As a Vridar reader, you know that I’m an atheist, having happily lost my faith some 40 years ago. You probably know that I’ve often referred to religion, any religion, as a “mind virus.” I’ve had some unkind things to say about Christianity and professed Christians, but I’ve tried to make it clear that I don’t wish to covert anyone.
Do what you want; believe what you want. But please do it with your eyes wide open. Read everything. Consider all the facts, and make a rational decision.
Having said all that, I’d like to say something nice today about Christianity. I’ll confess my admiration for the victims of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Finally, I’ll have some scathing comments about presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.
As a boy, I grew up believing in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I was pretty sure that this maxim was unique to Christianity, but of course that’s because my fundamentalist upbringing shielded me from real human history. It turns out that this rule of behavior is practically universal. It has the obvious ring of truth about it. Would I want somebody else to do it to me? If not, then I shouldn’t do it.
But Christianity takes it a step further. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells of the last judgment, in which the Son of Man will separate the just from the damned the way a shepherd would separate the sheep from the goats. He concludes with:
25:43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’
25:44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’
25:45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ (ESV)
Critics of the Golden Rule have rightly pointed out that a core weakness is that it is self-centered. It asks us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but it does not necessarily encourage us to think and feel as he or she does. How do we know how others wish to be treated unless we understand them first?
But in Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment, he’s telling us that if we want to be just and righteous, we need to treat everyone — every friend, enemy, or stranger — as we would Christ himself. We need to see the spark of the divine in every human. When a beggar comes forward and asks for a few coins, do we think, “That leech will just go and buy more liquor” or “If this man were Jesus, what would I do?” When someone hurts us do we think “I will have my revenge someday” or “I don’t know why he did that, but I forgive him and hope that he will change his ways“?
The victims of the racist-motivated mass killing in Charleston this week, despite their devastating pain and suffering, somehow remembered the teachings of the New Testament. They stayed true to their beliefs in love over hate, peace over violence, reconciliation over retribution. According to the New York Times, Nadine Collier, daughter of one of the victims said:
You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.
ABC News reported that one by one the victims spoke to the killer, offering words of forgiveness. They refused to let hate win. They banished the darkness with the light of hope and love. Alana Simmons said:
Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate . . . everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived and loved and their legacies will live and love. I want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.
Not one of them wished that “a good guy with a gun” had shot the murderer before, during, or after his killing spree. None of them asked for swift revenge. They all spoke words of forgiveness — because even though the killer is a wretched racist who snuffed out the lives of their loved ones, they still can see the spark of the divine within him. They recognize a soul, and to them, every soul is worth saving. Everyone is a child of God. Everyone can be forgiven.
If that isn’t true Christianity, then I don’t know what the hell is.
On the other side of the spectrum of humanity and Christianity, we have Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and ordained Baptist minister. Here’s what the Huckster had to say about the shootings in South Carolina:
The one thing that would have at least ameliorated the horrible situation in Charleston would have been that if somebody in that prayer meeting had a conceal carry or there had been either an off-duty policeman or an on-duty policeman, somebody with the legal authority to carry a firearm and could have stopped the shooter. Maybe not everyone would have been saved, but they probably would have gotten to the shooter before the shooter killed nine people and wounded several others . . .
It sounds crass, but frankly the best way to stop a bad person with a gun is to have a good person with a weapon that is equal or superior to the one that he’s using.
Sure it sounds crass, but it suits you, Governor Huckabee. The Christians who were in that prayer meeting do not fantasize about gunning down the shooter, but you do. Before the bodies of his murdered fellow Christians could be laid to rest, this man of the cloth had to tell the national news media that the solution to our gun violence problem is, of course, more guns.
I’m glad that Neil and I have a general rule against cursing here on Vridar, because right about now this post could easily degenerate into a mass of four-letter words in which, for example, I would compare Huckabee to a sack of wet excrement. But I won’t go there.
Instead, I wish to remind everyone — Christian or non-Christian – who might think that Mike Huckabee is worthy of your vote to think about his behavior this week. This tragedy invites all Americans to do some real soul-searching, to ask ourselves what it is about our culture that allows these events to occur over and over. Will we ever get over our racist past? Will we ever confront our gun problem — not just guns as weapons, but guns as a symbol of our love affair with violence and retribution?
Lest we forget, Huckabee stumbled mightily over the racist Confederate flag during his first run in 2008. He defended that symbol of hatred, as if it were the legitimate state flag of South Carolina. As Christopher Hitchens reminded our compliant and negligent media:
1) The South Carolina flag is a perfectly nice flag, featuring the palmetto plant, about which no “outsider” has ever offered any free advice.
2) The Confederate battle flag, to which Gov. Huckabee was alluding, was first flown over the South Carolina state Capitol in 1962, as a deliberately belligerent riposte to the civil rights movement, and is not now, and never has been, the flag of that great state.
3) By a vote of both South Carolina houses in the year 2000, the Confederate battle flag ceased to be flown over the state capitol and now only waves (as quite possibly it should) over the memorial to fallen Confederate soldiers.
Alas, we no longer have Hitchens, so we have lost a powerful critic against the crass and vile Huckabee. And amid all the cries on both sides either to take down and burn or to praise and commend the Confederate battle flag, few are likely to remember Hitch’s apt and concise evaluation of said flag and of said Huckabee:
The battle flag of the Confederate army, the most militant symbolic form that secession and slavery ever took, is quite another. Under this fiery cross of St. Andrew, the state of Pennsylvania was invaded and free Americans were rounded up and re-enslaved. Under this same cross, it was announced that any Union officer commanding freed-slave soldiers, or any of his men, would be executed if captured. (In other words, war crimes were boasted of in advance.) The 13 stars of the same flag include stars for two states—Kentucky and Missouri—that never did secede, and they thus express a clear ambition to conquer free and independent states. And this is the symbol that Huckabee, seeking to ingratiate himself with the lowest element and lowest common denominator, calls “your flag.” You might as well do a cross-burning and have done with it, and we all know how the networks would react if some ignorant kids did that. (emphasis mine)
Huckabee, an oily blend of Richard Nixon and Gomer Pyle has no chance at winning the nomination, despite his appeal to racists, crypto-racists, Islamophobes, dominionists, climate-change-deniers, and self-loathing atheists. He does, however, represent a popular sort of un-Christian follower of Jesus — that strange breed of Christian who uses the Bible to deny marriage equality to gays and lesbians, but can’t find one goddamned verse about turning the other cheek, loving your neighbors, or forgiving your enemies.
Despite the terrible news of last week, including the distortions and hysteria in right-wing media, we saw a glimmer of hope. We cried when we heard the news of the shooting. We cried again when we watched the victims confront the shooter, but for different reasons.
Above all the noise, all the shouting, all the claims that it wasn’t about race, all the demands for more guns to make us safer, we heard the quiet but resolute Christian voice — a voice that said, “I forgive you.”
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