Literal love

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve droned on about literalists, but I want to stress that I’m a literalist myself. At least when it’s clear the literal interpretation makes more sense than twisting the meaning and redefining words with meanings that can’t be found in standard dictionaries.

I first got in trouble for this in my high school freshman English class when I told my teacher that the rose in a poem could simply be a rose. (And this was before I read Gertrude Stein). Even in college poetry workshops, I felt that a poem that couldn’t be read literally first probably couldn’t support a meaningful symbolic structure.

So when I question the belief that every word in the Bible is to be taken literally, it’s not because I don’t feel literal interpretations aren’t important. In fact, I think it could be dangerous to ignore the literal meaning of passages. I simply believe that snipping verses and passing them off as “God’s literal word” can lead to as many problems as refusing to accept any basis of truth in the scripture.

Take the phrase “it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” There is a metaphor involved but the metaphor isn’t the point. It doesn’t really matter what the eye of the needle is or how hard it is for the camel to get through it. The point is the literal meaning, which is that rich people will have a hard time getting into heaven.

Even if we don’t understand the metaphor of “eye of the needle” at all, the context of the saying makes it clear. It follows a literal declaration making the exact same point with no metaphor whatever. “…I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” It doesn’t get more literal than that.

The syntax of the sentence (It is easier for A than B) makes the meaning clear as well. Take other examples: “It would be easier to split a rock with your head than separate something glued with epoxy,” or “It would be easier to survive water torture and electrocution than to sit through another Republican primary debate with Rick Perry involved.” When anyone encounters that structure in ordinary language, we don’t stop to reinterpret it to mean “this will be easy” (or in the case of Christian Republican theology, essential).

And yet I have sat through any number of sermons explaining why Jesus didn’t really mean it was hard for rich people to get into heaven. I’m not just pointing my finger at Baptists here (although most of the sermons I heard came during Baptist revival when giving was at its highest), but Episcopalians and Presbyterians as well.

I write this because I remember a long night spent arguing with a family member about Matthew 22. This family member, whom I won’t name, argued that homosexuals couldn’t be Christians because they didn’t obey God. In fact, she argued, no one could really be Christian if they weren’t in complete obedience. People who weren’t in complete obedience didn’t deserve God’s love or forgiveness.

So I quoted (or paraphrased) Matthew 22: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (This is the NIV version, but it isn’t too much different than the others).

She claimed that verse wasn’t talking about agape love, so we looked it up on the Internet and it was. Then she said, “but love means ‘obey.’ So the commandment is really saying that if we love god we will obey every commandment.”

Sadly, this kind of tunnel vision drives too much of Christian thinking. When the time comes to read a verse literally, we can’t accept it.

I’ve looked up every definition of love and agape on the web (and that includes a number of cranky sites) and couldn’t find one that defined agape as obedience. I’m sure, however, that this meaning has popped up in more than one discussion. It’s easier to redefine words when the dictionary isn’t in front of us.

Here’s my thinking. If the definition of love is to obey, then Jesus was really saying the the most important way in which we can obey God is to obey God. I don’t think Jesus was given to that kind of circularity. If anything, he was too much of an out of the box thinker for most Christians.

But if this is what he really meant, then we are left interpreting the second commandment to mean, “Obey your neighbor as you obey yourself.” I don’t want to discuss the linguistic twists that follow from this thinking.

More accurately, this is a case where we need to think literally. If we really want to obey God we will love him and love each other. Love, in essence, is a commandment, and that doesn’t mean tough love or doing what’s best for someone in spite of their desires, or denying them the love of God because we think they’re disobeying God themselves.

It’s tempting to walk away from such clear injunctions because they seem so trite and obvious. The Beatles said, “All you need is love,” so it must be more difficult than that. Who wants their most important imperative to be reduced to a jingle?

But in the case of Jesus’ followers, it’s an order. If you want to obey God, you will love him and everyone else. Homosexual or not. Unwed parent or not. Had an abortion and still believing it was the right thing to do or not. Planning on having an abortion or not. Or, in my case (and that’s what makes it so hard to love them) whether or not they believe in creationism (as opposed to creation), support the Tea Party, and think Obama is the antiChrist.

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WWS&RD?

