I live in what might euphemistically be called an "economically disadvantaged" neighborhood. It has several good points, such as a fantastically short commute to work; being near 3 hospitals and a bus route, and mostly nice neighbors. We've lived there for 10 years now. In that time, we've had one rock thrown through our car windshield, another through our living room window; we've been burglarized once and had at least two lawnmowers lifted off our back porch in broad daylight. Some people will cast immediate judgment when I tell them which part of town I live in, but having served in the neighborhood association for most of the time we've lived here, I can authoritatively state that the genuinely bad areas of town are some blocks away.
But - we are still a small city, so what affects one community has a tendency to be felt in others. This year, there's been some escalation of violent crime, due to a gang rivalry. We have a great new police chief, and one of his initiatives has been gathering concerned citizens and leading them on short, silent walks through various neighborhoods, holding signs giving names of homicide victims.
We had one of these this evening. Some friends were there and it was good to see them. It was an emotional experience to hold the name of one of the victims as we walked around the block together. Truly, the old and the poor seem to take the brunt of whatever can go wrong in a community.
So, we finished our walk and assembled back at the recreation center where we had started. Once all the local celebrities had finished making short speeches for the TV cameras, it was then time for the other main event: prayers and hymns. I took advantage of the noise to converse with other like-minded folks in the crowd. The music was lively and upbeat and we were swaying right along with everyone else -- it was a pretty evening and the air smelled sweet -- but I couldn't help but take note of a few things.
One of the songs had the lyric "All you really need is Jesus." It was half-sung, half-spoken, with the leader interjecting such lines as "Lord, we pray these young men will put down their guns and pick up their Bibles!" I looked around at the crowd. A lot of the people were swaying, eyes closed and hands high in the air, whispering "Yes, Lord, yes Jesus!" Many of these people had lost family members to homicide, suicide, drug overdoses or long prison sentences. They faced chronic unemployment, poor health, heavy educational disadvantages, and a history of making really bad life decisions because they had no one to help them figure things out. They'd never been invited to grow up! And all they were getting was some well-meaning but highly misguided person telling them that if they just kept believing in their fairy tale, and ignoring everything else around them, their life would finally turn around and all their problems would go away!
It made me really angry on the inside. I wanted to see these people stop singing, stop swaying, shut off the microphone and confront the preacher.
"If this God of yours is so damn great, tell him to bring back my child! Make him give us a school system that's more than just a feeder system for the prisons. Give us something in return for all the prayers, all the faith, all the tithes, all the Sundays wasted, sitting in uncomfortable seats, listening to some guy raving incoherently, doing nothing but HYPNOTIZING us with lies and bullshit -- distracting us from taking meaningful action on behalf of the ones we love, or even ourselves. Making us more concerned with some fictional hereafter than with the reality that we see with our own two eyes. We've seen the flash, now show us the cash -- no more tithes, no more prayers, no more unpaid labor for the church, until this god of yours comes through on some of those vague promises we've been convincing ourselves to believe all these years. I can have the same friends outside the church as inside it -- we can still get together and talk, share meals, help one another, but because we want to HELP EACH OTHER, not please some invisible man who probably doesn't even exist. We want our lives RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW to mean something. We're tired of being sheep. You get out of your pulpit and do something truly useful, and then maybe we'll support you."
I think of all the years these people have wasted on meaningless church activities. The activities themselves are fine, but the underlying purpose?
I have never, EVER heard anyone say "I sure feel a lot of anger, but I am truly so devoted to my invisible Jesus-god, that I'd just never take a chance on making him sad by hurting or killing anyone." I've NEVER heard anyone say that. But do you know what I have heard? Plenty of "I am just so weak. Such a sinner. I can't resist drugs. Every time I feel the least temptation, I walk away from something constructive and go after the fleeting diversion because I don't have any real sense of values. I'm also highly uneducated and can't separate fact from fiction. I have no hope, so I PUT MY TRUST IN THE LORD and have faith that he'll save me from my bad self."
This is such incredible nonsense! The people who do keep to a steadfast, upright path are the ones who WOULD HAVE DONE IT ANYWAY! It is not God or Jesus who made them that way. They got that way via genetics, good role models, good sense, possibly one or more helpful kind teachers, and assorted other "lucky breaks" in life. A lot of people have only to look around and ask themselves "Does it make sense to skip school and run around with my loser friends? Aren't there better ways to settle disputes than shooting someone in the head? Can I be something other than a serial offender? Is there love in this life for me? Is there something I can do to reach out, love someone, give of myself to make the world a better place?" All of the above can be achieved without any religious thinking whatsoever. I am so sick of people endlessly leaning on the crutch of religion and fantasy. They don't even know what the crutch looks like!
I had a boss long ago who professed to be religious, but was just as hard-headed as they come. Over his desk was a plaque, and it read:
IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME.