Listen to this story
We are not a Christian nation. This isn’t a surprise to Jews or Muslims or Pagans or atheists or any other non-Christian but America loves to tell this story to anyone who will listen. I remember a guy I used to drink next to at my old dive bar who, after a couple beers, would tell me how he’s a great dad. Over and over again. “I’m a really great dad.” He owed thousands in child support. He hadn’t actually seen his daughter in years.
We are not a Christian nation.
I’m not writing this to be provocative. This is like me pointing at a tomato and saying “this is not a banana.” We are not a Christian nation. If you really took a moment to think about this you’ll find it’s liberating. There is no right or wrong. It’s not like we really have a responsibility to one another. There are only mouths with meat and mouths without. We are a nation of dogs. The bite and the bark and the chain are the only things that matter.
It’s better to accept this than to keep lying to ourselves. And such an absurd lie. The prequel to the gospels was nothing but rules. Harsh ones, too. The gospels gave us one simple rule and, yet, we can’t help but do unto others as we want. We were given one rule and we break it. I don’t even think we try. And I’m including myself in this. I have no moral authority. None of us do. America is not the victim of the world. We are not a righteous people. We are the powerful and the powerless and nothing more. Master and slave from the bright, bewigged beginning. We had some good moments there but not nearly enough. This is our story. This is what you should tell your children.
I was told these stories as a child. America is this and that and land of the free. We were a special people because we were good. So here’s a story that has stuck with me over the years, and it begins with a father and a son. This is just background stuff first.
Once upon a time there was a father and he had a temper. He was a nice guy who provided for his children. But, like, refuse to eat your broccoli and he may flip the dinner table in rage. Generous guy but don’t disappoint him. Then one day he has a son who is nothing like his father. And he sends his son out into the world and hopes that this boy will be better — more loving and gentle and courageous — than the father has ever been. The father knows his temper has been cruel but it’s too late for him to change. He wants to make things right. The only way he can save the world is to send his son into it and he does, and then decades later the son visits his father’s house after spending years telling the sick, and the poor, and the rejected that they matter. That their lives have values. He makes a life telling the unloved they are loved. Eventually the politicians and the cops and the priests decide he’s bad for business — all the business — and murder him. It’s a bloody process: there’s torture and humiliation and nails. But even as he’s dying he forgives everyone who betrayed him, scourged him, denied him, or, even worse, refused to hear him. But that’s a whole other story.
This is the story though: so this guy visits his dad’s place and discovers that it is overrun with merchants. This is a sacred place to him. It’s where you go to thank someone other than yourself for what you have. A house of humility and grace. But, suddenly, it’s a shopping mall full of crap to buy. He just wanted a little break. A few hours of peace and quiet. Maybe catch up with the old man and tell him he’s trying. He’s trying really hard. But he’s only human and gets tired. Frustrated. Now, our hero, has spent his time on Earth trying to get humans to treat each other the way they themselves would like to be treated. It is not easy getting through to selfish assholes but he was doing a pretty good job and he had a flock. Granted, they were not the powerful. They were scared and broken and lonely. But he didn’t care. That’s love for you.
So he walks into his dad’s house and snaps. He loses his temper. Like, we’re talking the Middle-Eastern Jewish Hulk. He kicks over tables and pushes over stands and slaps money out of hands. Love is the only currency. Love is the only labor. To love and be loved is the only profit. This is the only time he ever gets angry. He doesn’t even curse his tormenters as they crucify him and laugh as he gasps in pain. But that comes later. That’s not this story.
He gets angry like his father. His father is likely disappointed. Both he and his son know the only thing separating his children from dogs is their ability to love. The plan is for his son to show them. He will lead by example and they will follow. Eventually. Or not. Anyway, he wrecks the market, just tears it apart, and it was probably open for business the next day. There are some things that are not for sale is the point.
That’s the story as I remember it. It was in the Bible, which in many ways is a lot like Game of Thrones. The main difference being we’re told one actually happened and the other didn’t.
The truth is I liked reading the Bible when I was a kid. My dad was the son of a protestant preacher and my mother a Catholic. They agreed, early on, that Jesus’ word was broadcast in both houses the way the NFL does on different networks. So I attend both churches. Little did I know that I would be in my early 20s when those two religious sects would finally stop trying to kill each other, as they had for centuries. What I’m saying is I got to study the Bible a lot growing up. The Catholics were really into the gruesome suffering and show-stopping resurrection of Jesus and the Baptists loved all the preaching. But, in retrospect, I wish I had been taught the story of the Gospels more truthfully. Jesus loses and the dogs win. I think it would have prepared me for this life I’m living. Jesus commanded that we love one another and I naturally assumed we all did. The Baptists I knew growing up were loving to me, even though I was a half-Mexican papist and the Catholics were very loving to me, even though I once wore my rosary like a necklace and that’s a no-no. This was a long time ago. Things were different (except they weren’t).
Even then I knew the Old Testament was heavy metal as fuck. Goats blood. The angel of death. Pyramids. Evil giants and super-powered hair. The God in the Old Testament was hard core. He smote left, he smote right. There was only obedience and vengeance and perhaps it’s the more honest collection of folk tales. But I sort of wish I had been taught that the New Testament was a dystopian story set in the past that has continued for centuries up until this very moment, right now, and will likely remain unchanged as human history continues to hurtle towards whatever it’s hurtling towards, a final dinner, perhaps, the last human on earth squeezing the last lemon on the leg he or she sawed off in hungry madness and then roasted. I wish I had known that Jesus’ Palestine was a wasteland of suffering. A desert kingdom occupied by an empire led by a living god. A place where your birth determined your destiny. There were just the rich and the poor, the violent and the defeated. And in this world there was a poor man who preached mercy and love. A man of low birth, an immigrant, a radical who dared to suggest that compassion was more important than violence. That counting money was just a way to measure a worthless life. He had to die. If he ever existed. I don’t know if he did. I don’t think he’s, you know, an all-powerful wizard floating in space. I definitely don’t think he watches over us. How could he? Look at us: we’re at each other’s throats every chance we get.
There were other stories I remember. That stayed with me. There was the time he stopped a mob of men from smashing a woman they did not like to bits. He fed thousands once. The one about the rich person who is told money can’t buy him into heaven. And the stories where he cured the sick. Healed them.
Let’s say we are a Christian nation. That my argument is wrong. Then my fellow Americans — especially the powerful; the priests and prefects and plump — who have you healed?
America needs to tell itself a new story. The old stories are such obvious lies they serve no purpose. They don’t dull the senses the way they once did. Too much TV. It used to be we could tell ourselves we were a Christian nation and, therefore, we were good. We were like Christ. Selfless, humble, loving, forgiving. But we are none of those. We should tell ourselves different truths. New stories. Here’s one: we are a nation that is too many dogs and too few bones. Or a better story: we are a nation of human beings who try to take care of each other as best they can and fail. But try. Otherwise, we should trash the bazaar.