AUGUST POST: PRAYING IN THE CLOSET

It’s sickening how often war has been hallowed by religion. Same for the Crusades, the burning of witches, and too-numerous-to-mention other atrocities proclaimed as something holy.

Especially sickening have been the prayers on the side with extreme weapon superiority.

And the beat goes on. World War Three (which we don’t recognize yet as such, but in which we are fully embroiled) is between the technologically advanced Judaic Christian world and the much less developed (speaking of weaponry, of course) Islamic world — cultures which share many of the same foundational stories, same patriarchs, like Abraham, Moses, David. Jesus, in the Koran, is considered a great prophet.

But even leave out the violent, the atrocious, what is more fucked up than organized religion. Where more than in one’s claim to be religious is one prone to be pretentious, righteous, shallow, false. It was because of this that Jesus recommended that we pray in a closet, and that “Oh, ye hypocrites” is one of his most often repeated expressions.

Consider 2000 more years of religiosity A D (some of it vicious, some of it banal, much of it in the name of Christ himself), and we understand why Thoreau said that atheism may be comparatively popular with God himself. Why Marx called religion the opiate of the people. Why Nietzsche claimed that God is dead. Or more recently, why Christopher Hitchens wrote a book called God Is Not Great, sub-titled “Religion Poisons Everything.”
. . .

Last week I saw a documentary at the Frostburg, Maryland Film Club called The Look of Silence, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. It was about the military takeover in Indonesia in the mid-sixties, in which, over a three year period, a million people associated with communism, even rumored to be associated, were systematically hunted down, tortured and executed – tossed into a river with their hands tied behind their backs.

The Indonesian people themselves were forced to do the dirty work, so its high-office perpetuators could present it to the world as a people’s movement. For the hands-on killers, their choice was to do as they were told or be killed themselves. Religious propaganda was used to take a bit of the sting out of slaughtering fellow townsmen, sometimes even relatives. Communism was godless. Communists were bad people, slept with each other’s wives, didn’t go to the mosque.

Rubber was Indonesia’s big export, and Goodyear, who operated rubber plantations there, was in on the purge (from behind the scenes, of course) as was America’s “deep state,” as the C.I.A. is now called. Indeed, watching this film, I felt shame for how little I knew about this major grotesque “event,” even fifty years later,… for how long I’ve been part of a high standard of living that has profited by brutal economic colonialism in Indonesia and throughout the Third World in the name of God and capitalism.

All alive and well today. The documentary points out that the current Indonesian power elite live in a direct line from what happened in the mid-sixties. Walking out of the theatre, I didn’t want to see, or to be seen by, anybody. But my silence already had been seen. By the film makers. And by me, who, as an educated person, could have known. Just didn’t really want to. Would have required some work. Would have taken me out of my comfort zone.
. . .

I was born and raised in rural, mid-century Michigan, and programmed into Christianity long before I could think. To question that programming would have been tantamount to questioning my mother’s love, the house I grew up in, the school I went to, the baseball team I rooted for, the attraction I felt for certain girls.

There’s a time for such innocence, I suppose. And it had some good in it, no doubt. Jesus, as God on earth, was … well, who better for the image of democracy promoted as America? A commoner, a carpenter’s son, a god-man who lived utterly humbly, who never sucked up to power and wealth, even broke laws if they were cruel, like the stoning to death of an accused adulteress; or stupid, like not helping someone who had fallen into a ditch, because it happened on a holy day during which you weren’t supposed to “work.”

He was perfect, right down to dying for what he stood for, and forgiving his killers in the process. At six, or ten, years old, it was unimaginable that anything politically nasty, or even manipulative, could be coiled up within Christianity. But innocence that goes on too long becomes something else, becomes ignorance. I was already in my 20’s when I had the first inklings of the ugly underbelly of organized Christianity. I didn’t want to see it even then, but in the mid-60’s, in the environment of Alma College in Michigan (a Christian college, by the way), a couple of huge disconnects between the Bible stories of Jesus and what was being promoted in his name started to come home to me.

First was the Vietnam War, that more modern crusade against godlessness (communism) which corresponded to my own coming of age, not fought with lances on horses, but with high powered artillery, saturation bombing, napalm, etc., on the way to millions of communists dead, and 60,000 Christians (capitalists). It is frightening to see things contrary to one’s programming, especially if one is privileged with a 2-S draft status (a student deferment), but unlike things going on in Indonesia at the same time, Vietnam was in your face. From every angle that I looked at the Vietnam War, I could see that America and Christianity were not the good guys here.

