It began innocently enough. Ian Marks started collecting sorority and fraternity pins. Not being a collector myself, I don’t really get it. My theme is more decluttering and simplifying. Collections of stuff mainly make dusting harder. But I bear no grudge against others who like to collect, and millions of people do.
So Ian Marks collects Greek pins. And he’s a member of the Fraternity Pin Collector Society, which is a real organization. The society met this summer in a basement room at the airport Sheraton in Cleveland, to hold their sixth annual conference, called Pinfest, featuring the combined collections of the members: over 5,000 pins, some studded with pearls and diamonds, and many dating back to the 19`h century.
Objectively speaking, most of these pins aren’t worth much; they were given to fraternity or sorority members when they joined, and most spent decades in junk drawers until they were finally given away or maybe sold at a yard sale.
However, something has gone awry in the Greek pin world. Pinfest, this year, was held under Top Secret conditions. The date and place were held in confidence among the members, and they even posted a false date on their web page, to throw off their pursuers.
After cursory discussion at the meeting of routine business, the group turned its focus to what’s really happening in pinworld: the struggle against one Mary [blank]. At first glance, Mrs. [blank] seems an unlikely opponent: she is a 63 yearold grandmother in Southern California. “To the rest of the world,” said the article in the New York Times, “Mary… might be just another woman frittering away her senior years on eBay. But to those gathered at the Pinfest conference, she is the enemy – a one-woman wrecking crew determined to keep them from collecting pins at any cost.
`She is militant,’ said one collector, who like most people in the room did not want his name used.
`Violent,’ another agreed. `Commando,’ a third hispered.
“Although none of the collectors had actually met Mrs. [blank], heads around the table bobbed in accord.” (NYT, August 11, 2002)
Apparently, Mary and others like her have begun spending big bucks to keep their sorority’s pins out of the hands of nonmembers. Most Greek letter organizations object, officially, to outside ownership of their pins, but have never made an issue of it. Now that internet auctions make it easy to buy and sell these things, some loyal alums are getting upset.
When asked by a reporter, Mary [blank] said that when she first discovered Kappa Kappa Gamma pins on eBay in 1998, she was “shocked.” She started buying them, to keep them out of the hands of outsiders, but couldn’t keep up with the volume, so she recruited helpers. Now she is the leader of a group of about 40 KKG sisters around the country called Keepers of the Key. They have spent more than $17,000 of their own money in the past two years to “rescue,” as they call it, nearly 100 pins.
Why are they doing it? Because, says [blank], “we are passionate about the integrity of our badges.” Collectors, she says, are “unfit to be in the possession of a Kappa key, given the ideals to which we all pledged ourselves and which are symbolized to us and others by our badge.”
At this point while reading about this in the paper, I was trying to retain some sympathy for the Keepers of the Key. They seem a little obsessed with these pins, but if they really want to spend their own money buying them up, why shouldn’t they? I can accept the idea that the pins stand for ideals of character and the integrity of the group members. But I have to admit my sympathy was weak. There is an ancient biblical term for getting overfocused on a thing in place of the ideals it stands for: it’s called idolatry.
Idolatry was taken so seriously by the Hebrews that its prohibition is one of the Ten Commandments. “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above.” Many people today, though, don’t relate much to the idea of forsaking graven images of the divine. It sounds so irrelevant, or even superstitious, that I suspect most of us don’t give it a second thought.
However, if we translate the concept a bit, we might find it has contemporary application. Perhaps a graven image is not just a relic found in a medieval church, or a golden calf. A graven image might come in the form of a sorority pin, if the pin itself, rather than the ideals it represents, has taken on ultimate importance. These sorority sisters were starting to sound like worshippers of the pin, but I was still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, until I got to the next chapter in the saga.
The Keepers of the Key have not simply looked for these Kappa pins on eBay and bid on them. They have also researched the identities of collectors, and deluged them with e-mail, some quite hostile. Ian Marks, the only Pinfest attendee willing to give his name to a reporter, said that “angry sorority sisters [went so far as to]post information about where he lives and what pins he owns on a Greek web site.”
Nor have the Keepers of the Key been above espionage. Despite the elaborate efforts of the collectors to disguise the date and place of Pinfest, Mrs. Silzel found out about it and sent an infiltrator. Stephanie Lou Haymond was not the proprietor of a memorabilia store as she told the others; she was there to gather information about KKG pins and their owners, so that Keepers of the Key could target them later.
So the sisters, in their obsession with the pins, have harassed vendors, violated people’s privacy, and became thoroughly mean-spirited. They have become so focused on the objects they are seeking that they shamelessly violate the very ideals the objects supposedly stand for. And ironically, they have driven the monetary value of these pins up so high, that many more are now for sale on the internet – exactly the opposite effect than they intended.
Some of you here today may be Kappa sisters, and I hope you won’t take offense at this story. The reporter who wrote it was a Kappa too, who obviously found this pin frenzy absurd. And this illness is found not only in KKG; the Sigma Kappa national organization reportedly writes a letter to the family of each sister after she dies, expressing sympathy for their loss — and asking for her pin back. So by now there is no doubt that this is a story of idolatry, or the substitution of a partial or a false image for the true ideals it represents. And although the obsession of these sisters is truly absurd, I also believe that most of us have fallen prey to some version of this same temptation at times — so after we stop laughing at Mary Silzel we should quietly take a look at ourselves. And at human history, which is riddled with misplaced devotion.
