|We expect our killers to be reverent.*|
I know that religion can be used for personal betterment as opposed to personal gain, so my complaint here isn’t so much with Christianity (although I have plenty to say about that too) as with the way it is used to justify whatever America wants it to justify. It’s sad but true that if you take the Bible’s actual words on any number of topics and offset them against Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” you can justify rape; slavery; racism; classicism; theocracy; imperialism; xenophobia; the inequality of women; the murder of Moslems, homosexuals, atheists, and disobedient children; and pretty much anything else you want to justify. However, there is a theological problem with this. Namely, Jesus put love for neighbor second only to love for God and acted accordingly even if it meant disobeying a commandment. The impetus of the New Testament is clearly away from authoritarian obedience and toward assertive love, but few people are able to rise to such a standard.
Here in America, we subscribe to a doctrine that amounts to patriotism on steroids. It’s called “American Exceptionalism,” and if you don’t believe in it, don’t bother running for president. What it means is that we are God’s favored nation, that he wants us to lead the world morally and militarily, and that he supports our endless wars. I can find no evidence that Jesus supported patriotism, and as for killing people, his following words seem clear enough:
“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you…” “Do not resist the one who is evil…if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
What’s more, he said,
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.…”
How, then, can a Christian justify resisting evil through the courts, the military, or the police? Churches have signs threatening to tow anyone who parks on their property, but I ask you, who would Jesus tow?
So it is that American Christianity rests upon various myths and contradictions, American Exceptionalism being but one of them (Manifest Destiny was its lying, thieving, and slaughtering forebearer). A second is that a man who lived 2,000 years ago was really God in a bag of skin; and a third is that the way Jesus wants us to behave is the opposite of what he said. America wanted a deity, and Jesus was simply the one it inherited, so just as the early church appropriated pagan holidays, so has America appropriated Christianity itself. It was easy. For example we wanted a deity that was nationalistic and warlike, but since Jesus was neither, we rewrote him in the image of a Viking war god. The rewrite doesn’t stop there. We also claim that Jesus supported something that we fondly call “family values,” although if a living guru said the things that Jesus said, it would scare the daylights out of families. Take the following exchange:
“Someone told Jesus, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers.’”
Just as all cult leaders seek to separate their followers from their families, so did Jesus:
“No one can be my disciple without hating his father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters…” “I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” “Another of the disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.’”
He said these things, but since America’s Jesus is unrelated to the Biblical Jesus, parents can safely encourage their children to follow him, that is unless their children join some group like the Jehovah’s Witnesses that are silly enough to actually do the things that Jesus commanded.
Then there’s the swearing of oaths. Jesus objected to oaths, but except for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few other “nut groups,” America’s Christians love oaths; they just want to be sure that jurors and politicians say them while holding their hands upon the very book that forbids oaths. Here’s what Jesus said in that book:
“Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear—not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple yes or no. Otherwise you will be condemned.”
So how do Christians get from that to not only taking oaths but insisting on oaths? By ignoring what Jesus said, and rewriting him as they want him to be. When Obama was sworn-in, the rumor was that he did so on a Koran, the problem not being that he violated Christ’s commandment but rather that he did it on the wrong book.
One of the stranger things that Jesus said was: “And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” Maybe it’s just as well in this instance that America’s religion doesn’t give a rip about what Jesus said because what would we call our fathers? I guess I would have called mine Tom, but what would I answer if someone asked who Tom was? I imagine the following:
“Tom was the guy who impregnated my mother.” “Uh, you mean he was your father?” “No, Jesus doesn’t want me to use that word, and it wouldn’t be right to substitute a word that means the same thing, so I just say that he impregnated my mother. When I fill out a form, and it has a space for father, I cross out the word father, and write ‘guy who impregnated my mother.’ People look at me funny, but at least I know I’m pleasing Jesus.”
Jesus also said, “Don’t store up treasures here on earth,” but who ever heard of an American Christian begging God’s forgiveness for investing in an IRA and a 403b? Indeed, Americans love money, and millions of us think that by giving more of it to the rich through tax breaks and economic incentives while denying the same breaks to everyone else (along with basic health services), we too can get rich through a bit of magic called Trickle Down Economics.
Speaking of money, Jesus never asked for a donation, but it isn’t an example that America’s preachers are likely to follow. And while they don’t consider it politic to criticize such sins as their flocks are actually likely to commit—divorce, gluttony, and consumerism, to name a few—Jesus railed against the people he was preaching to, calling them snakes, children of snakes, hypocrites, white-washed sepulchers, and fools (this despite his own warning: “And whosoever shall say, Thou Fool, shall be in danger of hell fire”).
Likewise, Jesus opposed superfluous spending: “Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life…” but it would be the death-knell of American capitalism if America’s Christians obeyed him. I find it supremely ironic that America not only rewrites Jesus as a superpatriot but also as a capitalist, making his birthday the biggest spending event of the year and his resurrection an occasion for buying new clothes.
