Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Hark! The heretical angels sing (Part 4)

Since I spent that last heretical post railing against the Jesus people, it’s only fair to take some space on this one to talk about how much I admire some of them. I spent part of Christmas Eve at Dave’s church, helping to clean up after the lunch they serve for the homeless every Wednesday. It was a light day, only a hundred or so diners. They usually have twice that number. As the pastor pointed out, anyone who has an opportunity to be off the street for Christmas takes it. Only the ones who really have no alternative turn up at the church.

There’s a breakfast on Sunday mornings, too. Pretty much everyone involved in producing the meals is a volunteer. The whole operation is overseen by the church’s building superintendent, who seems to take a lot of satisfaction in doing all this work which was not part of his original job description. He runs a very tight ship in the kitchen. Most restaurants are probably not half as clean and orderly.

Anyone—even a pentacle-wearing witch—is welcome to come lend a hand, but most of the volunteers are church-going Christians, and there’s a fair amount of talk about blessings, etc. Somebody leads a prayer for the helpers before the meal. It’s taken for granted that feeding the needy is God’s work. There’s a chapel service beforehand, but they try not to make it seem like a hoop people have to jump through if they want to eat. In fact, the guys at the door manage the meal queue so that the early arrivals from the chapel don’t get to jump ahead of the people who skip the service. All things considered, the proselytizing is very restrained.

Being at the lunch was a little awkward for me. I don’t have any place in the church community, beyond being Dave’s wife. I don’t mind taking silent part in a prayer circle, but the invocation of the radical Jesus “who will turn our lives upside down” has only the most abstract meaning for me, however much I might admire the underlying sentiment. Standing there, holding hands with the believers, I felt like a spy or an impostor.

But the thing I found most difficult was just seeing the intense need of the diners. Watching genuinely hungry people go after food is troubling when the rest of us are so fat and comfortable. That’s why I wound up washing dishes instead of serving lunch. It’s easier to sling wet plates around than see other people’s suffering.

Unlike me, the best religious folk are very good at allowing themselves to be touched by suffering. Not that they’re the only ones who do it, but in my experience they are always overrepresented among the helpers of the world. Their desire to do good may be tangled up with an unfortunate impulse to evangelize, but the fact is that they are out there doing it, which is more than can be said of a lot of well-intentioned people who find it easier to write a check.

I’ve been sending money for years to a Catholic orphanage in rural Haiti. It houses, feeds and educates children who would otherwise get haphazard care from relatives, or no care at all. I’m not crazy about the fact that religious instruction is a feature of the place, and I have sometimes questioned the way the boys’ welfare seems to take priority over the girls’, but no one else is doing much for any of the children, so I’ve decided I’m happy to give the Christians my money. To date, I’ve never given them anything more.

Charity work is not the only area in which Christians carry their share of the load and more. Organized opposition to the death penalty is done largely through the churches. If you go to an execution vigil, you’ll find most of the people there seem to be motivated by religious faith. Ditto for anti-war demonstrations, at least in this part of the country. The annual protest at the School of the Americas is organized by Christians—inspired by the murder of radical Christians in El Salvador by SOA trainees. Environmental protests don’t have quite as heavy a Christian presence, but the Jesus lovers are never absent.

Antitheists who complain that religion does nothing but foster hatred and ignorance are as blinkered as the faithful who say there is no morality without God. Both camps, oddly, make the same mistake: They think of religion as an external force that shapes individual action, rather than as an entity individuals create. Religion doesn’t make people; people make religion. When they’re motivated by greed and bigotry, they’ll create religious institutions that reflect those values. When they value empathy and generosity, they’ll commit their combined energy to feeding the poor and opposing war.

As attached as I am to my solitary path, I’ll be the first to admit that institutional religion, when steered by enlightened ideals, can mobilize people to do things no individual could accomplish. The fact that the same institutional mechanism can inspire human beings to do enormous harm doesn’t change that. You can use a car to take a sick friend to a hospital, or you can use it to deliberately mow somebody down. It’s not the car that decides the mission.

*Mankind Beset by Devils, Hieronymus Bosch, 1500-04


Mary said...

I think it's wonderful that Dave's church provides this care to the community. It's hard to find fault with feeding the poor. This is an example of practicing Christianity in a truly Christ-like way. I drive past Pat Robertson's enormous university and media center frequently. I always wonder how many poor people that money could have fed and clothed.

BitterGrace said...

The people at that church are really wonderful. I was there again yesterday, and I just marvel at their commitment, and the pleasure they take in the work.

Religion, Inc. as it exists in America is something that makes me a little crazy. Why should we have a whole class of privileged, tax-exempt corporations, many of which devote themselves to preaching against civil rights and the basic principles of the Constitution? I think they should be free to preach whatever they like, of course, but there's no reason for all their wealth to be untouchable.

Anonymous said...

Will there be a Part 5?

BitterGrace said...

Is that a polite request to cease and desist, Whodat? :-)

ScentScelf said...

Blinkers are the hobgoblin of good intentions, no? I remain amused whenever errors of this type are made on either side.

Another amusing error is whenever organized religion folk assume that a kind hearted soul who actively attempts to put good in the world must be "one of them"...whenever I try to non-commitally say "oh, we're in this together, with a common goal," the figuring tends to go toward a messiah rather than humanitarianism.

That said, I also agree that there are things a group/community can achieve that no individual can, and that there are religious groups have done admirably bettering the common good--and the good of the uncommon.

chayaruchama said...

I concur, wholeheartedly.

Those truly motivated by empathy make me weep.
Mary said it best...

For me- when in doubt-
Just DO IT.