The recent decision by the State of Texas to make rape victims pay for their own rape kits is one of the most cynical and the least Christian moves I can think of. The decision was prompted by the State’s refusal to accept Federal funding in areas such as education, health and law enforcement, leaving the state without money to aid victims of rape. Or at least that’s the Attorney General’s spin.

Basically, the decision means that taxes Texans pay to the federal government get spent on other states instead. In essence, they’re giving our taxes to someone else to make a political point. But the rape kits have to be the kicker.

What’s next? Making homicide victims pay for the crime lab work and clean up? Making burglary victims pay for the finger print kits? Wealthier families will have no problem paying for the lab work, but this leaves the poor with no real recourse to justice since they won’t be able to pay for the investigations.

Screen shot of Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign poster. He has offered it to the Republican party for their other campaigns and they may adopt it.

screen shot of Perry's campaign poster

This callous and cynical, and decidedly unChristian kind of thinking made me realize we need a second ethical guideline as a yardstick for decision making. We have the positive example, WWJD (or, more specifically, What Would Jesus Really Do), but we need a negative yardstick as well: WWS&RD.

This is not aimed at all Republicans, I admire many of them. Unfortunately they cower in the shadow of the religious right and the Tea Party every bit as much as Democrats.

Republicans and Tea Party members will no doubt be upset that I pair them with Satan, but they’ve pointed the Satan finger so unjustly and so successfully for so long that I’ve decided it’s time to call them on it. After all, the Inquisition may well have been one of the most powerful tools in Satan’s arsenal. Why shouldn’t he continue the tactic?

Let me segue for a few paragraphs to explain where I’m coming from.

You don’t have to be an idiot to have idiotic ideas

Liberal Christians (LCs) make the same mistake about Fundamentalist beliefs that secular liberals make about theirs. They assume that because fundamentalists and evangelicals (FECs) cling to a few ideas they perceive to be idiotic, then the entire fundamentalist belief structure must be wrong. As a consequence, many LCs reject wholeheartedly any notion that Jesus was more divine than any other man or that there might be a resurrection of the dead.

Both sides ignore the fact that all of these issues were heavily debated in the early Christian community1 and, it could be argued, orthodoxy only became standardized with the enforcement of empire.

But we may also have to acknowledge that many fundamentalist ideas are held to be idiotic because in some ways they border on the idiotic.

Of course, the problem is that to true believers idiotic never seems idiotic. It makes perfect sense because, by God, that’s what someone important told them. This is why Bill Maher’s Donner Party is doomed from the outset, as much as I pitch my hat to them. Most Donner Party followers will join only with a sense of irony, and idiots have no irony. In the end, faux idiots like those of us in the Donner Party, will always cave to the force of sheer idiocy.

Being raised Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) I was taught that the Bible was literally true. Every word of it. In fact, when I discussed the Bible with family members, they seemed to believe that God literally seized the writing hands of the Prophets and Apostles and everything in the Bible was merely a matter of automatic writing (or, since that has overtones of magic, taking dictation).2

Even casual observation and reading made it clear this couldn’t possibly be true. For one thing, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians that he isn’t writing from God but as a fool. But since it appears in the Bible we are left with something even worse than the “this sentence is false” dilemma. Paul says the passage isn’t the literal word of God, but merely the words of a fool.

But if the entire Bible is the literal word of God, it is the literal word of God (and Paul should have known it) and, even worse, the literal words of God are the words of a fool.

Of course, even Fundamentalists balked at scriptures that completely challenge their faith. For instance, the Bible says the eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. And that when a couple are married they become one flesh. Catholics, God bless them, don’t back down on these beliefs.

According to the Baptists, however, marriage and communion were symbolic sacraments (as opposed to baptism which was a bona fide sacrament). Now in my book, “symbolic” means “not literal.” In fact, in the Baptist book it means not literal too unless we’re talking about scripture. In the context of scripture, symbolic means literal, just not literally literal.

The Song of Songs presents a similar problem. If we interpret it literally, the Song of Songs celebrates the joys of physical sex. Let’s be honest. It’s about the joy of fucking.3 If we want to talk literal, I don’t see how we can get more literal than that.

The Song of Song even says it’s okay for a man to want to enjoy a woman’s breasts while they get it on (and, we can infer, for a woman to enjoy a man dawdling around her breasts as well). I learned more about sex from the Song of Songs than I did from National Geographic (the only other publication with breasts I was allowed to see).

