I shifted uneasily on the smooth hard pew as the speaker’s meaning began to sink in. “…walk in the light of the Son…” “…accept the everlasting grace of salvation…” My presence in the stark funeral home had one purpose: I was there to mourn my friend’s unexpected death. But for the orator, my grief was just his foot, shoved in my door, while he tried to sell me something from his suitcase full of religion.
As the sermon proceeded, Anger strolled in, casually at first, but soon, elbowing and yelling, began to spar with Grief for center stage in my spotlight. I hoped no one would notice my burning cheeks or my eyes narrowing with disdain as I struggled to soften the voices growing in my head. Ironic and bitter, they denounced the haze of single-minded stupidity that Christianity seemed to induce in its followers. But those voices did not begin haunting me in that single moment. I was fighting prejudice that had developed in me over a lifetime of pain and disillusionment. Intolerance like that doesn’t throw in the towel without bloodshed, and in the aftermath, I remain shaken.
It is a myth that the United States of America was founded on the principal of religious freedom. Of course it wasn’t. Religious tyranny has existed here from the moment a cross was mounted on a ship bound for the New World. Settlers often sought the freedom to practice and enforce their own brand of intolerant dogma. Within the ranks of Puritans – the “Pilgrims” of my early public school indoctrination about the Thanksgiving tradition – dissent was crushed swiftly and harshly. And the first inhabitants of this land – including my ancestors – were slaughtered in the name of God and King. Yet, somehow, I have come to embrace the notion that religious tolerance is a piece of American bedrock as fundamental as democracy and the blues.
I grew up in rural California, surrounded and often touched by Christianity. I excitedly anticipated Christmas and Easter each year, patiently suffering the grownups who related the Baby Jesus Story (and the Resurrection, though with a little less patience), caught up in the joy of the festivities. As I matured, spiritual matters grew in importance, and my interest led me to join a Southern Baptist church for awhile. It was there that my religious education took a turn.
I was struck by the hypocrisy and ignorance openly displayed in the house of God. It was explained that all “good” Christians, including those I saw as small-minded, sniping bigots and liars, would nonetheless be rewarded, whereas the very finest of thoughtful, just, kind people, those whose moral integrity challenged even that of Jesus, were doomed (unless, of course, they joined the Prescott Baptist Church. Double stamps on Wednesday). When the condemnation was aimed at my parents, I quit in disgust.
As Christianity’s complicity in the murder and subjugation of my people became apparent, I grew to suspect the motives of all religious doctrines. My experiences with Christian recruiting groups that targeted young people served to reinforce these suspicions. I was appalled at the widespread use of deception. It became a struggle not to see Christians themselves as inherently flawed.
This feeling was eased only by occasional encounters with really good people who happened also to be Christian. One of these was a girl named Annie Moore.
I met Annie, the daughter of a Methodist minister, in high school. A lifelong activist in humanitarian causes, outspoken against intolerance and hypocrisy, she epitomized intelligent independence, and was willing to acknowledge right or wrong, even if it meant opposing fellow Christians. (Plus – completely cool – she played slide guitar and knew about Leadbelly.) She was someone to admire, and I did.
Next lesson: Drawn by their humanitarian and political principles, Annie joined other Christians in a Northern California communal group and, after completing nurse training, began work in earnest as a dedicated member. I curbed my skepticism for awhile, because this organization had received Annie’s seal of approval.
I needn’t have bothered. On November 18, 1978, Annie died, along with about 900 others who had joined Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple or were attempting to investigate it. To escape the scrutiny of critics, dissenters, and the law, the growing cult had moved en masse to the South American country of Guyana and set up a utopian community in the jungle there. After ordering the assassination of a California politician, Jones exhorted his followers to kill their children and themselves. Most, including my friend, complied. Complied. I joined the entire world in stunned disbelief.
Now, I don’t know about you, but in the face of grief, it’s my impulse to look for a scapegoat. Be it a cruel sadist or a weak rivet, it seems there must be something or someone I can point at and believe to have caused my pain. Many blamed Jim Jones, some blamed the government. Some blamed weak minds, poor self-esteem, poverty, sin, or other faults attributed to the victims.
