Letter to my Christian American friends and neighbors
Please don't go. I would miss you.
vol. 4 issue 17
Last year, I noted that America is both a “fact” and an “ideal”, which makes her dynamic.
“America, the Ideal is fluid,” I wrote, “just as all ideas are fluid. This means she can move with us as we evolve, change according to our needs, shape herself around our spirit as it expands, breathes, and takes flight. We can carry “America, the Ideal” within us, just as we can let it carry us within it simply by being Americans.”
It occurs to me now that what I described sounds a lot like the Holy Spirit might to a Christian.
And so, I have a plea. But first, some notes on story.
This summer, I’ve been listening to the Baptist preacher in my parents’ church read and preach about the Book of Numbers. I wasn’t raised Baptist. I had all the Catholic sacraments as a child, then as an adult was confirmed into the Episcopal church. But this is my parents’ world now, so I am curious.
What you don’t hear in the Catholic church is a really good story, and now that I am hearing them, I have to do what I do best, which is analyze what I am being told. I do realize that I am neither a Biblical nor a Talmudic scholar, but I have invited one from the Yale Divinity School to weigh in on this, and he has accepted my invitation, so please check back for in the next few weeks for his take on what I am about to tell you.
Perhaps you are quite familiar with the Old Testament, and so know that it depicts a lot of pain and confusion. There is a poor fellow who went out to pick up sticks on a Sunday, despite a warning he’d been given to not do that. When he is met with capital punishment for his um, crime (?), the preacher at church described this as God loving us so much, “the stick picker was shown discipline.” (!!).
I am always entertained and impressed by the extemporaneous way Baptist preachers can tell a juicy, coherent story, without notes. I reckon this preacher has told these stories before. But no matter, I am riveted, and it seems like everyone else around me is, too.
It’s just that I can’t get it out of my head that there is so much secrecy and “because I said so” or “because the Lord told me,” in these stories, and that if the person on the receiving end of the decree doesn’t accept it as fact, then blammo! Eventually, everyone meets the fate of the stick picker or lives a life of terror.
Numbers tells the story of Moses leading the Israelites from the foot of Mt. Sinai to what should be their new home in Canaan, but instead ends up being a road trip from Hell through the desert.
From my seat in the 12th row of the rather well air-conditioned church, Moses seems fishy to me. I think what I am supposed to believe is that Moses did not anticipate spending 40 years “wandering” around the hot, dry, thirsty desert accompanied by what sounds like were a bunch of brats who were afraid they were going to get a right thumpin’ if they did not do as instructed, which was to invade and then occupy a land belonging to a bunch of people minding their own business.
I feel compelled to ask, Why are these people supposed to predicate their entire lives on what some guy says, even if that guy is Moses, the one whom we are told led them out of Egyptian slavery? On the face of it, I suppose it would make sense to see it as fact that these tribes were actually child-like in that, as slaves, they were used to being told what to do, but that seems pretty insulting.
Were Southern US slaves stupid at worst, incompetent at best because they’d been enslaved? I don’t think so.
When I consider why anyone would put up with being led around in circles in the blistering, lethal heat, I wonder what ended up being edited out of these stories.
Were there women who wondered why their husbands and sons were squandering their new-found freedom by taking up with some cult leader who was ranting on about how, when no one else was looking, God gave him a bunch of new rules written on a rock?
Not to sound disrespectful, but it seems that this guy either needed a map or had a calculated plan to lead folks in circles until they were so disoriented and confused, they were easier to manipulate into attacking an entire city unprovoked. Which is doubly confusing, because I thought the rock tablets included an express instruction not to kill anyone.
Alternately, I imagine that folks who are disoriented in the desert are easier to shame for not killing on command, or that it might be easier to dismiss as heat stroke, one’s alarm over witnessing the death of a poor guy who needed sticks for a fire to cook his supper.
Yeah, I do know the story of Moses being “found” in the rushes by Miriam, that he was obviously “chosen”. I love that story. Miriam is one of my favorite Biblical heroes. But, still.
Moses might have a back story that confers specialness on him, and there is plenty of moaning he does to God about having to deal with all these whiny tourists, but not being raised up to fear an Old Testament God, it’s easy for me to see all this in a different light. A shadowy one.
Ever since the Axial age where monotheism gobbled up all our many gods, goddesses, and spirits – I think of it as a hostile takeover, a mergers and acquisitions spree carried out by front line prophets with those dubious back stories – we’ve been expected to just take some guy’s word for it. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a woman who wandered around the desert demanding fealty to a hidden dude in the sky who only has our best interests at heart, but she might have been edited out. We’ll ask our guest analyst.
Regardless, in place of our curiosity, we’ve been told to have faith. Now, I am all for faith, but not being told to hush up. We’ve been inculcated with stories about how God is responsible for everything good in our lives, including all the abundance in nature, but this has never, ever sat right with me. Nature seems to me, utterly capable of communicating with me without a master. And, we’re also told that the bad stuff is for our own good, so be glad for that. It just means you have to work harder to get into God’s good graces.
But about that Holy Spirit.
It’s also never sat right with me that, for the sake of Christianity’s obsession with hierarchy, the Holy Spirit was demoted from being a collection of the many faces of Spirit, into the grapevine between God and man (yeah, man): If God needs you, he’ll give you a call. He might even fill you with the holy spirit.