(And lo and behold, never have been. That newly opened window provided a clear picture of America’s/
Christianity’s unpretty past for the first time. It was a shockingly new view of history for a lot of us lingering innocents.)

A second, and more general disconnect, was the rapidly accelerating drift of the American consciousness into the banalities of consumerism, and, once again, organized Christianity’s comfort with such, against all the teachings of Jesus. Each of these realizations was unnerving in itself, but looking further into them, one began to see a relationship between war and consumerism, and how the function of organized religion was largely to distract the citizenry about what’s really going on.

Thank God for a good Liberal Arts Christian college in the mid-sixties, in the context of which I became an atheist for the next forty years.
. . .

But then not really an atheist. For turning my back on organized religion, I was called an atheist by people like my parents, but I didn’t mind. I kind of liked it. Perhaps felt kind of superior. But soon enough I started to realize that it wasn’t that easy to leave religion, including its corruptions, behind.

It starts with the old “don’t throw the baby out with the dirty bath water” thing. Separate the wheat from the chaff. But can one say that one has turned aside from anything that continues to materially benefit you.

Many others before me came to this very crossroads, and as a budding reader, I was uncovering them left and right. Ralph Waldo Emerson was an early find, a writer who had similarly become disgusted with organized religion and spent the rest his life separating the wheat from the chaff.

Reading Emerson’s essays was to experience one clarification after another: his take on not bowing down to the life of another; his take on Biblical miracles (healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons, etc.) which he felt impeded you from seeing existence itself is a miracle, the slope of the back yard, the blowing grass, the movement of the planets, birth, death, coming out of nowhere, returning back to nowhere.

But did these powerful spiritual insights remove Emerson from his comfortable outer life, which to a large degree the displacement of the First Nations and horrors of slavery made possible?

Leo Tolstoy, speaking in that same radical spirit, rewrote the gospels leaving out the supernatural altogether. He saw it as a distraction from the ethical truths Jesus spoke. But did Tolstoy successfully ethically remove himself from his inherited wealth and privileges begot of the servitude of millions of serfs. Although he made efforts in that direction, not really.

Henry David Thoreau ended his twenty-six month sojourn at Walden Pond, where he consciously lived simply and close to nature, and refused to obey laws he considered unjust, saying that “I learned this, at least in my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life that he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours…. He will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”

And, I may add, he would be a guide to future seekers, as were Emerson and Tolstoy, to name only three of many who left organized religion behind, who mightily strived to say a big NO to its corruptions; to be freed of them, in order to say an uncluttered, an unhypocritical big YES to spiritual consciousness.

A closer looks reveals how far we, those of us who live in privilege — the guides and the guided alike — have been and still are implicated in the corruptions that we in principle renounce. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” said the slave owner, Thomas Jefferson.

And when life drops me to my knees, as it so often has done over the last fifty years (fear and/or pain will do that!), I remember Christ’s advice to pray in a closet.

3 Comments

  1. jamesralston@hotmail.com (Post author)

    Hey, Michelle. Thanks for the comment. And nice to see you the other day…. I’m so glad you watched that Oppenheimer documentary. I’m going to be watching the other one too someday soon.

    Reply
  2. Michelle

    Thank you for writing about the film. I found myself watching that and then Joshua Oppenheimer’s other documentary about this Indonesian genocide. It is all so shocking. I am still an avid reader of your blog because I miss your lectures. You have a wonderful way of being so insightful and I always learn something new.

    Reply
  3. Charles Sullivan

    The strength of this piece is drawn from consciousness and critical self-examination. These were derived from Socrates dictum: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Christianity, as practiced in this country, has nothing to do with the teachings of Christ, which were fundamentally revolutionary and anti-capitalist. Furthermore, I note that the teachings of Christ are more closely aligned with what we call Socialism and Communism in modern times than with capitalism.

    Christianity is used, falsely of course, as the ethical basis to promote everything that Christ railed against and ultimately died for. We witness the same phenomenon with Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy: Advertisers subvert his message and his legacy to sell Dodge trucks. Pure blasphemy!

    Not only are Christ’s teachings corrupted, twisted and misinterpreted into their binary opposite; they were long ago weaponized by capitalists to control the masses and to act as a countervailing force against economic and social revolution. For instance, think about the commercialization of Christmas. This can only occur in the absence of an examined life and its resultant culture of exploitation, consumption and waste. Like his predecessor Christ, Thoreau demonstrated that moral values, a principled life (performative conscience) cannot be commoditized.

    Reply

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