, music fans, restaurant patrons, grocery shoppers, people of faith in houses of worship, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer folx, Black body after Black body. We have sacrificed children. We have sacrificed children. We have sacrificed children. Young children in elementary schools, teenagers in high schools, toddlers in homes that with great curiosity stumble upon a shiny steel toy. We have sacrificed children.
See, what happened this past week at Sandy Hook 4 —
Excuse me. I mean Sparks Middle School.
Excuse me. I mean Arapahoe High School.
Reynolds High School
Marysville Pilchuck High School
Townsville Elementary School
North Park Elementary School
Aztec High School
Marshall County High School
Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School
Santa Fe High School
Saugus High School
Washington Middle School
Academy Park High School
Oxford High School.
No, sorry — it was Robb Elementary School.
What happened this past week — the evil that happened this past week at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas along with these and dozens more schools before and since the 2012 murders at Sandy Hook gives us indisputable evidence that the United States of America is willing to sacrifice children to appease the gun god.
And it has been acceptable. It has been an acceptable and pleasing sacrifice to the gun god. It has been an acceptable sacrifice to maintain our devotion to the gun god.
For me, the question is not what we have chosen to replace God — that answer is quite clear to me. The harder question is why have we chosen it? I believe the answer is rooted in fear.
The Israelites demanded to see God, to know that God was present and that they were protected. In the wilderness of the unknown filled with perils and the abundance of scarcity, they were afraid. It was fear that led them to place their faith and devotion in a Golden Calf. It was fear that drove the Israelites to abandon the God who led them from the Land of Bondage. It was fear that caused them to seek comfort, and protection, and wholeness in an idol: the Golden Calf crafted from the sacrifices of their greatest remaining wealth.
And we have done the same for the same reason by sacrificing our greatest wealth so that we might worship, and seek protection, and seek wholeness from an idol made of cold, hard steel. The gun god idol of the Steel Calf is fabricated by our fear, and it grows continuously and monstrously larger, fed by our fear.
Our fear-based and fear-fed gun god has led us back into a land of bondage, injustice, and violence of our own making and maintenance — and it would have us believe that this fear is actually freedom.
We exist in a deeply engrained culture of violence — from the acquisition and colonization of the land we live on, to the building of an economic empire on the backs of enslaved people and the ongoing exploitation of workers, to the maintenance of that empire through brutality, war, and threats of war at home and abroad, to cowardly and sinful legislation that seeks to maintain the power of heteronormative, patriarchal white supremacy.
As a country and culture, we are a belligerent, terrifying and terrorizing, vengeful, and violent people. As a country and culture, the United States has been a model faithful disciple of the gun god. Thriving and gorging on our offerings and sacrifices at the altar of the Steel Calf, the gun god is pleased, and has ensured us that we will continue to live in this creation so long as we continue to make these sacrifices.
But: now, now! There is still Good News.
Hold on, because there is Good News.
Even in this culture that fetishizes the Way of Death — YOU are called and equipped to be faithful to the Way of Life.
You can choose to refuse to worship the gun god. The Steel Calf idol of the gun god can be melted down. It will be melted down. Each time you refuse to participate in a sacrifice to the gun god, you melt just a bit of the Steel Calf.
You can refuse to be guided by the demon-like spirit of fear that tells us schools need “hardening,” kids need “hardening,” we need more trainings, more cops, more guns — all things that have been tried and have not worked to bring us greater safety — not only not worked, but have failed — and not only failed, but succeeded in feeding the gun god more and more with our fear and trauma.
Each time you refuse to allow fear to be an act of worship, you melt just a bit of the Steel Calf.
Each time you reject the narrative that a mythologized and archaic constitutional right to own a firearm means an inalienable right to unfettered access to military grade weapons, you melt just a bit of the Steel Calf.
Each time you reject the narrative that more guns means more safety, that only a “good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun,” that “criminals will get guns no matter the laws,” you melt just a bit of the Steel Calf.
Each time you call or petition legislators to care more about the literal survival of humans and less about their pockets being lined by the NRA, you melt just a bit of the Steel Calf.
Each time you refuse to allow children under your care to play with toy guns, or when you yourself refuse to play first-person-shooter video games or some form of entertainment that for some morally incomprehensible reason simulates the sensation of taking another person’s life, removing them and yourself from normalizing gun culture, you melt just a bit of the Steel Calf.
Little by little, each one of us can and will melt down the gun god idol of the Steel Calf.
When you refuse to worship this god of fear, this gun god, when you refuse the Way of Death and choose the Way of Life — guided and fueled by God’s love, justice, and righteousness — not the false justice of violence and vengeance, but the divine justice of unceasing care and concern for the most vulnerable, demonstrated through acts and action and not only words and intentions (AKA “Thoughts and Prayers) — when you refuse the god of fear and choose the God of Liberation and Life, then you are melting down that God damn’ed gun god idol of the Steel Calf.
And on that day when we finally have that cauldron of melted steel, we will fashion new tools. Tools that dismantle our Culture of Death and construct a Culture of Life.
We will forge hammers and nails to build suitable housing for all.
We will forge beams and girders to build schools and hospitals and shelters and water treatment plants.
We will forge stock pots to feed all who hunger.
We will forge bridges to cross great divides over treacherous terrain.
That gun god idol of the Steel Calf will be melted down — by God — and each one of us will have a role in melting it.
It takes 2,500 degrees of heat to melt steel. So let’s build a fire.
Let us gather together the embers of loss, grief, anger, sadness, and bewilderment from the 19 lives taken in Uvalde and the hundreds of lives left deeply wounded, the 10 lives gunned down in Buffalo, the daily average of 110 gun-related deaths — including an average of 12 children every day 5 — the over 40,000 lives ended by gun violence each year, 6 combining our fires with the candles lit in their memory and in their honor to ignite a fire that will not be extinguished by fear and despair, a fire that will burn so hot that the gun god idol of the Steel Calf will have no option but to melt.
And on that day we will truly hear, truly believe, and truly live out the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. 7
2 Exodus 32:25-28
3 Luke 22:51
7 Isaiah 2:4