"I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do to their fellows, because it always coincides with their own desires."--Susan B. Anthony
This is the first time I've ever participated in a blogswarm. The word "swarm" seems appropriate here--as I've said, ideas have swarmed around my head like gnats for the past couple weeks, and it's a bit difficult for me to chase them down, smack them, and commit to them. But I'm trying. I'm going to risk alienating a few people here, too.
The woman whose apartment I am redecorating and I had a discussion this week over, of all things, cheesecake. She suggested it as a cure for my small issues. "Well, that's my problem right there," I said with a smile. "I don't like cheesecake."
Genuine shock. "You *don't*?" No, I explained between her attempts to communicate how much I'm missing. Most of them have eggs, and I'm allergic. I don't like the taste anyway--the combination of tangy yet bland cheese with never-quite-enough sugar--and I really don't like the queasy-making uranium density of "New York-style" cheesecakes. I'd much rather have a European-style cheese and fruit plate for dessert if we're going that route. (Maybe some of you will feel the way I felt at some of the comments my "fisu shots" post got--I can't imagine not liking anise and licorice!)
"Wow," she said. "I never met anyone, especially not a woman, who didn't like cheesecake. You're serious?"
"I firmly believe in the separation of cheese and cake," I said.
She gave me a tolerant smile and shook her head. "I guess I can understand that."
Of course, the sentence was a play on the phrase "separation of church and state." I believe in that as passionately as I believe that cheesecake is an absolute disappointment for a dessert, which is quite a lot. I almost have to believe in it, as a bi Pagan woman married to a gay atheist woman. My L'Ailee and I are quite frequently among the groups targeted by conservative Christianists. There is a question I ask a lot--whispered to my Evangelical relatives amid tears, typed with blazing speed in the course of online discussions, shouted at strangers who have a problem with L'Ailee and I holding hands, written to legislators--and it is this: "Why do I have to live according to your beliefs?" I haven't gotten a satisfactory answer to that yet. Then again, I get frustrated at the idea that LGBT people who want to marry their beloveds are being "selfish," too, and find it absolutely ultimately selfish that some people want to keep other citizens from marrying, even feel they have the right to vote on others' right to marry, because of their own beliefs. I mean, I'm not asking for the right to control governors' marriages...
What really infuriates me is the plasticity and subjectivity of said beliefs that some of us are expected to live by whether we share them or not. Recent news items, and reactions to them, brought that home to me. Barack Obama's former pastor was shown on TV on an endless loop, yelling "God damn America!" and sharing conspiracy theories from behind his pulpit. Well, you know about that. Obama yielded the best political statement about race in decades from the controversy, but I remained amazed at what Jeremiah Wright larded on to his teachings about Jesus. It reminded me a lot of the late Jerry Falwell's teachings. About a decade ago, I, a white Southern woman, wondered how I should respond to black homophobes. The woman who would become my wife, who was born and raised in Russia, thought hard. "You say that black people are as good as white ones," she reminded me. "Can they not also be as bad?" Well, yes. Yes they can. Obviously.
Then there were the pronouncements from the Vatican. St. Patrick's Day fell on Holy Week this year; Pope Benedict asked Catholics to behave in a dignified manner (ie, don't take the excuse to get sloppy drunk) and put off the parades. To which a Catholic man in my office howled, "Where the hell does the Pope think he gets off?" My BossLady and I have never been Catholic; we ducked behind her door to laugh at what we regarded as an unfortunate juxtaposition of words. Many Catholics in NYC disregarded his edicts as casually and cheerfully as an interoffice memo on the importance of conserving toilet paper.
And speaking of, there was also that new list of Seven Dedlier Sins! You probably forgot about it, because the Spitzer scandal broke shortly after they were announced. One Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti said that "Sins increasingly manifest themselves as behavior that damages society as a whole." That includes pollution and being too rich.
Years ago, I babysat my two youngest cousins. Their parents are lifelong members of the Assemblies of God denomination and would like the same for their sons. The boys were about seven and ten years old. They were outraged because a pit bull down the block mauled a neighbor's mutt. They knew and liked the canine victim and his family, and they needed comfort. Unfortunately, their pastor's advice struck them as woefully inadequate. "He said dogs don't go to heaven!" my youngest cousin exclaimed. "I don't even wanna go to heaven if they don't have dogs! What kind of heaven is that?"
Being Pagan, I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to be accused of indoctrinating these boys, or in fact, to actually indoctrinate these boys. But his older brother helped. "There's a movie called 'All Dogs Go to Heaven,' you know."
"That pit bull's a dog."
Now I stepped in. "So, I guess all dogs go to heaven...except pit bulls, right? They go to hell, right?"
"Yeah! All pit bulls go to hell!" Sounded like a movie sequel to me, I thought. I did not say that. Instead, we passed the afternoon with a hilarious discussion about what other animals went to hell. Strangling snakes and poisonous snakes, obviously. Ants. Roaches. Alligators and crocodiles. Stingrays. Man-o-war jellyfish. We got into debates over some animals. Bees sting but also make honey. The boys loved frogs, but what about poisonous frogs? We decided that bees lost their stingers in heaven, since they wouldn't have predators to worry about and someone needed to make honey and pollinate flowers. For similar reasons, we agreed that those cool blue poison frogs kept their color but lost their poison.
