Religion is failing us, Part One

The Thinker by Rodin

We just finished Season 2 of NBC’s series The Good Place, which we are watching on Netflix. It’s a comedy of sorts on the afterlife, more specifically on our views of the afterlife. In this version, pretty much everyone ends up in “The Bad Place”, i.e. Hell. Four clearly flawed not so good people end up in The Good Place, or do they? I won’t spoil the plot if you haven’t watched it. Despite some flaws, the show keeps you reasonably engaged, and manages to be reasonably funny while gently lampooning our common notion here in the West about the binary nature of being “good” or “bad” with no allowance for ambiguity.

Here in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I live now, at the Bridge Street Cemetery, sits the grave of someone who would recognize these versions of Heaven and Hell. Our progressive city used to have strongly Calvinist roots. Anyhow, we have the remains of Jonathan Edwards, a colonial Calvinist theologian whose sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God you may have read when studying American history. Northampton has since gone all-progressive with (I’m not kidding you) rainbow colored striped crosswalks. We have probably the highest number of lesbians per capita in the country. If Edwards could arise from the grave, he’d probably figure he was in hell with all the same-sex couples here walking around holding hands.

For the most part though, Northampton is a very peaceful, civil and charming place, which is why we retired here. I’m inured to all the rampant homosexuality around me. That’s because while we have a disproportionate number of LGBTQA folks, the majority remains happily heterosexual. We quickly learned that same sex couples holding hands were no threat to us. But you don’t have to drive too far out of Northampton to find plenty of Trump voters. It’s the furthest thing from Sodom and Gomorrah around here.

I can’t say the same thing about El Paso or Dayton, Ohio. Both cities suffered mass shootings recently in less than twenty-four hours. Twenty were killed in or around an El Paso Walmart yesterday by what looks like a 21-year-old white guy from Dallas with a rifle, trying to save White America somehow. Naturally he’s a Trump supporter. Around 1 a.m this morning, a gunman killed nine people and injured 26 others in Dayton. He had a 223-caliber magazine and body armor, which let him unleash mayhem quickly. Fortunately, police were nearby and managed to kill him pretty quickly. We don’t know yet this shooter’s age, race or motives, but there’s an excellent chance he is young, white and a Trump supporter too.

It’s American carnage, Trump-style. Trump is pushing all the buttons to unleash these horrors by his most unhinged supporters.

Religion is supposed to give us a way to not just cope with life, but to improve it. It’s clearly not keeping pace with the pace of change all around us. The response of many religions is to double down on their articles of faith, but doing so seems to unleash only more of the crazy.

America is rife with “Christianity”, but for the most part doesn’t actually practice Christianity. Frankly, religion is failing us. A belief system oriented around a world where most of us were serfs and reported to a lord doesn’t work well in the 21st century. Watching The Good Place, it’s hard not to ask why so many of us still believe these antiquated notions of heaven and hell.

What passes for Christianity these days is largely crazy and destructive. A majority of Christians in our country are clearly Trump supporters. They clearly approve of most of his policies, including separating families at the border and keeping children in cages and people in crowded, inhumane conditions. These days you can only act as a Christian to someone who is a member of your church. All others can be other-ized as not quite human. These “Christians” find “salvation” (comfort) in conformity and closed-mindedness. They want religion to impose order on a world when in fact doing so makes it worse. Christianity is breeding hatred and intolerance. It is making us less Christian every day.

No wonder so many Millennials are giving up on religion altogether. It’s not improving things, and it’s obviously phony and it’s hypocritical. But also Christianity is a very hard religion to practice, at least as Jesus taught it. It requires an open heart and love toward everyone, particularly those most unlike you. It’s clear that most Christians simply cannot and will not go there. It requires giving your treasure to the least of us. It requires you to act contrary to your nature. It requires you to constantly summon your better self and step outside your boundaries and prejudices. Most of us simply can’t, which simply drives cognitive dissonance that charlatans like Donald Trump are using for their own purposes. It feeds that chaos, the narrow-mindedness and the bigotry that is all around us.

Religion needs to be redefined for modern times. Perhaps we are better without it. Making the present try to fit the ideas of a far past is destroying us.

Judgment Day? Dear God, please start at the White House

The Thinker by Rodin

For being “retired”, life sure is keeping me busy, too busy to find much time to blog. The thing about being retired is that you can do anything you want. For me this means doing more of the stuff I love, which is teaching and consulting, both of which provide some income too. Blogging doesn’t bring in any money so it tends to sit on the back burner some weeks. For the last two weeks or so I’ve had little downtime.

