Pumpking pie, Jesus and challeging the cult of death.
I have a confession to make. I love pumpkin pie. I don’t mean in the sense of the juvenile film “American Pie”. And no I wouldn’t marry one -- there is only one person in the world I would marry and they know who they are. I just mean I really, really enjoy pumpkin pie.
Americans are decent cooks but they aren’t good cooks. They make nice meals but they don’t make great ones -- not generally. Which is a shame because the quality of the food in the US certainly surpasses much of the rest of the world including Europe.
The problem with pumpkin pie is that you can’t find it outside the United States. At least I never have. You can find pumpkin of course. Just not the pies. So there are long stretches of life with no pumpkin pie. Sad for me. But when I get the chance I eat it. Now how does any of this related to religion, life, death, Jesus and the rest of it?
I eat a lot of pumpkin pie when visiting the US because I never know when I’ll have another piece! I value it. That means I want more of it and I will act to gain more of it. Values are those things we act to obtain or keep. If we do nothing about it we don’t value it. So I do something about it. I buy them and eat them.
We all make choices based on our values. Beliefs are important because what we value is determined by them. If you believe pumpkin pie is an evil spewed out from the depths of hell you might well avoid it. What you believe determines what you value and your values determine how you act.
Now there is an economic perspective that we can use on this as well. Basically what you value or seek out are what economists would call the “demand”. I have a demand for pumpkin pie. I have a demand for good books, films with plots, and the company of my friends and those I love. Those are, in economic terms, my demand.
And then there is the supply side. If pumpkin pies were in unlimited supply, so that no matter how many are eaten there are still more than the world demands, the price of pumpkin pies would basically be zero. But of course if pumpkin pies were free the demand would go up. Even people who prefer cherry pies might take a pumpkin pie if the former were $4 each while the latter were free. So when the supply of something increases, but demand remains the same, the value or price of that good will drop.
Now there is another angle to this. How you value something is often determined, not by the real circumstances of the situation, but by your beliefs about them. Take this example: if you are driving along the highway and you tank is getting low you might want to fill up. You see a petrol station ahead but the price is rather high. But you also know that the next major town is about 40 minutes down the road and your tank will be empty before then. Considering the circumstances you pull in and fill up at a price that you think is a bit high. And then you drive on down the road only to find another petrol station, which you didn’t know about, with much lower prices.
You paid a higher price for petrol because you believed something that was false. Of course the opposite could also be true. You could undervalue something based on your own erroneous beliefs about the facts. There is no perfect knowledge so people make mistakes. They have errors in their value judgements.
And this brings us to the issue I want to discuss: the value of individual human life. What is the difference between the faithful and the irreligious concerning human life? Now the Christians in particular drone on about the value of life and how important it is. And they will argue that unbelievers can’t value human life at all because they don’t believe in God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. They call themselves “pro-life” implying their counterparts must be pro-death. In fact one such individual has even written a book attacking the secularists and folks on the outs with these religionists as The Party of Death.
But while they are so pro-life they are very willing, in fact sometimes happy, to inflict death themselves. The Bible is filled with demands that all sorts of sinners be put to death. Many modern day fundamentalists, who take this stuff seriously, as inflicted with this death syndrome. They want to kill others or at least want someone to kill them. Some, like theocrat Gary North, extol the virtues of stoning people to death for their sins. He says the biblical punishment is one where the whole community comes out and kills the sinner. He thinks this builds community spirit!
George Bush is one of the most fanatical religionists to ever sit in the White House. He is not adverse to sending people to their deaths at all. He is doing so as president and he did as governor of Texas. Texas executes more people than any other location in the United States. It is also one of the most fundamentalist Christian states in America. Pro-life apparently means they support state executions as well.
And we can’t forget that this mandate to kill doesn’t apply to just cold blooded killers. I think the first time I was aware of this was a Moral Majority rally that I attended while writing a story about Anita Bryant. There were some small children with their parents and these kids were carrying signs calling for the execution of gay people. Executing homosexuals is widely accepted in fundamentalist circles: Islamic or Christian.
Death is at the centre of the morality code of these people. You know that they love to demand that the Ten Commandments be put up in school rooms and court rooms. Read your Bible and consider what the penalties were for breaking those commandments. Over and over the Bible said such people should be put to death. Now Christians are quick to say that the Ten Commandments were never “repealed”. I wonder if they then mean that the penalties for breaking those commandments, execution, has also never been repealed. Actually I don’t wonder. For a large,, and growing, number of them the answer would be that it has not been repealed and death is still appropriate.
