Once I was in church when the preacher began to tell us a story that he claimed was true. It was about a tsunami and the lives it claimed.
It went like this:
“There was a village in Asia where the church was high on a hill. One Sunday, a tsunami came and wiped out everyone who was on the beach below. This included a number of Christian fisherman, who were working at the shore.
Now I don’t say this to judge those men, but if they had been in church on Sunday like they should have been, they would have been high on the hill and out of harm’s way. They lost their lives because they didn’t keep the sabbath.”
As a member of the congregation, hearing this story was one of those “Wait a minute…” moments. Wait a minute. Something’s really off here. At times like this, the discomfort was a dripping tap: I could zone out the drip drip drip of these constant “Wait a minute…” moments for long periods, but now and again it would get loud and distracting.
I know the preacher said he wasn’t judging, but… wasn’t he judging?
Can you really say “I don’t say this to judge” followed by something that sounds an awful lot like “Those people died in a tsunami because they disobeyed God” in the same sentence?
Can you just put “I don’t say this to judge” in front of literally anything and it automatically makes it a non-judgemental statement? “I’m not judging but anyone with an avocado bathroom suite – and no plans to replace it with a white one – deserves to die“?
Sure, the fishermen died because they happened to be at the beach working that Sunday, which the preacher took to mean they should’ve been in church where they would have been unharmed. But hadn’t he ever heard of a church roof collapse?
Or a church massacre?
Would he accept these tragedies as evidence that nobody ought to have been in church that day (not that we’re judging of course)? If not, then why the inconsistency?
It just so happened that that day there was a tsunami. But what if it had been a landslide, and it had hit the church? Would that have been evidence that God wanted that congregation to have been at the beach, where everyone would have been safe?
And was the church the only place that was high on the hill? I mean is it possible that the whole town, or a large portion of it, was also built on the hill, and the preacher had chosen not to mention that? What if there was also a brothel or a bar or a casino or a dog-fighting arena up there, and what if the fishermen had been up there drinking or whoring or gambling or fighting dogs when the tsunami came – would that be evidence that God despises fishing more than all those other activities?
It’s not just that the story was unreasonable; it was also cruel. Despite the “Hey, don’t blame the messenger – I’m not the one who sends tsunamis” tone of the story, it was clearly designed to scare people into attending church. It used the victims of a tragedy (who for all we know were fishing on a Sunday because they were dirt poor and couldn’t afford weekends and holidays – assuming that the story is true of course), as a moral lesson for relatively wealthy westerners. It wouldn’t be so bad if it hadn’t been presented as non-fiction, but it wasn’t, because that would have lessened the impact of the death threat.
Yes, the story and the motivation for telling it were horrible. However, I can’t really blame the preacher for not seeing how wrong it was. After all, the Bible is full of horrible stories about people getting killed for breaking some arbitrary law or other. Fear-mongering is an effective way to keep people in line.
I do blame myself, though, for sitting there and listening, and for enabling this with my time, my attention, and my (limited) finances. Why did I do it? Why didn’t I push back or speak up until now?
The truth is, I couldn’t have identified the problems as clearly I can now. All I had was a gut feeling that I couldn’t process into words or articulate to other people. I mistrusted myself and my own intuitions. The heart is deceitful above all things.
It’s also because when somebody stands on the platform and preach, their audience is compelled to listen. Maybe the congregation enjoy listening, but ultimately they are there because they think that’s where God wants them. The threats – couched in the language of peace and veiled in promises of unending love – have worked. Our parents, our schools, our communities weren’t judging us, they merely informed us about Heaven and those who don’t get to go there, and the all-powerful being who holds the power of life and death in his hands.
I was also taught that the preacher is inspired by the Holy Spirit, who is of course infallible, which made me feel uncomfortable about simply dismissing whatever message I was hearing. However convoluted, pointless, or morally or biblically off-base the message sounded, I had to assume God had divinely inspired it somehow.
But the longer I stayed in church the louder the “Wait a minute…” drips became. That’s why I write about this stuff; it’s the culmination of years of these “that just doesn’t sound right” moments. There are many of them and I have to get them out of my system. I already shut the dripping tap off by leaving the faith, and now I have to mop up the mess left behind. I can only do that by speaking up. I think I’m almost at the point where I’ve written all I want to write about this subject, though. Maybe three or so more posts and I will stop writing about God and religion here.
It’s been very important to me to find my voice on this topic and use it, but I’m going to get tired of writing about what I’m against. I’m going to get bored of writing about something I haven’t been involved in for years. I’m feeling less and less like I’m writing from the perspective of an insider and more and more like a critical outsider. I won’t need to write about this forever; only until I’ve said everything I want to say about that part of my own story.