I don’t usually write about religion in isolation. The few times it has appeared in my articles there has been some political angle. Tonight will be an exception. It will also be personal and not the least bit academic. Recently in the comments section of my blog there was a lengthy discussion of religion and it, in part prompted the following musings.
We need to begin at the beginning. The year is 1992. Soon after the election of Bill Clinton and shortly before her 72nd birthday, my grandmother succumbed to cancer. What followed was absurd and the resulting pain perhaps well deserved. My grandmother was not religious, not remotely. In fact, after my grandfather lost his right arm in a factory accident and the dust had settled, my mom asked my grandmother if she prayed in the immediate aftermath of the incident. My grandmother responded, “of course not. Who was there to pray to?” That was the mark of true non-believer, someone who when the chips were really down, still did not believe in a higher spirit. So it was absurd that my grandmother should receive a religious service and burial. Most of us who have lost a loved one know that the funeral arrangements are as much for the living, if not more so, than for the deceased. And so it was the wish of my grandfather and my grandmother’s sisters that she should receive a religious service.
Since my grandmother did not attend church, the pastor at the service did not know her from Eve. His ignorance of how she lead her life was obvious from the moment he opened his mouth. Had he known her, he would have known she was the finest, most decent woman imaginable. Only my mother and my wife could match her. My sister and I use her as a yardstick for how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. Yet at the height of his eulogy, when emotions in the room were most raw, he declared “let us all pray that God will accept this woman into His kingdom even though she did not accept Christ as her savior. Perhaps though her soul is in peril, God in his infinite wisdom and compassion will have mercy on her.” Soul in peril, indeed. From a moral and ethical standpoint, my grandmother could have wiped the floor of that funeral home with everyone assembled including the minister. I was enraged. You see, even though I was not religious at the time, I at least gave religion some credit for its healing powers. I believed that ministers, doctors of the soul so to speak, abided by the same creed as real doctors — “first, do no harm.” On that late-November day in 1992, that minister did harm. He wounded the hearts of at least some of the bereaved.
Fast forward to April of 2010. It is almost 18 years later and my grandfather, on the verge of turning 90 had lived his allotted time. It was now time to bury him. This funeral would be the exact mirror image of the one I attended 18 years ago. You see, late in life, my grandfather “found Jesus Christ”. The minister knew my grandfather’s second wife very well and knew granddad at least well enough to talk credibly about him. However his most important message was clear. “All those who have found Christ, will see this man again one day. But understand, if you have not found the Lord yet, do not delay because no man knows when his time will come.” Ah, I see. So the only way I will ever get to see my grandfather again, is to accept Christ as my savior. This sermon echoed the same sentiment as the one almost two decades earlier. Comfort could only be found in Christ. Non-believers would suffer, not only in the next world, but even in this one because if you do not believe, then you can only despair of ever seeing your loved one again in the afterlife. The proceeding started to resemble a multi-level marketing meeting as various people rose to eulogize my grandfather, but more importantly to declare their belief in Christ and how THEY were going to see granddad again someday. It was a club you see. We were not here to talk about the life of a man. We were here to celebrate our membership in the club and how only members would reap the benefits of membership.
As I sat there I saw religion, at least in this instance, exposed as an extortion racket. Either believe, or your soul will be at risk. So will your well-being, your ability to deal with your own death and the death of your loved ones. You can have peace of mind but there is a price to be paid. Only through Christ will any comfort come. The content of your character is irrelevant. As long as you pay up at the faith counter, all will be good. And when do the proponents of this racket choose to pry their trade? When loved ones are most vulnerable and in the most pain. That is what I found so shameful and unforgivable. What should have been celebrations of the lives of my grandparents were little more than sales pitches for a product.
With all this said, I still know that religion does bring many people comfort. I do know that right-minded churches work hard for their communities and donate time and money to those less fortunate. It’s that very knowledge that leaves me irreconcilably confused. How could people practicing a belief system of love, turn it into some membership scheme and extort non-members using their peace of mind as leverage?
I am not religious. But I do not go around denying the existence of God. I am not smart enough to disprove the existence of God. I don’t let His existence or lack thereof dictate the course of my life. I do know this much. A loving God honored my beautiful grandmother and demanded nothing in return and he forgave my imperfect grandfather. And if there is a heaven somewhere, both of my grandparents arrived there.
And my grandmother is kicking my grandfather’s ass, as we speak.