Why the pretense? For example, why go to the wall to force public prayers on everyone who attends a government sponsored meeting, this despite Jesus’ commandment to the contrary:
“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men... But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father in secret...”
And in regard to religion, why this resolve to: put the Ten Commandments in every government park and building; name the Bible America’s national book; fight like banshees against abortion, evolution, gay marriage, global warming, stem-cell research, and universal health care; be content to live in a state of eternal war against Moslems; ignore laws of habeas corpus; support the torturing of prisoners for information (i.e. “enhanced interrogation”); claim that God’s true followers vote Republican; openly violate laws against political campaigning on the part of churches; and demand respect for Christianity while penalizing those who practice other religions. Not only do America’s Christians refuse to do almost anything that the New Testament actually commands, they do the opposite. Such verses as:
“Whoever does not love does not know God,” “…if I have not love, I am nothing,” and, “ let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth,”
...are ignored in our national dialogue, while hatred, oppression, and the denial of medical care are promoted as God’s will. For example, for years now, I’ve heard Republican politicians disparage Obama—and people like myself—but never once have I heard them say they loved us.
The Bush administration explained the 9/11 attack by saying that terrorists hate Americans because we’re good. Likewise, America’s dominant Christian community imagines that non-Christians and liberal Christians oppose them because they’re good. Well, no, it’s because they substitute hatred for love and claim that Christ wants it that way. As long as they have their luxuries, their flag to wave, and their “American Way of Life,” the rest of us could fall in a lake and drown, and they would praise God for “smiting the wicked.” When I reflect upon what Christ means to such people, I recall H.L. Mencken’s warning,
“When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and waving a cross.”
I’m far from saying that American Christianity doesn’t make sense in its own perverse way, because if it takes an enormous amount of “faith” to imagine that someone who lived 2,000 years ago was God wrapped in skin and that he wants you to do certain things, how much more faith does it take to do the opposite of what he said while claiming that he commands it? I had a family member who believed that Jesus wanted her to own a gold bracelet with the letters WWJD on it. She also believed that Jesus wanted her to have a new Cadillac every three years. Then, God be praised, her preacher realized that Jesus wanted him to buy one of her old Cadillacs. God truly does work in mysterious ways because I can’t find any place in the Bible suggesting that Jesus valued a life of luxury (although I can find several verses in which he trashed rich people), but maybe Jesus only reveals his will to those who believe in him, and that doesn’t include me and, sad to say, Peggy, although we were both “brought up right.”
Just yesterday, we were listening to Vivaldi when the “Gloria in Excelsis” was played. I asked Peggy if she knew the words, and she said she did not, so I recited them. She first thought I was making them up, but when she realized that I really did know them, she put her fingers in her throat and made barfing sounds (now that the Catholic Church is into exorcisms again, maybe I should take her to a priest). Some of you have probably wondered what it is that we atheists do with the time we save by not praying, and this is but one example. I’ve been told that I don’t know a damn thing about religion, so I should keep my mouth shut. My thought is that I have important things to say to Christians because I feel no need to rewrite Jesus’ words to reflect my own opinions. The Bible says the following about the religious establishment of Christ’s era, and I believe that such people remain the dominant face of religion in America today.
“You say, ‘I am rich and have many things. I need nothing.’ You do not know that you are in trouble and need help. You are poor. You are blind. And you have no clothes to wear.” And again, “You cross land and sea to make one convert, and when you get one, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves!” Indeed, America endlessly crosses land and sea in an attempt to force people to imitate us, yet what are we but earth-devouring parasites?
Unfortunately, when it comes to national politics, people who oppose the status quo have no electable options. Our Nobel Peace Prize winning president kills the innocent everyday, yet he is supposed to be a liberal. Meanwhile, his conservative opponents would like nothing better than to pass religious defamation laws so that people like myself could be imprisoned for attacking their perverted version of Jesus. They insist that they alone are God’s chosen, and that those who disagree put America at risk of God's wrath in the form a terrorist attack, this because they think we say “fuck you” to the deity that they created in order to justify their greed. They are right. The dominant religious face of Christianity today is the same as in Jesus’ time, and he warned his followers against it in these words:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.”
What are the fruits of American Christianity? Love? No, there is no room for love in the hearts of people whom, in the name of the Prince of Peace, devote their lives to war, wealth, oppression, nationalism, and every form of frivolous indulgence, and so it is that I ask you: what does America's prosperity gospel have to do with the words of an itinerant preacher who emphasized love at the expense of all else and who described his life as follows:
“...Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath nowhere to lay his head.”
Jesus, I can respect as being a man who was flawed but sincere and well-meaning. What, though, am I to respect about America's rewrite of his religion?
*Movie poster from American Sniper