But here’s the thing. If you’re FEC, The Song of Songs isn’t really about sex, it’s about Jesus. (In fact, even many LCs blush over that one and prefer the “spiritual interpretation.”) This means that—not only is there an entire book of the Tanakh that we can’t discuss literally—all those good people who read the Song of Songs before the birth of Christ were left totally clueless. It’s amazing they were smart enough to put it in the Bible.

Here are some other bizarre problems with literalism. The parables couldn’t be stories, they must have actually happened. Paul really experienced childbirth as did the other apostles. Jesus is not only a person, he’s a lamb and the holy spirit is a real dove. And the Bible never claims to be the literal word of God (except for the Ten Commandments and the Laws, many of which fundamentalists ignore—for instance, the verses about making women stay outside of town during their monthly periods).

This leads me to the most perplexing problem. In this literalist interpretation of the Bible, God is incapable of using metaphors, simile and allegory. People can do it, but God can’t because every word he utters (in English) is literal. But even if God can use metaphors, once his words are written down in the Bible, every one of those metaphors ceases to be a metaphor and becomes literally true.

And God doesn’t really get to speak to us with any authority any more because everything important he said was already written.

All of this just to preserve Mary’s virginity, keep the world seven thousand years old and make the dinosaurs go away.

Sure, I get it. If every word of the Bible isn’t literally true, we have to justify our faith in the resurrection with more than “the Bible.” The problem is, nobody believes the Bible but us, so it isn’t very useful for proof anyway.

I understand the impulse to defend the literalism of the scriptures. We don’t want to reduce them to fables and fairy tales either. But I’m hard pressed to find either position particularly intelligible. Or scriptural.

This qualifies as an idiotic belief no matter how profoundly we cling to it. I didn’t used to feel so strongly but I finally had to face the facts. Nobody, and I mean nobody, interprets every sentence of the Bible as a literal expression of truth. Everyone I’ve ever discussed the Bible with has found some reason to explain away the literal meaning of passages they don’t like, even when the example under discussion is really intended to be taken literally (e.g., love your neighbor as yourself).

So to claim that you do is to lie to yourself so loudly and so well that you literally believe the lie you live no matter how thoroughly you fail to actually practice isn’t even simple ignorance. It’s shortsighted, and possibly even dangerous.

But let’s take the example of a man often held up as an example for his defense of fundamentalism and the literal truth of the Bible, William Jennings Bryan. A man I consider one of my personal heroes even though he could be shortsighted. Bryan was a two-time candidate for President who would have been horrified at modern fundamentalism’s right wing politics. Ridiculed for his belief in creation, people forget that his concern was as much about the consequences of evolutionary theory on political and social engineering as he was about the veracity of scripture.

At the time, evolution was frequently tied into a social and political theory called eugenics. Its proponents believed in another idiotic idea—that evolution justified engineering a superior race and citizen (with the implication that the poor and non-white peoples were genetically inferior to wealthy white people).

Bryan was a defender of famers’ and labor movements, and wanted to detach US currency from the gold standard to create more money and improve the lives of the poor and the middle class. He rejected evolution because he didn’t like its use in justifying a war on the poor and less fortunate.

The phrase “eugenics” has passed from the lexicon (except for Star Trek fans) but the social engineering Bryan feared remains firmly entrenched in the hands of Republicans like Rick Perry. Based on his Presidential announcement and his decisions in the past week, this is Perry’s platform:

  • Tax the poor.4
  • Deny justice to poor people when the wealthy rob them of their lives and livelihood.5
  • Make rape victims pay for their own investigation.
  • Take insurance away from the poorest Americans.6

As with eugenics, this is an all out assault on the poor and underprivileged to funnel what little wealth and dignity they have to the deserving rich. Perry and the Republican vanguard (and make no mistake about it, this new virulent strain of the religious right now controls the party) want to make sure that not only can we never dine at the table, the rich don’t even have to throw us their scraps.

And if that doesn’t remind you of one of Jesus’ parables, it doesn’t matter if the Bible is the literal word of God or not. You haven’t been reading it.

So, yes, I propose a new measure, the anti-WWJD. What Would Satan & Republicans Do (WWS&RD)? For far too long Perry and his ilk have accused those who would follow the example of Christ of being enemies of Christ. And this is definitely a move we would expect from the angel of light.