Consider religious zealotry. How easy is it for people to use religion as a weapon to harm others, rather than a tool of self-examination and morality, to improve themselves and the world? How many have been slaughtered, supposedly in the name of God, but in fact because blind righteousness has taken the place of the true message of faith? This is a kind of idolatry, in which belief has been taken so far beyond the point of reason that it loses all perspective and becomes evil.
Or take an example so common it’s frightening. Clinton Lee Scott wrote that “Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision.” Religion is frequently substituting worship of people for the pursuit of ideals. One way I sometimes explain Unitarian Universalism to those unfamiliar with it, is that we are more concerned with the message of Jesus than with the person of Jesus. It is certainly possible to worship the person as an avenue to living according to his message; however, it is easy to fall into the trap of worshipping the person instead of doing the difficult work of living the message. But maybe you are still thinking this is more a problem that afflicts others than one that touches you. We don’t tend to be religious zealots here, thankfully, and we are pretty good at avoiding the worship of persons, too. But are there are other forms of idolatry that creep into our lives, however innocently? What happens when a hobby or a pastime becomes an obsession? I knew a man who collected old magazine advertisements. He loved to poke around in antique shops and find rare or historic magazines, from which he cut out and catalogued the ads. This hobby brought him pleasure, but he began to spend so much time at it that his relationship with his wife suffered. She grew, over time, to hate his ad collection, even as she felt a little ridiculous for having feelings about pieces of paper. But it was his attention she was missing, and there was a kernel of truth in her suspicion that he cared more about the ads than he did about her.
Or what was more likely was that he found it easier to disappear into his hobby room than to face the difficulties that had grown over time in their relationship. The habit of not communicating entrenched itself, and eventually they faced a fullblown crisis.
At the root of the commandment against idolatry, is the truth that when an image, or a pin, or an activity, becomes a substitute for our efforts to lead lives of value and meaningful relationship and pursuit of what really matters most, then we have missed the mark, not only as people of faith, but as people who relate to one another.
The worship of money is a classic case. Money should serve us as we pursue the most important values in our lives, but when it becomes an end in itself, and when acquiring it crosses over into obsession, then we are serving it rather than the other way around.
In this society, food and body image and appearance can become obsessions, especially for women, but sometimes for men as well. To a point, it’s a good thing to try to be healthy and to care about appearance, but when the mirror or the scale has the power to devastate us, then we have lost our way.
I am sure we all know something about obsession. Contemporary American life is teeming with possibilities for false gods: food, alcohol, drugs, power, prestige, television, video games, internet surfing. How about the lives of our children, as a substitute for thinking about our own? Or over-focus on work or sports or shopping, or even the past?
None of these things is inherently bad; yet each of them can become destructive if we let it.
I expect this is not a new idea to you. I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t fight some private battle over something on which they know they have overfocused. We know it’s bad for us, we know it often harms other people we care about – yet we can’t stop. Why? What is at the root of this human weakness for substitutions, for idolatry?
I think some of it has to do with existential angst. When we occupy ourselves, fill up our minds with whatever distracts us, there is no time to confront the hard question of meaning. Does my life really matter? Is there really hope for human improvement? If we see despair lurking just below the surface of those questions, it is extremely tempting to turn the other way and run. We need to hold that despair at bay, so we ward it off with whatever is at hand.
We may be using our obsessions to avoid facing the problems in our relationships, like the magazine ad collector. He didn’t know how to break through to a happier place with his wife, so he hid in his hobby instead. “Sorry I can’t talk to you right now; I’m busy.” We all do this sometimes, but if that time to talk never comes, then the hobby, the obsession, is providing only a thin veneer over deep unhappiness.
At some level, it’s simply easier to worship an idol than to pursue the ideals,the idol stands for. The fundamentalist statement that “Jesus is the answer,” no matter what the question, is nice and neat. Much harder to admit you aren’t sure what the answer is, and to stay with the questions and muddle your way through.
If your question is, what is the best use of my time today, or tomorrow, or the next day, it is much easier to hide in all the stuff you “have to” do, or to slide into your favorite obsession, than to consider whether you are really serving your best values and what that would mean today, or tomorrow.
To defeat idolatry, we have to admit how much choice we truly have over how we direct our lives and what principles guide us. We have to have the courage to let go of mindless or destructive habit, and to make some conscious choices about what to attend to. Assuming this is the one chance we get, it would be tragic to get to the end of our lifetime and conclude we had wasted it at an unworthy altar.
I do not mean to say that life is nothing but choice: we all live with constraints, and each situation is different. But often we do have more choice over the quality of our lives, and certainly the attitude we take, than we are willing to admit. False gods only have power over us when we let them.
Emerson had it right: “[t behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.” May we have the courage to scale back our obsessions and evasive habits, and make room for that which is of true value underneath. Amen.