Dasani, Mayor Bloomberg, and Reverse Idolatry

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a five-part series on Dasani, an 11-year-old girl living in a homeless shelter in New York City. The series explicates the experience of New York City’s homeless population through the story of Dasani and her family. The series presents a picture of poverty that is not only complicated but immense. Dasani’s story is but one of 22,000 homeless children currently living in New York City. The series is too complex to summarize here, but it has provoked some intelligent discussion about the state of homelessness in the U.S.

Other debates have left much to be desired. In a recent interview, Mayor Bloomberg defended his administration’s work on homelessness in which he claimed that Dasani was “dealt a bad hand” and that her situation was “just the way God works.”  There are legitimate and fruitful discussions to be had over the best policies to eradicate homelessness and poverty. Claiming that Dasani’s situation is the product of God’s plan is not among them. It is not only bad theology but a form of reverse idolatry.

In contemporary discourse, the word “idolizing” is often used when referring to an attachment to or glorification of a person or object. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, idolatry is usually defined as worshipping a physical object instead of God. Phrased another way, it is worshipping the work of our own hands instead of the work of God. In Exodus 32:1-6, for example, the idol of the golden calf is formed from the community’s jewelry. Pope Francis’s recent criticism of the “idolatry of money” is a useful example of how idolatry manifests itself today. Ascribing ultimate importance to the objects we have fashioned with our own hands can be dangerous, encouraging us to seek flourishing only in our individual success instead of in communion with God or the well-being of our community.

Mayor Bloomberg’s comments about Dasani’s situation being part of the way God works shows the danger of a kind of reverse idolatry. If idolatry is worshiping our own work instead of God’s, reverse idolatry is ascribing responsibility to God’s plan instead of our own actions. The New York Times’s series shows an incredibly complex web of systemic injustice and seemingly benign decisions by others that have created Dasani’s environment. Dasani may have been dealt a bad hand, but the deck was already stacked long before her hand was dealt. We, as a society, have created the political and economic environment that allows 22,000 kids to go homeless in New York City alone. Dasani’s situation is not part of God’s plan but the work of our own hands.

There are legitimate conversations to be had about the most effective ways to eradicate poverty and end homelessness. But if we want to make any progress towards that goal, we have to be honest about our own responsibility in perpetuating the injustices that make poverty a lived reality for people like Dasani. Perhaps taking our own responsibility seriously can give us room for hope. If we alone have created the systems and environments that make poverty a reality, we can also have the courage to take responsibility for our actions and tear them down.

Photo credit: Flickr user houbi

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