1Readers who believe the early Christians held a monolithic interpretation of the faith haven’t really been reading their Bibles. Early Christians argued like Baptists over who had the “true” message. They argued about whether gentiles could be converted, and once they let the gentiles in the argued about whether they needed to be circumcised. They argued about whether one church should support the work of another church. They argued about the spiritual status of sacrificial meat. They argued whether or not Christians could also serve the Roman empire.
They even argued over the resurrection of the dead. If you doubt it, check out Paul’s defense of the resurrection, which is addressed to believers. (1 Corinth 15) If the resurrection of the dead was a universally accepted belief among early Christians, we have to question why he would feel the need to argue so passionately that none of the faith is meaningful without the hope of resurrection.back

2Ironically this is an Islamic and not a Christian belief. The idea that God literally dictated his precepts to the writers of scripture appears nowhere in scripture. He inspires prophets, he speaks to them, but they remain free agents in the transmission process. Mohammed, however, did describe the Koran as a literal message from God which he wrote down word for word.
So it could be argued that people who believe God took control of the people who wrote the Bible and forced the words through their hands are actually Islamists.back

3Before you go getting all weird about my saying “fucking” in a Christian column, let me assure you I debated whether or not to use the word for fifteen minutes (which is a long time for me to debate myself; in fact it shows exceptional restraint and reflection on my part, as Carol and the rest of my family will attest). But I finally decided that if we’re going to talk about the consequences of literal interpretations, there’s nothing more literal than that.
When I was in Nashville as a teenager I ran across a protestor outside the publisher of the Living Bible. Now I’m not a fan of paraphrased Bibles because they aren’t even translations so much as “the Bible as I would say it” (which should cause even more problems for Baptists who believe the Bible is the literal word of God and who also read the Living Bible). He was upset because the paraphraser used the words “crap,” “piss” and “bitch.” I asked him if those weren’t the real words in Hebrew and Greek. He admitted that, yes, they were but the writer still could have used words that were better suited to Christians. Sometimes you just have to call something what it is.back

4What else are we to make of his pronouncement, “half of Americans” don’t pay taxes? Let’s put aside the fact that the number seems highly exaggerated. The Americans he refers to don’t make enough to pay taxes. And most of them do give the money to the government only to have it returned at the end of the tax year. This allows the government to at least earn interest on the money in the meantime, helping generate the revenue to build roads and pay for bullets for our soldiers in Afghanistan. back

5Aka “tort reform”back

6Aka “repeal the Health Care Act.”back


First stop President, next stop Messiah

Not more than a day after the Republican Presidential debate improved Rick Perry’s chances without him having uttered a word, he fell to the occasion by claiming he was Jesus.

Perry’s exact words? “I say that a prophet is generally not loved in their hometown. That’s both Biblical and practical.” Not to mention completely ungrammatical. But what can you expect of someone who graduated from one of the nation’s poorest performing states in education?

You can find the statement just about anywhere on the web. I’m citing 1
Rick Connelly in the Houston Press.

His remark came in answer to a question about his unpopularity in Texas. And he is unpopular. I don’t know anyone who likes him. But that doesn’t matter because the only person Texans hate more than Rick Perry is any Democrat who opposes him. Especially now that Obama has tainted the purity of the Democratic bloodlines.

Rick Perry’s new official self-portrait, commissioned after his “prophet without honor” press conference.

All Perry had to say was, “If I’m that unpopular, why have they reelected me so damn many times?” Admittedly, this is a question that puzzles me as well. But he didn’t provide it. He chose to imply that he’s unpopular because he’s a prophet.

Not just any prophet, mind you. He took the words right out of Jesus’ mouth. So even though he didn’t technically refer to himself as Jesus, it’s hard to avoid drawing the conclusion. Either way, if you believe Hal Lindsay and Rapture theologians, this claim would qualify him as the AntiChrist, or the prophet of the AntiChrist.

If he actually becomes President.

If he loses, he would just become another delusional heretic like David Koresh or Jim Jones, leading his Texas flock to metaphorical suicide (which is pretty much the way things are going down here).

But here’s the thing, Rick. A prophet is without honor in his own country, but so are fools, liars and panderers. Jesus was held in contempt because his friends and family members remembered him before he began his mission. This was their first encounter with him after he felt the call.

People hold you in contempt after you’ve actually completed several turns as governor. Nobody remembers you before your election; we know the man in office. Texans might argue that you are without honor in your own country because you’ve proved time and time again that you have no honor personally.

Ironically, Perry won’t suffer from his comment at all. Why? Because Republicans will forgive him just about anything since you can’t be Republican and not also be an Ambassador of Christ. Democrats already think he’s little more than George Bush’s Mini Me.

I find this ironic because Republicans howled at Obama’s use of messianic language (e.g., “bringing people together,” and, even worse, “I’m asking you to believe.”) The World Net Daily went so far as to suggest Democrats would coronate him Messiah based on reports of an Obama painting.2

To me, Perry’s statement is little more than another indication of how easily people use their faith to put blinders on their politics (and vice versa).

When I turned 18, a member of the first class of 18-year-olds to vote, I supported George McGovern. The pastor of my church and most of the elders told me I shouldn’t support McGovern, not just because he was against Jesus but because Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics. Never mind the fact that McGovern was a devout Methodist and former president of Wesleyan University.

Eight years later, those same Christians would join the religious right and vote born again Christian Jimmy Carter out of office, to replace him with a man who would never profess Christianity personally, but only admit that he “believed in a higher power” and didn’t attend church because he didn’t want people to be endangered by assassins trying to kill him. 3

I didn’t understand why so many evangelicals hated McGovern, because at the time I thought Methodists were partners in the Alliance of Light (Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists—maybe Presbyterians) against the spiritual Axis of Evil (Catholics, Communists and Counter Culturalists). In retrospect, I can see the handwriting was on the wall. Methodists were so close to the center they would inevitably be lumped in with Episcopalians.

The Christian Right doesn’t want to separate faith from politics because it allows them to divert the faithful from the truth. There is big money in corporate politics, Republican campaigns and mega-church evangelism. Not all mega-churches are evil, but sooner or later growth becomes the bottom line in faith as well as business. More souls saved means bigger churches, more influence politically and more money raised.

The early church was about the nurturing and care of Christians as much as it was about evangelism. If the church didn’t continue to serve the physical and social needs of new believers (most of them poor), they would drift way.

In the book of Acts, the twelve Apostles in Jerusalem did not evangelize, they spent their time in prayer. They appointed deacons to physically serve the needs of the fellowship. Unfortunately, as always, the evangelists got the glory.

Even Paul’s work as a tent maker, while he spent months supporting himself to build churches and make sure the money went to the poorer members (and to support the church in Jerusalem), gets lost in the tales of adventure and evangelism.

The Christian Right is a profitable enterprise, and you can bet Rick Perry will capitalize on the brand to promote a political ideology that has impoverished Texans, Christian and non-Christian alike.

When Carol first read about Perry’s claim, she posted on Facebook: “I know Jesus, and Rick Perry isn’t Jesus.”

None of these guys are, so maybe we should put aside the filter of faith when listening to politicians. We want to elect politicians whose policies show care and concern for the least of us, as did Jesus. We don’t want politicians who turn faith into another corporate brand.


1If you’re not sure why the passage isn’t grammatical, you probably graduated from a Texas school just like Rick Perry’s. So move to a state with good schools while you can, because Perry and his cronies in the Legislature are determined to even reduce universities to football powers and academic wastelands.
Pro analysts complained that UT national champion and quarterback Vince Young could barely read the playbook. By the time the current cuts are finished, he would qualify for Texas MENSA (which handicaps applicants from Texas by adding 80 points to their IQs).

2 If you read the article, it’s clear that the painting that provokes the messianic coronation article was never intended to deify Obama. The article includes the obligatory artist’s comment without actually stopping to think what he’s actually saying.

“More than a presidential portrait,” writes D’Antuono on a website touting the painting, “‘The Truth’ is a politically, religiously and socially-charged statement on our nation’s current political climate and deep partisan divide that is sure to create a dialogue.”back

It reminds me of the “Jesus (heart) George and Osama” bumper sticker I wanted to make before Carol convinced me some asshole would trash our car in a fit of Christian charity.