I’ve not been at a loss for topics though, which is why I’ve decided to skip for now my monthly Craigslist casual encounters post (sorry, fans!). Mostly I’ve been thinking about evil and by extension evil people. There are so many sterling examples of late, particularly the people in the White House. My brother-in-law, one of the few right-wingers in my life, posted a picture of Trump and a bunch of his execs in the White House praying, or pretending to pray. His remark was something like: “Something you never saw in the last administration, ha ha! Isn’t it good to have real Christians in the White House?”

Trump and staff hypocritically "praying"
Trump and staff hypocritically “praying”

Yeah, right. I’m careful not to leave snarky comments with Rick, my brother in law. I have to live with him and he’s a good husband to my sister too. We can easily push each other’s buttons but choose not too and arguably I’m more publicly expressive of my opinions than he is of his.

Yet the photo really irked me. First of all, I sincerely doubt Trump has uttered a sincere prayer in his life, unless it was to plead to God to bring him more money. Second, for all of Obama’s haphazard churchgoing, Obama is something of a regular churchgoer compared to Trump. As best I can tell the only time Trump goes to church is to attend weddings, funerals and more recently political events. At a prayer breakfast in February he used the religious occasion to pray for poor ratings for The Apprentice, now that Arnold Schwarzenegger in playing the boss.

As for the rest of these White House “Christians”, Jesus would not recognize any of them as his followers. I won’t expound here about hypocritical Christians in general because I’ve done so many time, including this post. I … just … don’t … get … it. I don’t get how these “Christians” can believe they are Christian. I don’t believe Trump thinks he’s a Christian and I doubt he spends a millisecond thinking about God or concerning himself with the poor, except to pick their pockets.

The whole lot of these White House stoolies are running as fast as they can away from The Lord, by doing their damnedest to make the rich richer and the poor poorer (not to mention kill the planet) while trying desperately to humiliate the poor in the process. Include in this bunch my brother in law Rick, a faithful Catholic in the sense that he goes to Mass weekly, tithes his share but otherwise lives values wholly inconsistent with Christianity. Ironically, some of the most Christian people I know are atheists. In the unlikely event of the Rapture, I totally expect most of today’s “Christians” will be dumbstruck when their atheist neighbors ascend into heaven while the pit of hell opens up for them. It’s like Matthew 19:21 is excised from their Bibles, you know: “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’”

Speaking of brothers in law, I have another one, well, not quite a brother in law, but the husband of a niece. We recently got into something of a civilized rant on Facebook. My niece was wondering if there were any really great men in the world. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. I said: drive a couple of hundred miles south to Plains, Georgia some Sunday and watch the 39th president, James Earl Carter, teach Sunday school. Or watch him, age 90-something, nailing boards into walls at one of the many Habitat for Humanity houses he and his organization help construct. Jimmy Carter gives me hope that there really are some true Christians in the world. After all, he won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Carter Center has overseen more than a hundred elections, spreading democracy across the world.

But none of that mattered to my niece’s husband John. He has spent too much time watching Fox News. And somewhere in there he heard that Carter sent money to commies, Manuel Noriega of Nicaragua in this case, although we’re talking about the late 1970s. What a horrible man! Granted that history was not kind to his short presidency, but he did get a Nobel Prize from it and took unpopular but correct actions, such as agreeing to turn the Panama Canal over to the Panamanians. We kept the discourse pretty civil, largely due to his wife Sandy who was probably sending him IMs saying she wanted to stay on my good side. Alas, neither John nor brother in law Rick have anything good to say about Jimmy Carter, the most prominent example of a true Christian I can think of in today’s world. Jimmy Carter is by no means a saint, but he is a saintly man. He is holy in my mind, one of a handful of holy men in this world for who this honor should be obvious.

But not to John, not to Rick, and probably not to any of them people in the photo, except possibly the minister leading these hypocrites in prayer. Doubtless immediately after the photo op, the base applauded their “true Christians” while the subjects went back to deconstructing the administrative state, the professed aim of Trump’s senior adviser Steve Bannon which hopefully will include a new world war too.

I wish I could be a Christian just long enough to believe in Hell. With a few exceptions, I’m having a hard time thinking of a group of people more deserving to spend eternity there than the hypocrites in the photo. Fortunately, Jesus loves even dregs of humanity like them, even though their sacred mission seems to be to facilitate Satan by making more Americans poor, sick, hungry, anxious and scared.

Well, I’m not a Christian. Although I don’t believe in hell, here’s a toast wishing them a speedy entrance to it anyhow. The whole bunch of you in that photo can go to hell.