Please, friends, I’m not really angry at you. If it weren’t for a strange quirk in my brain, I’d be one of you. I am somewhat angry, though.
I’m angry at the trillion-dollar industry that preys upon your good nature, your kindness, your generosity and your good will. In the city where I live, I can’t drive a mile in any direction without passing three or four churches which are voluntarily sustained and constantly improved by their membership. Each of these edifices attempts to glorify God or Jehovah or Allah and pays tribute to the dedication and beliefs of its membership. In bright signs, it proclaims a willingness to have you join the congregation and contribute to its future growth and the salary of its pastors, priests, rabbis or imams. If Mom’s church is a valid example, the desire for donations is a constant preoccupation as is the recruitment of new members. Most of the pastors have a theme which they repeat Sabbath after Sabbath, telling people their version of “The Truth.”
Many of these evangelists know far more than they let on; often far more than they allow themselves to acknowledge. Anyone who has seriously read The Holy Bible knows for certain that it’s not the Word of God, for instance. For one thing, it declares that fact itself! For another, it doesn’t jibe with what we know for certain to be true in today’s world.
And anyone who has seriously studied the Bible’s long history knows that what we read today wasn’t what was originally written. Every Bible was created by hand before 1456, when the printing press developed by Johann Gutenberg first printed Jerome’s Latin translation. And every hand copy of the Bible was different. Some of these differences were simple copying errors: misspellings, missed or repeated words, lines or pages, misreading/miswriting errors common to transcription. Others were errors in translation. Other changes happened when the text was altered to match the theological bent of the transcriber rather than the actual words found on the precursor document. In some cases, entire sections were added. No copies of the originals or anything close to the original Bible sources survive today. What we have today is separated by many transcriptions from the originals.
Furthermore, the choice of what writings to include and what to exclude was done at the behest of a Roman emperor, Constantine, not God. At the time, Christians were united in the new idea that belief was paramount and in their belief that there was one God and one Truth. Nevertheless, there were – at the outset and ever since – various versions of the “Truth” which differed widely as did the initial assumptions of known and anonymous writers who penned a whole genre of Christian novels, many excluded from the Bible and consigned to obscurity until modern scholarship rediscovered them.
What this genre seems to have had in common were a set of basic elements.
There were negative attitudes about sex. In quite a few, sex, even between husband and wife, was thought to be an unwanted distraction from the pure and dedicated glorification of God. The celibacy of priests, nuns and monks attests to the enduring legacy of this element. Virginity was virtuous and pure. This may have been an overreaction to the sexual license of pagan Rome at that time.
There were miracles. These miracles weren’t limited to God and Jesus, either. They extended, in many stories, to otherwise ordinary people. Miracles were a common occurrence in these novellas.
And there was belief. Belief was a central theme, a precursor to a suitable outcome, a bringer of blessings and good fortune. Belief was considered so powerful that it overcame the laws of nature and made almost anything – even the preposterous – possible. Disbelief was always shamed and brought to its knees, gaping in awe at the power and good fortune of believers.
This world of fantasy and belief has somehow survived and found its way into your good and steady hearts. It is held in great reverence despite overwhelming evidence the continues to mount that very little of it is even remotely possible.
How could this happen? How could millions and millions of people be misled century after century?
I believe I have the answer.
Within us is an intense, almost irresistible need to belong, a need for family and friends, for love and loyalty. It is a need almost as powerful as the need to breathe or the need to drink. Without it, many of us wither and die.
To satisfy this need, we have developed many elements of our society.
Many couples go to outrageous lengths and great pain and expense to have children. Throughout most of history, childbirth was a perilous undertaking, but almost all of our ancestors braved it; welcomed it; celebrated it; and mourned and tried again when they weren’t successful.
The soldier is underpaid, badly treated, entirely at the mercy and service of his commanders and in grave peril when engaged in his occupation, yet we have an all-volunteer army who willingly volunteer for hazardous duty and, in many cases, long for that duty again when they are sidelined.
And you who worship with your fellows each week gladly and joyously tithe to maintain this fellowship, sacrifice both time and hard-earned money so that it may continue. You feel part of something wholesome and strong; held together by history, mutual love, sacrifice, and dedication.
The perversion of this wholesome, natural and God-given human attribute is exclusion. Like the cliques of high school and the guards at our borders, we feel we must exclude to belong. That’s what our Bibles tell us. That’s what the Pledge of Allegiance tells us. Even within our own groups, there are subgroups: Republican, Democrat, Peace and Freedom, Libertarian; conservative, moderate, liberal, socialist; Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Daoist, Communist, animist, agnostic, atheist; white, yellow, brown, black; rich, middle-class, poor; men, women; straight, bisexual, transsexual and gay. All around us, we are fractured into smaller and smaller fragments by our differences.
This isn’t what our spirit needs or longs for, but it is what we have been taught throughout our lives. It works to keep us edgy, afraid, and alone. It works against that need to belong but inspires us to recruit others from without to join our group and so make the “us” stronger and thus more whole. But it also works to make us fearful and distrustful of others, especially when they are resistant to our “unifying” message or actions.
Missionary work is all about bringing others into the “fold.” But first it must believe that there is an “other” — and that there is something fundamentally wrong about being “other.”
Even soldiering has an element of belief that we are doing something noble and wholesome by bringing these other people into our culture, our religion and our way of thinking. We cannot actually believe that they prefer their own culture and their own religion and their own version of “freedom.” It’s hard for us to see that they resent our armed troops pretending to fight for their freedoms in their neighborhoods halfway around the world from our own.
What my sermon today amounts to is that there is a larger “us” that, if embraced, makes every single human on the planet part of one family. If we look with a broader perspective, we become aware that people we fought twenty, sixty, a hundred, two hundred years ago are now friends and family. Enmity is transient and irrational. If our families weren’t joined, they will be soon. We are all a single family. This concept, this attitude, this belief promotes a sense of happiness and well-being. It might even free us to be generous, kind, caring and happy rather than selfish, jealous, and fearful.
©David N. Dodson, December 2016