3He made the statement in a Presidential debate against Mondale.back


Graduation prayer: learning the wrong lessons

Being raised Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) means being raised with a set of stories all Baptists share. Each of these stories illustrates an important principle of faith that we must hold close to our heart. We never question these stories because they are written into scripture and therefore they usher forth directly from the mouth of God.

Famous bible stories

One of those stories came from the book of Daniel1, the story of Hananiah (חֲנַנְיָה), Mishael (מִישָׁאֵל) and Azariah (עֲזַרְיָה). Most Baptists won’t recognize these three because Baptists call them by their Chaldean slave names Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Gustave Dore’s rendition of the triumphal salvation of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Most Baptists won’t recognize those names even though we learned about them in countless Sunday Schools.

I find this ironic because the story is about cultural oppression and forcing people to submit to the cultural expectations of society at large. Somehow we overlook this and still refer to these Hebrew heroes by their slave names.

In the story, our three heroes are ordered to follow the religious practices and cultural customs of the empire. But they don’t. They don’t eat spiced meat (aka steak with salt and pepper or A1 sauce) or drink spiced wine. But the worst atrocity was forcing our heroes to pray to the Chaldean Gods.

These guys could have done the safe thing and simply bowed their heads when the Chaldeans prayed, and pretended to go along with the show. But real Hebrews didn’t do that, and they chose to be burned to death rather than appearing to pray to Babylonian gods. The Hebrew God saves them, of course, but that isn’t the point of the story.

And the moral to the story is….

The point of the story is that the faithful are willing to die rather than bow their heads in prayer to a God (or god) they don’t worship. And sorry, Christians, but I have to include Jews as the faithful because the story was about them and not us. We’re just an afterthought to scripture.2

Baptists always took a second, subtextual lesson from the story. In a Christian society (i.e., America) we shouldn’t be forced to pray to other gods.

But I think we should see an additional, parallel lesson. Imagine how American Christians would feel if we were forced to participate in meetings where the speakers led us in prayers to Allah. We would be furious, and rightly so.

How dare they?

American Christians would be equally distressed if we were asked to bow our heads and experience the wonder of a universe without a god, but driven by natural forces and laws. We would blow our stacks if the speaker lead the audience in thanking the randomness of nature for the probabilities that came to pass that allowed us all to gather in this place in this time.

I know this because as an arts and political activist I’ve had to work with groups who expected me to participate in shamanistic prayer and drum ceremonies, visualize the spirit of Gaia working on the world around us, thank the goddess for her feminine blessings and allowing us to reject our masculine nature, or channel whatever spiritual being was in vogue that year.

Once I even had to sit through a session where the facilitators consulted the I Ching to resolve a disagreement. Ironically, the I Ching said we should do what I had been saying all along. But now it was a message from the universe itself and not just my opinion. So I got no credit at all.

Each time I thought: This is bull shit. This meeting isn’t about spreading the universal consciousness, it’s about arts funding or organizing an action against the city council or developers. Still, I did it out of respect, not for the vision of the month club, but for the work we needed to do and my partners in the work.

After all, I was raised BPK and remembered how many times Christians made people sit through prayers at civic meetings, or my family expected Jewish friends to say the blessing at dinner.

Had my school, or university, or the City of Detroit or Austin made the participants rise and chant to Seth, however, I would have been the first to say, “Excuse me, but this has no place in a government sponsored forum.”

I’m not talking about a school sponsored seminar on New Age religions or a city sponsored round table of religious leaders concerned about policy. This is America and everyone has the right to say, “I’m Christian and I believe evolution is wrong,” and every one else has the right to say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Did God ask you to cut out the left side of your brain while you were thinking about it?”

I’m referring to a speaker asking everyone in the audience at a graduation ceremony to stand up and join in a prayer to Allah, or the Divine Spirit, or the random and godless universe. Who would be the first to piss and moan and call out the lawyers and Republican legislators before the diplomas were even handed out?

Christians. And Rick Perry and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

So why is it that when a Texas court says Christians can openly avow their faith, but they can’t tell an audience to participate in the rituals of our faith, those same Christians and Texas politicians are the first to howl at the moon as though we had all been publicly circumcised without anesthetic?

The prayer wars erupt in Texas

This week a San Antonio court ruled that valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand couldn’t lead the audience in a prayer during her graduation speech. Now, in Angela’s defense, she claims she just wanted to pray while delivering her speech, but that means we all pray with her.

