The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Jesus, Pumpkin Pie, and the Cult of Death

I have a confession to make. I love pumpkin pie. I don’t mean in the sense of the juvenile film American Pie; and no I wouldn’t marry one. I just mean I really, really enjoy pumpkin pie.

The problem with pumpkin pie is you can’t find it outside the United States. At least I never have. You can find pumpkin of course. Just not the pies. So there were long stretches of life with no pumpkin pie. Sad for me. But when I get the chance I eat it. How does any of this relate to religion, life, death, Jesus and the rest of it?

I ate a lot of pumpkin pie when visiting the US because I never knew when I’d have another piece! I value it. That means I want more of it and I will act to gain more of it. Values are those things we act to obtain or keep. If we do nothing about it we don’t value it. So I do something about it. I buy them and eat them.

We all make choices based on our values. Beliefs are important because what we value is determined by them. If you believe pumpkin pie is an evil spewed out from the depths of hell you might well avoid it. What you believe determines what you value and your values determine how you act.

Now there is an economic perspective we can use on this as well. Basically what you value or seek out are what economists would call the “demand.” I demand pumpkin pie. I demand good books, films with plots, and the company of my friends and those I love. Those are, in economic terms, my demand.

Then there is the supply side. If pumpkin pies were in unlimited supply, so no matter how many are eaten there are still more than the world demands, the price of pumpkin pies would basically be zero. Of course if pumpkin pies were free the demand would go up. Even people who prefer cherry pies might take a pumpkin pie if the former were $4 each while the latter was free. When the supply of something increases, but demand remains the same, the value or price of that good will drop.

Now there is another angle to this. How you value something is often determined, not by the real circumstances of the situation, but by your beliefs about them. Take this example: if you are driving along the highway and you tank is getting low you might want to fill up. You see a petrol station ahead but the price is rather high. But you also know that the next major town is about 40 minutes down the road and your tank will be empty before then. Considering the circumstances you pull in and fill up at a price that you think is a bit high. Then you drive on down the road only to find another petrol station, which you didn’t know about, with much lower prices.

You paid a higher price for petrol because you believed something false. Of course the opposite could also be true. You could undervalue something based on your own erroneous beliefs about the facts. There is no perfect knowledge so people make mistakes. They have errors in their value judgements.

This brings us to the issue I want to discuss: the value of individual human life. What is the difference between the faithful and the irreligious concerning human life? Now Christians in particular drone on about the value of life and how important it is, especially the value of a fetus, until it is born that is, then they forget about it.

They argue unbelievers can’t value human life at all because they don’t believe in God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. They call themselves “pro-life” implying their counterparts must be pro-death. In fact one such individual has even written a book attacking the secularists and folks on the outs with these religionists as The Party of Death.

But, while they are so pro-life they are very willing, in fact sometimes happy, to inflict death. The Bible is filled with demands that all sorts of sinners be put to death. Many modern day fundamentalists, who take this stuff seriously, are inflicted with this death syndrome. They want to kill others or at least want someone to kill them. Some, such theocrat Gary North, extolled the virtues of stoning people to death for their sins. He said the biblical punishment is one where the whole community comes out and kills the sinner. He thought this would build community spirit.

We can’t forget this mandate to kill doesn’t apply to just cold blooded killers. I think the first time I was aware of this was a Moral Majority rally that I attended while writing a story about Anita Bryant. There were some small children with their parents and these kids were carrying signs calling for the execution of gay people. Executing homosexuals is widely accepted in evangelical circles as the way to do things.

Death is at the center of the morality code of these people. You know they love to demand the Ten Commandments be put up in schoolrooms and courtrooms. Read your Bible and consider what the penalties were for breaking those commandments. Over and over the Bible said such people should be put to death. Evangelical Christians are quick to say the Ten Commandments were never “repealed.” I wonder if they then mean the penalties for breaking those commandments—execution—have also never been repealed. Actually I don’t wonder. For a large, and growing, number of them the answer would be that it has not been repealed and death is still appropriate.

Of course it is one thing to run around stoning sinners to death. But how do they value Christian lives? Not highly either. Here is why. First, they believe there is an endless supply of life waiting for them. Unlike us non-believers who think this is the end they believe they have “eternal life.” In economic terms they believe there is an endless supply of life far exceeding demand.