See what's missing in that theological discussion? We didn't once open a Bible or talk about Jesus, let alone mention any of the Greek, Roman, and Vodoun deities that I worship. We set all our Gods and Their stories aside as we casually, laughingly, damned entire species to hell because they annoyed us. I temporarily set aside my own belief that the afterworld, if there is one, is a lot like Earth, a place of stingers and poison alongside honey and pretty blue skin, with everything and everyone all mixed together. We were a twenty-something woman and two young boys, none of whom had seen very much beyond the great state of Florida, attributing our own experiences and opinions to God. The boys felt better that afternoon. We had no idea what a long-term effect that silly conversation would have on us.
The older boy is 15 now. He has come to believe that when it comes to homophobia, his pastor "is doing like we did when we were kids--he doesn't think gays who stay gay should go to heaven because he doesn't like them, the way we thought snakes shouldn't be in heaven 'cause we don't like them, remember?" His 12-year-old brother complains about his youth pastor's determination to find something wrong with all the country CDs he likes. (By the way, other Evangelicals are doing the same thing--check out Focus on the Family's reviews of Brad Paisley's, Miranda Lambert's, and Taylor Swift's newest CDs.) "It's like when we said pit bulls go to hell," he told me. "Jesus didn't say that, we did. But we were just funnin'! With [my youth pastor], it's like he thinks when he says it's wrong, it's as good as Jesus saying it's wrong."
But we were just funnin'. Do any of you reading believe that Jeremiah Wright or Pope Benedict or Monsignor Girotti ever "just funned" in their entire lives? Especially about religion? If they did, it's hard for me to see it. Wright definitely wasn't just funnin' when he preached that God used 9/11 to punish America for its sins. Pope Benedict certainly wasn't just funnin' about stopping St. Patrick's Day parades. Monsignor Girotti clearly wasn't funning when he said that people who are too rich are hellbound. Unfortunately, they do have one important thing in common with us--they went by their own experiences and opinions, and attributed them to God. Pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams worldwide do the same.
Sometimes people in the pews don't even share all, or half, of their spiritual leaders' opinions. They hold that parade (or listen to that music, or have gay friends, or use contraception) anyway. They give speeches that are almost a 180 degree turn from their pastors' sermons. It is a mistake to say that because there are "X" amount of Catholics or Evangelicals, "X" amount of people agree or disagree with you on a particular issue. Yet that mistake is all too commonly made, purposely or not, in many venues. A church with ten thousand members is far more likely to contain ten thousand religious beliefs than one.
I believe there is something greater than myself and that our Earth (let alone our universe!) is far too diverse to be the product of just one Divine mind. So I am a polytheist Pagan. I don't approach it as the ancients did, not entirely. Last night, I was with a loose group of Pagans to celebrate the Spring Equinox. We had rituals of beginnings. We re-enacted the story of Persephone (I was Demeter) and frequently burst out laughing because we felt so corny. We "planted" sheets of biodegradable paper with things we wanted to see flourish in our lives in the ground. We prayed for each other and our Earth. We blessed a pregnant woman and the baby growing inside of her. Another woman was having a bit of an existential crisis and felt like she didn't know who she really was. She'd dyed and processed her hair since she was 12 and didn't even know her natural color. I don't know what this vogue for communal hair removal is all about, but she asked us all to help her cut off her damaged hair and shave her head. (That last task fell to me 'cause I shave my wife's head every morning. Don't think this woman's going to make it a trademark like L'Ailee did, though!) We ate Easter candy--"It's spring candy!" we exclaimed--and danced and talked. The ancient Greeks probably wouldn't have done or approved of anything we did. We didn't agree with each other on certain fine points. But we gathered together in a big metaphorical Pagan tent, because we had more agreements than disagreements, so none of us would have to celebrate Spring alone.
The idea of the blogswarm was to get people talking about the importance of separation of church and state. Instead, I gave you a dog's breakfast of anecdotes. I think they all point to the main reason why I agree with this principle, however--basically, all any of us have are opinions and experiences. Some people are more educated, more spiritually-minded, more ambitious than others, but the difference of our opinions and experiences is, paradoxically, one of the few things we have in common. Saying that God shares our particular opinions is the ultimate appeal to authority. However, none of us can really know that. Maybe one day we'll know what our Creator(s) really think, but even that's just an opinion, a wistful hope, really.
What we do know about is each other. We know that there *are* others, anyway, and that there will be disagreements. The genius of the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, is that Americans are practically encouraged to disagree. We may have our own beliefs. Others may have theirs. Usually, others' beliefs and behaviors don't do us any real harm. It may offend some people that I celebrated the Spring Equinox rather than Easter, but it doesn't harm them, and it didn't harm us to eat Easter candy, either. Our Founding Fathers had the good sense to know that offense wasn't reason enough to restrict freedom. They understood that we humans are able to talk and reason together--we don't have to hide behind God's robes or hide from morality police.
Maybe some people think that God will condemn me to an eternity filled with pit bulls, snakes, and restaurants whose only dessert is cheesecake for my opinions. But that's God's decision, should God exist in that form. I'm not interested in that here and now. I want to live and hopefully enjoy the one life I know about for sure. I want to know what *you* think.