I somehow doubt Angela wanted to say, “As Christians we pray things like, ‘Dear God help us be all the Christian we can be.'” She wanted to pray a real prayer, not an example prayer, and Christian protocol dictates that when one of us prays publicly we all pray publicly.

By Thursday evening the Austin local news was reporting that Angela was even receiving death threats for her virtuous stand. I’ll confess that it’s possible someone called and said, “I hope you die, bitch,” but I couldn’t find any record of these death threats in the reporting online (and our local newscasters are often given to exaggeration and hyperbole).

According to Reuters, even though the court ruled that affirmative religious statements were permissible, Gregg Abbott retaliated with the following: “This is part of an ongoing attempt to purge God from the public setting, while at the same time demanding from the court increased yielding to all things agnostic and atheistic….”

The article reported that Abbott believed the “ruling would allow a student to ‘bend over in honor of Mecca,’ but not lead a prayer to the Christian God.” Sorry, Gregg, but the judge said nothing about Mecca, and the ruling covered all state-sanctioned religion, including Islam.

Forget the courts, WWJS?

So let’s review three emphatic teachings of Jesus that may shed light on the situation:

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Don’t pray in public. Pray in private where only God can hear you.3
  • Don’t judge others or God will judge you as harshly.

I take this to mean the following:

  • If you don’t want to be asked to publicly to pray to gods you don’t accept, don’t lead audiences at civic forums (whose members might not be Christian) in public prayer to Jesus. That’s what church is for.
  • You shouldn’t be praying in public anyway. That’s just showing off your piety, which, ironically, isn’t piety when you’re showing off.
  • Don’t judge others for not wanting to participate in your public prayers, especially since you would be offended if they expected you to participate publicly in theirs.

Angela, God bless you. If your faith is part of your life you should be proud to say so in your speech. But if you think you have the right to tell me I should be Christian and expect me to pray just because I came to see my nephew graduate, then ask yourself what you would do if I asked you to bend over toward Mecca in my valedictory speech.

Or used my valedictory speech to tell you that Christians who don’t believe in evolution aren’t Christians, they’re morons. Or told my audience why Episcopalians are better Christians than Baptists or Catholics.4

Are you beginning to see how Corwin Schultz might feel when he has to listen to you telling him what a loser he is for being agnostic? Especially when he has to listen before he can get his diploma? With the school’s sanction no less, which in essence is the local government saying “We endorse Angela’s message that you’re an agnostic loser who doesn’t deserve to get his diploma without being reminded of that?”

Personally, I’m immune. I heard that stuff all my life. I get it, my Jesus isn’t as good as your Jesus. I’ve got it all wrong and I’m going to suffer for it, and they only tell me this because they love me and it’s for my own good.

And, fortunately, I’m an adult so I don’t have to sit and listen to it anymore. I get to choose who I respect enough to be expose myself again—whether they be Christians, Wiccans or Bill Maher. Or my Baptist Preacher’s Family.

It may not be over

It’s my understanding that the higher court merely lifted the injunction against prayer at the graduation ceremony, they didn’t dismiss the suit. So it’s quite possible that the Schultz family will win the suit and this furor will start all over again.

Jesus never forced anyone to pray, nor did he demand it or even expect it. He preached from hillsides, and people were free to leave at any time. He never spoke during a state sponsored assembly where audiences were compelled to listen. And if his audiences didn’t want to listen, he just moved on to another town.

He knew there would always be someone who wanted the good news. There was no need to force it on those who didn’t.


1A designation that probably proves I have lapsed beyond redemption (although technically that can never happen to Baptists). A true member of the Baptist faithful would never type book of Daniel even as a typo. It’s Book of Daniel.back

2This thought may upset a few Christians even more, but New Testament writers did not consider their writing scripture. And Jesus certainly didn’t. To them our guide was the Law and the prophets. Nowhere did they invoke the new believers to study “our writing” or give their correspondence any special status.back

3I’m not going to cite chapter and verse. You know damn well he said it.back

2We aren’t, I just can’t help but thinking that being Episcopalian is like eating at a four star restaurant instead of MacDonalds. Or reading War and Peace instead of the Cliff Notes. Or drinking a fine Shiraz instead of Annie Green Springs. Or watching Doctor Zhivago instead of Dumb and Dumber.
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