Sunday, July 31, 2011

In which an atheist responds to the American debt crisis by reading the Bible

I am an atheist but I was brought up among people of deep and convincing faith. By "convincing faith" I do not mean that they were convinced of their own faith but that I was convinced that they truly believed. I was convinced of their faith because they lived that faith every day of their lives.

I learned the 23rd Psalm by heart sitting on my grandmother's knee. I learned not that we should go to church on Sunday but that we were enjoined not to make others work on Sunday:
But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates (Exodus 20:10)[1]
My mother liked to remind people that one of the greatest statements of love and devotion in the Bible was made by one woman to another:
And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. (Ruth 1:16-17)[1]
My mother is dead but I still have the Bible that she was given when she was a child. Her favourite passages are marked and as I reread them I imagine her marching into Congress and standing on the floor of the House declaiming them:
Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates: At his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it: lest he cry against thee unto the LORD, and it be sin unto thee. (Exodus 24: 14-15)[1]

Thou shalt not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor of the fatherless; nor take a widow's raiment to pledge:
But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee thence: therefore I command thee to do this thing.
When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands.
When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean it afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt: therefore I command thee to do this thing.(Exodus 24:17-22)[1]

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me:
I was sick, and ye visited me:
I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat:
I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not,
Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment:
but the righteous into life eternal. (Matthew 25: 34-46)[1]
I don't know what book the politicians in Washington are referring to when they speak about The Bible but I do know that it isn't the one my mother read and cherished. I know it isn't the one my father reads from every day. I know it isn't the one my great-aunt preached from. I know it isn't the one my uncle wrote sermons about. I know it isn't the one my grandmother loved.

My mother's greatest statement of condemnation for anyone was I wouldn't give him a cup of tea if he was thirsty. It was a threat that I never saw her carry out. She fed people whose politics she abhorred and she often made the bread that she broke with people who many of those politicians would call sinners.

If my mother was alive right now I think she might not be willing to give a cup of tea to the politicians in Washington who are threatening to take away the widow's mite and denying the poor the right to glean the once-harvested fields.

[1] All quotations are from my mother's copy of the King James Version of The Holy Bible.


  1. Hi! :)

    While he wasn't alive when I was born, my mom used to say the same thing about my grandfather - he was a man who lived his faith rather than preached his faith. My mom (my family, actually) comes from Appalachia; one of the most, to borrow a phrase from Flannery O'Connor, "Christ Haunted" regions in the U.S. Faith isn't just a facet of life in that region - it *is* your life. And my grandfather lived it like it was his life without preaching to anyone. Likewise, my grandmother is also from that region(paternal). I was fortunate enough to know her before she died, something like 5 years ago. There wasn't a mean bone one in that woman, and she was a rock. A real rock of a person; someone you could always count on. And she was of firm conviction in her faith - again, she lived it, but she didn't preach it.

    The folks in power don't have any respect for that sort of thing. Dignity, cognitive dissonance, self-respect and empathy are all facilities that serve no greater purpose in Teabagger America (because make no mistake; the Teabaggers have admitted to holding it up so they can force a Balanced Budget Amendment. They have an extremely juvenile and susceptible to abuse by authority figures philosophy.) Faith isn't lived, it's preached.

    I'm not sure how familiar you are with Jeff Sharlett, but a few years ago he came out with a really good book called "The Family," which is a look at the secret C-Street power bloc. Their basic impression of Christianity is that being wealthy means God is looking favorably upon you and being poor means God has cursed you, and that it's because you're a sinner. It's very disturbing, and it's a total inverse of the Gospel, and a dark Jungian shadow to the people like your parents and grandparents and my grandfather and grandmother.

  2. I agree with you that the Teabaggers (and not exclusively them) have no respect for, or understanding of, the kind of folk your parents and grandparents were. And are.

    And good call about the book "The Family" -- the people in it do practice as strange "magical" version of Christianity that seems to have nothing in common with the Christianity that meant so much to our grandparents and parents.

    I no longer live in the United States but my mind is full of the faces and names of people I worked with there. I KNOW that some of them are going to be grievously hurt by this bill. I KNOW that the people in Washington care more for the corporate dividends than the do people. I KNOW that people are going to lose their homes, their health and maybe their lives.

    I'm glad your grandmother lived long enough for you to know her -- that kind of person cannot really be described they have to be experienced.

  3. I have so many stories about my grandmother.

    She raised 9 children in a mining town in Appalachia. My grandfather was a miner who injured himself in the 20s or 30s. As a result, he ended up working for the railroad. My grandmother married him and they had 9 children, like I said, back in the early 50s. 10 if you count my cousin, but she wasn't born until later; we're both 80s babies - disaffected members of Generation X (me more so than her) she was born a few days ahead of me.

    She raised all 9 of those children (10 counting my cousin), at near poverty levels, and never complained once. My mom tells me how she used to vacuum the floor - she would grab the foot-board of the bed in one hand and lift the bed upright, lifting the whole back end of it off the ground to vacuum under it. That stuck with me for some reason.

    Perhaps most tellingly, though, was that she stayed with my grandfather. He's a tough piece of work. She'd put up with him only so much and then she'd tell him to "Shaddup." They were almost always arguing, but you could tell that they were happy together despite it, you know?

    She held the entire family in place. Really, she was the anchor. When my aunt died, and she died, the extended family just hasn't been the same since. I've never been very close to my extended family, though, but that year was rough, because she died on Christmas morning.


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