Ew. Read those words again and see if it occurs to you how creepy that is. Plus, it’s as though you have to be deemed worthy of it if you’re gonna get some. It doesn’t seem much like love to me, more like judgement and sexual degradation.
I am aware that Jesus was supposed to soften all that rage of the Father by dying for us, but that’s also never sat right with me. Although, thanks to my son’s Godmother, with whom I have had a few conversations about this lately, I do see that for many people, Jesus being the one who had to take the lethal whuppin’ from that mean ol’ daddy so they didn’t have to, definitely gives him a helluva backstory. Jesus makes it possible for people to have a personal relationship with God (who might kick your ass if you catch him at a bad time).
I am just not one of those people. Not that I have a gripe with Jesus; I surely don’t.
It’s just that without any prompting or pleading, I feel Spirit’s presence so thickly in the hills and dales of green and fertile Tennessee that I say hello to it every single day, lest I be taken for rude. I don’t need anyone to pass a law or break a law, or reverse a law for me to get the support I “need” or even want, in my relationship to the Almighty. And I am not afraid Spirit is judging me for what I do or don’t do, even if I am destructive to nature, which I try not to be.
The bottom line to Christianity seems to be “Because I said so.”
There is a heck of a lot of secrecy inherent to it; not mystery, secrecy. But I happen to like my curiosity a whole lot, and do not believe it is a sin. I believe it is a gift of Spirit, and foolish of me to not use it.
Which is why I keep thinking about what I wrote last year.
Listening to the Book of Numbers, I feel déjà vu all over again. I just can’t help but see the likeness between how all these good people are taking it for granted that the original word of the lord, as translated and told to them by someone else who has a lot to gain if you let them take the lead, is infallible just because a bunch of men said so (the Book of Ruth or Esther didn’t get written by either woman), and how so many millions of Americans are accepting of all the bizarrely angry, and destructive things being peddled as “news” these days.
All the chatter asserted as fact about what it means to be a real American committed to holding fast to the American Dream and all that we hold sacred, or how Jesus lovers are idiots who are overstepping the Constitution’s actual meaning, and oh my God, make it stop!
The paradigm is the problem, people. Not us.
The American Dream serves as a raison d’etre for pretty much every mean economic and social policy we have in this country, but it works because it is very much a compelling story, especially to a nation whose powerful people were raised on Westerns filled with rootin’ tootin’ law and order men and romanticized cowboys.
But it’s a twisted tale of the American Spirit. The story as told to us has come to order how we think, how we set about living our lives. It has justified allowing our power to flow upward to mostly men who operate in secret, who have not shown they have our best interests at heart, but have convinced us to trust them anyway. It has allowed us to be routinely shamed that if we haven’t achieved the American Dream, it’s our fault for not having tried hard enough, even if the resources we need are not made available to achieve that.
In that way, we are all stick pickers.
The dream is a lie, but the American spirit is not, and it is what is sacred. It’s everywhere. It doesn’t judge us. And rather than sneak up on us and do its bidding, it fills us only when we actually do dream of it and invite it into us, as I alluded to in that piece I wrote last year. It allows us to have true communion with it. There is none of that weirdly suggestive nonsense that vibes of violation. And when we do commune with it, it’s not like we have to wait for it to then relay the message to someone else before we can enjoy the fruits of it. There’s no bureaucracy.
Well, anyway. Here’s my little plea to my Christian friends and American neighbors. Before the 94 million of you who identify as evangelical and who, by many accounts, are ready to either tear down the government, or leave the union, or both just for good measure, go marching off in a huff, possibly to wander around in the desert following a mad man for many years to come, maybe interrogate your sources a little more closely.
If you go, I will miss you. I happen to love you all as a group (some of you can go to Hell, but in general, I’d like to keep you all around), because we are all bonded in Spirit.
It’d be a right shame if I lost you all to a bunch of bloviating nincompoops who know how to get your britches in a bunch by scaring the daylights out of you, and then swooping in to tell you everything’s alright if you’ll only just let them soothe your sinful soul. What’d you do to make you so bad to begin with? Pay those red-faced and angry fools no mind.
If you stay, I’ll be more than happy to get to know you and your love of Jesus, because if you’re going to demonstrate acts of love to me, I know you’re going to be kind. And I will be kind to you. Not permissive, just kind – love knows how to say no. But it doesn’t scream it.
All the rest is just commentary.
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You are always welcome to comment, Sam. xx
Hi Whitney. That passage in Numbers 15 also got my attention, since the stoning was done after Moses asked God what to do in that specific case. The divine order was not a general commandment, but a special application of the command to rest on the sabbath day. Why so severe? The best explanation I have run across is that this was very early in the people's communal life under the revelation at Sinai, and the principles of that revelation desperately needed to be established as habits of living. The principle of sabbath rest was especially important, because salvation has to be by grace from outside ourselves. Get that wrong, and you are on a road that leads to spiritual death. Resting from our labors periodically means that we are ultimately willing to trust God's provisions for our lives, physical and spiritual. Of course, Jesus later had to correct the religious leaders who had made the sabbath into a spiritual work day, an opportunity to earn their salvation without grace. Complex thoughts, but God gave us brains so we could ponder complex things of the spirit.