Of course it is one thing to run around stoning sinners to death. But how do they value Christian lives? Not highly either. Here is why. First, they believe there is an endless supply of life waiting for them. Unlike us non-believers who think this is the end they believe they have “eternal life”. In economic terms they believe that there is an endless supply of life that far exceeds our demands.
In other words the supply exceeds the demand thus bringing the value down to nil. It gets even worse. They also believe that the life to come is better than the life they have. Dying today rushes them into the company of Jesus, the saints, the angels of heaven and Almighty God. It is eternal bliss and joy. This life, they will say, is but a veil of tears. So you shed this old body and take on a heavenly body. You depart this sin ridden world of disease, misery and death for one of eternal salvation and worshipful joy.
It is not just an endless supply of life that they believe awaits them. It is also a major improvement over the one that exists now. The much revered St. Augustine put it this way: “I have no concern in this life except to depart from it as speedily as possible.” His view of life was not unusual for Christians. The great dark stains on Christianity are rooted in this very idea that this life is evil, that a better life awaits, and that the eternal soul has infinite value while the human body has none.
This concept applied to all equally. The unbeliever was endangering the soul of Christians so to kill his body was of no significance. This life has little value compared to the eternal soul and since the only way to salvation is through the Christian faith those who opposed it had to be killed. And from the moment Christians had the ability to slaughter unbelievers they engaged in it fervently and prayerfully. Augsutine noted that “unjust persecution” is that “which the wicked inflict on the Church of Christ” but there is a “just persecution which the Church of Christ inflicts on the wicked.”
Even Thomas Aquinas, who helped reintroduce the concept of reason to the West argued for the execution of heretics. “They deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be shut off from the world by death. For it is a far more serious matter to corrupt faith, through which comes the soul’s life, than to forge money, through which temporal life is supported. Hence if forgers of money or other malefactors are straightaway justly put to death by secular princes, with much more justice can heretics, immediately upon conviction, be not only excommunicated but also put to death.”
And contrary to common misconceptions this tendency to murder those who dare question the faith did not end with the Reformation. If anything the Reformation was a step backwards. It was a revolt not against the sins of the Church but against the revival of reason by Aquinas. It was a return to the older, even less tolerant views of Augustine. Instead of ushering in a time of enlightenment and tolerance the Reformationists stepped up the executions. As Perez Zagorin wrote in his book “How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West”: “The sixteenth century, which witnessed the Reformation and the beginning and spread of Protestantism, was probably the most intolerant period in Christian history, marked not only be violent conflict between contending Christian denominations but by an upsurge of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in western Europe.” Zagorin goes so far as to say: “Of all the great world religions past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant.”
What the Islamists do today is what Christians have done and, to a lesser degree, still do today. What restrains today’s fundamentalist Christians from acting as intolerant as fundamentalist Islamists? Only the lack of political power. The Islamists control much of the Middle East. Even “friendly” states like Saudi Arabia are under the control of fundamentalist Muslims. They hold political power.
In the West fundamentalist Christians do not have a firm grip on power. It is true they control the Republican Party but they still face an opposition, and thankfully a growing one. But they do control various states. It is for this reason that Texas is so quick to execute people. The state has only 7.5% of all the US population but they carry out one-third of all the executions. But the western Liberal tradition, that of Jefferson and men like him, restrains these fanatics. And they admit as much. They are merely waiting until “the Godly” gain control and they intend to bring back the Dark Ages but this time with attitude.
Could America’s willingness to execute people be tied to religion? It most certainly is. Who says so? Try one of the most Right-wing judges on the US Supreme Court. Justice Antonin Scalia said that government derives all its “moral authority from God” (the Founders said it was from the people). And: “Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral.” Get that! The more Christian they are the less they are against executing people. Why? “I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian,” said Scalia who is a believing Christian, “death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a bid deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life, in exchange for the next?... For the non-believer, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence.”
Scalia is a fervent believer himself and he is quite explicit: “death is no big deal.” Go and look at the video of the Rev. Paul Hill, who killed two people at an abortion clinic, one of whom was merely a bodyguard for a physician. He is joyous that he is to be executed. He said that his execution will only bring him to Jesus and what is there to complain about?
