Friday, March 19, 2010

Amazing Grace

One of the things that makes the Bible (and, presumably, the Koran) so different from other mythologies is how pathetic the humans in the stories are. Consider, for example, the story of Jephthah and his ill-fated daughter. He makes a Faustian deal with God (before Faustian deals were cool) to sacrifice the first thing he sees when he returns from battle if God will help him be victorious. As luck would have it, he beloved daughter is the first thing he sees and he fulfills his debt to God by killing her. Imagine if this story were transposed into Greek or Roman mythology: Jephthah would have made the same deal with God but would have spent the rest of the tale outsmarting God. Perhaps he would have substituted an animal, or perhaps he would have created a mechanical doppelganger. But the point of the tale isn't about God's pettiness or inflexibility, nor is it about man's ingenuity or cleverness. It is simply about God's overwhelming need for obedience.

Christianity (again, I'm not familiar enough with other religions to speak for them) has a problem with allowing humanity to have any dignity or autonomy. The doctrine of Original Sin, which colors every human as wretched and evil and deserving of hell from conception onward (but wait - have you heard the good news? God has given you an opportunity to escape the torments of hell - all you have to do is accept Jesus Christ!) is absolutely central to the church. It creates an instant master/slave relationship and makes accepting the central tenets of the faith a matter of life and death. It is sick how common this thought is and how easily it is accepted. Hymns are full of this idea - even the most famous one: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me. The singer accepts the label of a wretch without so much as a whimper of protest. Human dignity is stripped away and replaced with failure and impotence.

It is true that humanity is capable of horrible, horrible things. We have habitually waged campaigns of genocide, we have -until very recently - owned slaves and we have created factory farming (click the link, read the articles and look at the pictures if you don't think that it qualifies as one of humanity's worse offenses). A recent French game show (fake, of course - and the centerpiece of a documentary that I am very eager to watch) compelled contestants to kill an actor by way of electric shock and the audience to encourage it. Although no one really died and the producers of the game show were aware of the deception, the contestants and the audience were not - their behavior would have likely been identical if a life really were at stake. In groups it is true that humans can be unspeakably cruel. It is easy to see how the idea of original sin is believed and perpetuated.

The insidious trick of original sin is to convince us that there's nothing we can do. But there is something we can do. We are doing it right now, just by living. I'm convinced that our modern society is better, more moral and less cruel than it was in the past. We discover our offenses and, one by one, amend them. Sixty years ago America actually had laws that prevented people from accessing basic social services based on the color of their skin. Fifty years ago our current discussion of gay rights would have seemed ludicrous. And the very fact that most people don't like to even think about where meat comes from is evidence that we find it repulsive and cruel. Fortunately for the carnivores in the crowd we hide our meat factories away so that we can eat without feeling guilty.

All of that is collective humanity. It says nothing about individuals who may have moments of pettiness and cruelty but are, by and large, nice people. Even the participants in the above-mentioned game show are likely to be perfectly kind and decent human beings. My point is not that humans are not cruel and evil. It takes only a moment of reflection to think of a dozen things that we have done that we are ashamed of. The point is that we need to rise above our actions. To call it 'our nature' to be cruel is to ignore the kindness of our nature, and to brand everyone with 'original sin' makes us worthless wretches. We are not worthless wretches.

I certainly do not mean that humanity is the pinnacle of evolution or the masters of the universe. We are not even masters of our own planet - every time the earth shudders and shakes hundreds of us die. I don't intend that our dignity should turn to arrogance. The universe and life are worthy of respect. And humanity, as members and participants in both the universe and life, is worthy of the same respect.

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