I blamed religion.
Who could fail to see the road that took these 900 people on their journey through towns like
Let’s All Believe The Same Thing
We’re The Only Ones Who Can See The Truth
That Doesn’t Make Any Sense (But It’s Okay If God Said It),
to reach their final destiny:
Whatever Jim Says…
That road is paved with stones laid by the words of spiritual leaders and Holy Scriptures throughout history and the world. It was all the explanation I needed. It rang like a bell.
But just so much comfort arrives with this simplistic answer, and time only hardened its pillow. I couldn’t seem to rectify my sweeping condemnation of religions with the goodness I kept finding in people who practice them. As I began to recognize in my own thoughts the voices that drove me away from the Prescott Baptist Church, I grew uneasy. Yes, true, I could not ignore the mountain of examples I’d seen of religious principles trumping reason and morality. I could not shut my eyes and imagine away the senseless deaths and suffering, inspired by holy words and pious convictions. But neither could I be blind to my own heart, smiling as it must at the gracious good will shown over and over by Christians, Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, and so many others who have touched it. I felt stuck in the middle.
And in the middle I remain.
Say what you will about them, religions – social organizations built around central beliefs about metaphysical existence – deliver up one of humanity’s most coveted pearls: a sense of belonging. I don’t pretend to understand the appeal of such a thing. Like love, sex, food, happiness or music, belonging just seems to be on the list. Personally, I belong to a band, a neighborhood, a tribe, lots of things, all of which (like religion) draw a line between us and them. This delineation is helpful when you want to find someone with a common interest to discuss, or to count on for help to accomplish a common goal. “Hey, let’s all play that jig in B-minor! One, two, one, two…” It’s less than helpful when the “us”-es and “them”-s are trying to figure out how to co-exist. This is perhaps where the religious and I part ways.
Think about it. Can you imagine a concert where someone shouts out: “F#-major rules, dude! Storm the stage! Throw the B-minor lackeys out!” Ridiculous, right? But, wait. Perhaps one B-minor-devotee was discovered stuffing marshmallows into the French horns? Now would you join the F# faction and call for the banishment of B-minor?
No. That’s just plain silly. But this sort of logic seems less surprising when considering people’s religious views. The upheaval surrounding the proposed Moslem cultural center in New York is a case-in-point. Some non-Muslims are alarmed that Islam could develop a visible presence in a city where a few of its practitioners committed violence in its name. Yet they seem less troubled by the appearance of Christian churches in a nation where genocide was waged in the name of Jesus. Why? Perhaps because it is less threatening when it seems like you are not a target. “Us” and “them.”
In fact, there were innocent Muslims who died as well in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Banning Muslims makes no more sense than banning B-minor.
Outlawing mass-murder: now that makes sense.
To the fans of F#-major, I say, “Play at a different concert. Or wait for the next number. It might be in your key.” To the religious, I say “practice ‘us’ and ‘them’ in your church, not the whole country. You also belong to a neighborhood, a gender, a blood type.” And then, when you think about homo-sapiens, well, that leaves a pretty small “them”.
It ain’t easy. Of course not. Sometimes I cannot shut my eyes hard enough to blot out the image of the pious conquistador, praying with bowed head before his unsheathed sword. But it helps to remember the boxes of relief supplies sent to my flooded reservation by churchgoers, or the compassionate hugs that are sometimes delivered by Christian arms.
My poor friend’s family was doing their best to take the sting out of their grief, hoping to make available for others the haven they sought in such traumatic times. But I wish they had recognized the connection they already shared with every visitor (believer or non-) to the mortuary that afternoon: our sense of irreplaceable loss.
For my part, I need to remember that the audacity I witnessed, which arrogantly treated our sorrow as an opportunity, belonged to a single person, not the whole of Christianity. I can think of no religion, in fact, that deserves my wholesale condemnation (nor unquestioning devotion, for that matter.) There are jerks, and good people, in all walks of life. I hope I end up belonging to the latter.
(Ken Risling is a songwriter whose tribute to Annie Moore – the song “Jonestown” – appears here and here. His collected writings for the jonestown report are here. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)