I remember playing cowboys and Indians when I was a kid. That’s not politically correct any longer, but I grew up in the days of the western, when you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing cowboys and Indians shooting at each other, and Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were still playing in the local theater on a Saturday morning.
There was a good deal of land around where I lived and my brother and I and the one neighbor kid would run around pretending to be either a cowboy in a white hat or Crazy Horse.
Forget the insensitivity to the previous genocide of the Native Americans for a minute. We were six or ten; we knew nothing of that; no one had told us (no one did tell us until I was in college, actually), and we had a great deal of fun running around, dropping, unsuspected, out of trees on our enemies, shouting “gotcha” and “Bang, you’re dead.”
A favorite ploy, if you were playing on the Indian side was to cover yourself in grass and weeds and then pop up when the cowboys rode by (think Monty Python’s King Arthur) shooting them with suction cup tipped miniature arrows from a tiny bow you could buy at Woolworth’s Five and Dime.
We knew we weren’t cowboys or Indians. We were “pretending.” And it was magical.
Back then magical thinking was how you got through childhood. Santa Claus and the tooth fairy were magical thinking, as was the boogey man under the bed. At Christmas you could go downtown and see the animatronic Christmas displays at O’Neil’s or Polsky’s; wonderful, fantastical scenes of little villages all decked out for the season, populated by men, women, and elves that moved and spoke. They weren’t real either.
When we weren’t playing cowboys and Indians, we were playing “soldiers.” We had rifles that our grandfather had roughly cut from 1 x 4’s into the appropriate shape and that used a spring loaded clothes pin glued to the trigger area to hold one end of a rubber band stretched from the barrel tip and made from old inner tubes. The best were the real rubber inner tubes that were getting hard to find. When you pulled the trigger the clothes pin opened and the rubber band shot twenty feet ahead. Not accurate, but better than “bang, you’re dead.” If you got there first, you got to wear the liner from dad’s old WWII armored division helmet and his canteen belt, complete with canteen.
You didn’t step on cracks in the sidewalk because that led to broken backs. You never walked under a ladder. God forbid you should break a mirror.
At that age, believing in God isn’t hard. If you can believe in elves and fairies, pretend you are Crazy Horse, and think Santa can deliver presents all over the world in one night, it’s not hard to imagine a guy in the sky who answers prayers, created the universe in six days, and who made the first man out of mud and the first woman out of one of that man’s ribs. He caused a virgin to become pregnant so He could have a son and then raised that son from the dead so that everyone else would be able to live forever.
It’s easy to believe in “unbelievable” things when you are young.
As you get older, it becomes harder. At some point you realized the tooth fairy was really your mom. You discovered that the guy in the mall who sat you on his lap and asked you what you wanted for Christmas really had never been to the North Pole, had a mortgage, and delivered mail when he wasn’t pretending to be a fat elf. It was disappointing, but we all got over it.
But God is somehow different. It is easier to live without Santa and the Easter bunny than it is to live without God. God is personal in a way the Easter bunny never was. God is comfort for the sick, companionship for the dying, succor for the poor. He is the light in the darkness for those who believe. He is beyond magic. He is truth. If you believe.
When we finally did learn about the plight of the Native American population, it would have taken all the fun out of playing cowboys and Indians if we hadn’t been too old for that anyway. Vietnam certainly took all the fun out of playing “soldier” in the back yard or anywhere else in my opinion.
Magical thinking, that wonderful world of pretend, was so ingrained in us, though; we could never give it up. We found ourselves playing Prisoner of Zelda instead. Or maybe Warcraft. Mario? Halo? Descent? How about Fantasy Football Leagues?
Magical thinking and the world of pretend spills over into all areas of our lives. If we just elect this candidate, all our worries are over. If we just support this party, all will be well. Magical thinking.
If only so-and-so had won, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Magical thinking.
We can build a wall all along the Mexican border and we can get Mexico to pay for it. Magical thinking.
If we just give rich people more money, they will suddenly stop hording it and it will trickle down to the rest of us. Magical Thinking.
If we ignore science and do nothing to help ameliorate climate change, everything will be fine. It’s a conspiracy of scientists to convince us of… uh, something or other. Magical thinking.
The dumber the people, the better for the country. Magical thinking.
We have the best schools in the world, our health care is second to none, and we are the greatest nation on the face of the earth. Maybe once. Magical thinking now.
Immigrants are taking our jobs and ruining this country which was built by white people who spoke only English. Magical thinking.
The US government is allowing the enforcement of Sharia Law in America. Magical thinking.
America is now and had always been a Christian nation. Magical thinking.
The Southern slaves actually had it good. They were freed from the squalor of their homes in Africa and brought to a country where they could prosper. They were well cared for by the plantation owners then and have all the rights of American citizens now. Magical thinking.
There are no bad cops. There is no racial element to the killing of blacks by police. Magical thinking.
If we just say a thing, a thing is true. Presto.
Because I believe a thing, a thing is true. Abracadabra.
When the apocalypse comes, I’ll be saved. If you don’t believe like I believe, you will not. I will live forever, basking in the radiance of God and you will suffer eternal damnation, fire, and pain. I am therefore better than you. I deserve better than you.
That is magical thinking of the highest order. This takes a bit of religious belief, something we consider to be beyond magic and twists it into something it was never intended to be. And this is dangerous.
We don’t talk much about religion. It’s hard to do. We gave up the Santa Claus and the tooth fairies of our youth, but God is real. God is our source of hope. God is our savior. Our belief can be absolute. To question God is to question the very essence of what many believe define them as human beings: they are the children of God. Period. End of conversation, short as it was.