In other words, the supply exceeds the demand thus bringing the value down to nil. It gets even worse. They also believe a “life to come” is better than the life they have. Dying today rushes them into the company of Jesus, the saints, the angels of heaven and Almighty God. It is eternal bliss and joy. This life, they will say, is but a veil of tears. So you shed this old body and take on a heavenly body. You depart this sin-ridden world of disease, misery and death for one of eternal salvation and worshipful joy.

It is not just an endless supply of life they believe awaits them; it is also a major improvement over the one that exists now. The much revered St. Augustine put it this way: “I have no concern in this life except to depart from it as speedily as possible.” His view of life was not unusual for Christians. The great dark stains on Christianity are rooted in this very idea that this life is evil, a better life awaits, and the eternal soul has infinite value while the human body has none.

This concept applied to all equally. The unbeliever was endangering the soul of Christians so to kill his body was of no significance. This life has little value compared to the eternal soul and since the only way to salvation is through the Christian faith those who opposed it had to be killed. From the moment Christians had the ability to slaughter unbelievers they engaged in it fervently and prayerfully. Augsutine noted that “unjust persecution” is that “which the wicked inflict on the Church of Christ” but there is a “just persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts on the wicked.”

Even Thomas Aquinas, who helped reintroduce the concept of reason to the West argued for the execution of heretics. “They deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be shut off from the world by death. For it is a far more serious matter to corrupt faith, through which comes the soul’s life, than to forge money, through which temporal life is supported. Hence if forgers of money or other malefactors are straightaway justly put to death by secular princes, with much more justice can heretics, immediately upon conviction, be not only excommunicated but also put to death.”

Contrary to common misconceptions this tendency to murder those who dare question the faith did not end with the Reformation. If anything the Reformation was a step backwards. It was a revolt not against the sins of the Church but against the revival of reason by Aquinas. It was a return to the older, even less tolerant views of Augustine. Instead of ushering in a time of enlightenment and tolerance the Reformationists stepped up the executions. As Perez Zagorin wrote in his book How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West: “The sixteenth century, which witnessed the Reformation and the beginning and spread of Protestantism, was probably the most intolerant period in Christian history, marked not only be violent conflict between contending Christian denominations but by an upsurge of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in western Europe.” Zagorin goes so far as to say: “Of all the great world religions past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant.”

In the West fundamentalist Christians do not have a firm grip on power. It is true they control the Republican Party, but they still face an opposition, and thankfully a growing one. But they do control various states. It is for this reason that Texas is so quick to execute people, nationalize women’s reproductive organs and actively persecute trans children and refugees. The state has 8.7% of the US population but carries over one-third of all the executions, so much for “pro-life” Republican style.

Could America’s willingness to execute people be tied to religion? It most certainly is. Who says so? Try one of the most Right-wing judges to serve on the US Supreme Court until now. Justice Antonin Scalia said government derives all its “moral authority from God” (the Founders said it was from the people). “Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral.” Get that! The more Christian they are the less they are against executing people. Why?

“I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian,” said Scalia “death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a bid deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life, in exchange for the next?… For the non-believer, on the other hand, to deprive a man of his life is to end his existence.” “God’s justice and Our” by Antonin Scalia, May, 2002: First Things

Scalia was a fervent believer himself and was quite explicit: “death is no big deal.” Go and look at the video of the Rev. Paul Hill, a Christian Reconstructionist who killed two people at an abortion clinic, one of whom was merely a bodyguard for a physician. He was joyous he was to be executed. He said his execution will only bring him to Jesus and what is there to complain about?

Why shouldn’t believers love death given their premises? If there is a God who wants people to punish evildoers and who will reward them if they do; if he offers them eternal bliss and happiness far exceeding anything good in this world, then why cling to life in this world at all?

It is the belief in an afterlife that makes this life so valueless to so many believers and that belief allows them to take lives with relative ease if necessary. It may be their own or it may that of others, but in the end life in this world holds no value to them because they believe in a better life in another world. Belief in an afterlife is a cult of death. It denigrates the one life they do have and offers them a fantasy in return. That belief must be challenged. To not challenge it is to be an enabler for a system of ideas that can only bring more death and more misery and will the next time they grab power at the federal level.


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A blog for the Moorfield Storey Institute: a liberaltarian think tank.

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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.