We witness the same mentality, the same exact belief, in another faith. It is the belief that motivates the suicide bombers of Islam. It is the belief that allowed young men to fly planes into buildings filled with people. They were going to the next life, the more important one. They were giving up nothing and gaining everything.
As Richard Dawkins wrote at the time of the 9/11 attacks: “I am trying to call attention to the elephant in the room that everybody is too polite---or too devout---to notice: religion, and specifically the devaluing effect that religion has on human life. I don’t mean devaluing the life of others (though it can do that too), but devaluing one’s own life. Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end.”
One of the letters left behind by the 9/11 killers said: “Take prisoners and kill them. As Almighty God said: ‘No prophet should have prisoners until he has soaked the land with blood.’”
“...How beautiful it is for one to read God’s words, such as: ‘And those who prefer the afterlife over this world should fight for the sake of God.’ And His words: ‘Do not suppose that those who are killed for the sake of God are dead; they are alive.’”
As one of these killers said, they love death.
Why shouldn’t they love death given their premises? If there is a God who wants people to punish evil doers and who will reward them if they do. If he offers them eternal bliss and happiness far exceeding anything good in this world, they why cling to life in this world at all?
In closing I want to share a letter that I was given many, many years ago. It was not written to me. It was written to friends and family of a young man named Jack. Jack was a fundamentalist Christian who was also a gay man. He tried to find the promise “cure” for being gay offered by the ex-gay movement. He had gone to a group misnamed “Love in Action” seeking this “healing.” Yet no matter how hard he tried the reality was that he was still gay. Jack killed himself. And in his letter he explains why. Read it all:
"TO: Those left with the question, why did he do it?
"I loved life and all that it had to offer to me each day.
"I loved my job and my clients. "I loved my friends and thank God for each one of them.
"I loved my little house and would not have wanted to live anywhere else.
"All this looks like the perfect life. Yet, I must not let this shadow the problem that I have in my life. At one time, not to long ago, that was all that really mattered in my life. What pleased me and how it affected me. Now that I have turned my life over to the Lord and the changes came one by one, the above statements mean much more to me. I am pleased that I can say those statements with all the truth and honesty that is within me.
"However, to make this short, I must confess that there were things in my life that I could not gain control, no matter how much I prayed and tried to avoid the temptation, I continually failed.
"It is this constant failure that has made me make the decision to terminate my life here on earth. I do this with the complete understanding that life is not mine to take. I know that it is against the teachings of our Creator. No man is without sin, this I realise. I will cleanse myself of all sin as taught to me by His word. Yet, I must face my Lord with the sin of murder. I believe that Jesus died and paid the price for that sin too. I know that I shall have everlasting life with Him by departing this world now, no matter how much I love it, my friends, my family. If I remain it could possibly allow the devil the opportunity to lead me away from the Lord. I love life, but my love for the Lord is so much greater, the choice is simple.
"I am not asking you to sanction my actions. That is not the purpose of my writing this at all. It is for the express purpose of allowing each one who will read this to know how I weighed things in my own mind. I don't want you to think that, 'I alone,' should have been the perfect person, without sin. That would be ridiculous! It is the continuing lack of strength and/or obedience and/or will power to cast aside certain sins. To continually go before God and ask forgiveness and make promises you know you can't keep is more than I can take. I feel it is making a mockery of God and all He stands for in my life.
"Please know that I am extremely happy to be going to the Lord. He knows my heart and knows how much I love life and and all that it has to offer. But, He knows that I love Him more. That is why I believe that I will be with Him in Paradise. "I regret if I bring sorrow to those that are left behind. If you get your hearts in tune with the word of God you will be as happy about my 'transfer' as I am. I also hope that this answers sufficiently the question, why?
"May God Have Mercy On My Soul."
"A Brother & A Friend."
Almost three decades later this letter still causes my eyes to tear up. A young man’s life destroyed because of a belief. Those who say we should not challenge the deeply held, sincere religious beliefs of others, are saying we must not challenge a belief that leads people to die needless or to kill others. It is the belief in an afterlife that makes this life so valueless to so many believers. And that belief allows them to take lives with relative ease if necessary. It may be their own or it may that of others. But in the end life in this world holds no value to them because they believe in a better life in another world. Belief in an afterlife is a cult of death. It denigrates the one life they do have and offers them a fantasy in return. That belief must be challenged. To not challenge it is to be an enabler for a system of ideas that can only bring more death and more misery.