I have no quarrel with those who have that belief. Like most things, religious belief can be a positive or a negative influence in the world. When it provides a strong moral character for its adherents, it is a positive force. When it provides hope and the congregants provide support for each other, it is a positive force. When it leads sects and nations to war against each other, it is a negative force. When it destabilizes nations and brings down governments, it is a negative force.
It is useless to use logic to counter belief when it comes to religion. Observation and logical thought were enough to convince most that Santa was a mythical being, a magical character meant to bring happiness to children. The Easter bunny could not survive the onslaught of mature thinking except as a symbol. But God? Belief in God will not be swayed by logic or observation, and even suggesting that He is anything other than what the believer contends that He is will usually precipitate anger and will preclude any further conversation on the topic. So we don’t talk much about it outside the group who believes just as we do.
It isn’t God that creates the positivity or the negativity, however. God is immutable, eternal, and his ways are mysterious. It is how men interpret God to each other that creates impact on the world we live in today. God is not religion. God is not the church. Mankind’s interpretation of God’s intent creates religion. Humans create the church. God is infallible. Humans are not.
And when humans believe that they are the chosen ones, that they are to be saved because of their beliefs while others are damned, when they usurp God’s authority to act as judges over their fellows, the country suffers. When some men and women believe that their interpretation of God’s intent is superior to other human’s interpretation, the world suffers. Wars are fought over mankind’s differing interpretations of God’s intent. Millions have been killed over the inability to agree on what God expects from mankind.
I do have a quarrel with those humans who are not content to believe, to worship freely in a country that guarantees that right, but who insist on using their interpretation of God’s intent as a license to force their beliefs on others and to force their religious beliefs into the realm of secular government. My quarrel is with people, not God, not religion.
I do have a quarrel with those people who actively work to establish a national religion in a country with a constitution that specifically forbids that.
I do have a quarrel with those men and women who, on seeking an office which requires them to uphold the laws of the United States, openly aver that they will put God’s law above man’s law, God’s law as they interpret it. We see more and more of those cases today.
I do have a quarrel with those people who think that because their interpretation of God’s intent tells them that in the final days (which they believe to be close) they will be saved and all those others won’t, all those gays and those lesbians and those poor people, and those people of color and those people who question the validity of their interpretation of God’s intent. They are unimportant and undeserving. They don’t need rights. They don’t need health care. They are damned anyway. Why expend resources on them?
This is dangerous thinking. This is thinking that destroys nations. This is thinking that more and more permeates the political spectrum in this country.
This is thinking that will precipitate constitutional crises. It is thinking that will ultimately lead to a form of religious war in this country.
The Evangelical Nationalists who are pushing hard to insinuate themselves into government at all levels, if successful, will create the very type of theocracy that they decry in other nations. Iran is a country where God’s law supersedes man’s law. ISIS is struggling to establish a caliphate where God’s law overrules the law of men.
There should be a national conversation about this situation. It should be out in the open. People should be more aware of the risks to our American democratic experiment. But talking about religion is hard. People fight wars over religion. Conversations get quashed before they get started when the topic is religion.
But we should be able to have a conversation about people. We should be able to talk about how some so-called religious people have evangelized their way into a position to impose their ideas on others, to subvert the common good, and to advance their own agendas.
We should be able to talk about how some men and women have been able to use religious rhetoric to incite hatred and bigotry. We should be able to talk about how Christianity has been perverted in order to attract support from the fringe groups who would like nothing more than to see the overthrow of our democratic form of government in favor of either an authoritarian leader or sheer anarchy.
No matter what your personal beliefs about God may be, we ought to be able to talk about the magical spells being woven by those people who would pretend to speak for God in order to accomplish their own ends. This is especially true for the “mainstream” churches that have been reluctant to engage on this topic. They are being lumped in with the Evangelical Nationalists in the minds of many and they are suffering the consequences whether they like to admit it or not.
We live in dangerous times. There are those who would like to facilitate an Apocalypse. There are others who would like to rush into it headlong. For these people, what happens on earth is of little consequence.
If you are content with that, sit by quietly; don’t talk about religion. Allow these people to advance their brand of “I’m saved and you’re not.” That’s the same as “I got mine; fuck you.”
We are now at a point where bible study sessions are being held for the US President’s cabinet in the White House itself. These sessions are being led by a man who claims that God has given the president the right to drop nuclear weapons on North Korea. God has given this man the right to kill millions. God did that. Not congress. God. What will God give Donald Trump the right to do tomorrow?
If God’s law supersedes man’s law and Trump’s bible study leader says God gives him the right, what can he not do?
If you say a thing, a thing is true. Presto.
If you believe a thing, a thing is true. Abracadabra.
If you are a Christian believer who understands the basic precepts of the religion as they have traditionally been defined, you will understand that your values are being subverted. Not by atheists. Not by agnostics. Not by gays or blacks or immigrants. Your understanding of Christianity is being subverted by white hypocrites who pass themselves off as Christians. If you are content with that, sit by quietly and watch as your interpretation of God’s intent becomes subsumed in the chaos of the coming years.
We may not like the idea, but we need to have a conversation about the way some are using the cover of religion to tear apart our democracy for their own financial gain as well as subverting the very essence of Christianity.
We either begin that conversation and get over our reluctance to talk about hard things, or we sit by idly as those voices continue to appeal for support to the White Supremacists and the militias and the Fascists to back them in their attempts to create a national religion that bears no resemblance to any type of “Christian Nation” that most followers of Christ would recognize.
Your Humble Servant,
Roger A. Shipley, The Willowbrook Curmudgeon
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