When I was in college the first time, in the late 1970s, I did a very silly thing. I actually indulged the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came door to door in conversation. Of course, they were being silly too. They actually hoped they could convert me through rational argument.
The nature of faith is that it has no rational basis. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying to convince others that their own version of spirituality is superior to the rest. Red Jacket, a spokesman—I’m guessing because the Seneca thought the white men might listen to a man—for his tribe in the western part of what we now know as the state of New York, classically sent off a preacher who came to proselytize, much like those Jehovah’s Witnesses. He masterfully brought together the inconsistencies of Christianity, of proselytizing, and of the abuses American Indians had suffered at the hands of whites to form a magnificent rebuke (though it is doubtful that the translation in my possession is accurate) which apparently resonated: it was, according to a biography, widely published.
But it was also in the late 1970s that it became important in United States politics not just to be Christian, but evangelical Protestant. Of the presidents we have had since and including Jimmy Carter, I can think only of George H. W. Bush (the elder) who did not claim to be an evangelical Protestant of some denomination. A number have professed to be “born again.” Most have claimed to at least personally oppose abortion.
I’ve heard it suggested that we never really finished fighting the Civil War, that the battle over race (and for the South, it seems clear that the contest was over the right to own other human beings) can be traced through lynching, the death penalty, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, and now, the barely masked racism that challenges Barack Obama’s origins. But another war, often violent in the forms of rape, sexual abuse, assault, and lack of opportunity, over the right to control women has been fought right along side it. And many of the arguments that are used in these conflicts are supposedly based on the Bible.
The subjugation of women, we are told, derives from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, from Eve’s role not only in taking the first bite of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but in tempting Adam to eat of it as well. God, it seems, did not want humans to know good and evil; Adam and Eve betrayed themselves by improvising clothing to cover up.
God, we are told, is omniscient and omnipotent. We cannot, in faith, speak of limits upon him. And yet, we speak of him in the third person. And if I were to encounter those Jehovah’s Witnesses or any other evangelicals seeking to proselytize me, this would be the foundation of my challenge.
Because, when we speak of God in the third person, we imply that he is not present; we suggest that he is either elsewhere or deceased and that in either case, he has limits. Whereas to suggest that he has no limits is to suggest that he is present everywhere and in everything. And in the latter we raise the issue of theodicy, which “concerns divine justice in the face of unjustifiable suffering. Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? In a world such as ours, how can we possibly conceive of a just God?” For to deny God’s role in evil is again, to impose limits upon him, to suggest that he has boundaries, to suggest that there are realms in which his influence is less than all-powerful.
The central question with which Jim [James Melvin Washington] grappled was unjustified suffering—the problem of evil. Why would a benevolent, all-knowing and all-powerful God permit such pain on any people? He and I didn’t approach the dilemma theoretically, however, In the end, we saw the answer as the conclusion of a practical Aristotelian syllogism. It was all about action. It was all about the practice of faith. As in the novels of Dostoyevsky, your life becomes your response. Your response doesn’t take the form of a written-down, reasoned-out argument. Your response becomes the quality of your day-to-day behavior. The question doesn’t go away. It remains powerful and daunting. But the fact that there is no reasoned-out answer doesn’t turn you cynical. You live with the reality that the question remains, a challenge to your mind and your heart. You can’t bring back the bodies that died in the Atlantic Ocean during the slave trade. You can’t reconcile a tidal wave wiping out an entire city with the notion of a sovereign God. You can’t equate catastrophe with the human condition—but you can, following the teaching of this particular Palestinian Jew, do what you can to help the least among us.
Actually, Brother Cornel West, there is a reasoned-out answer, which I am writing out here, that draws upon a recognition from Genesis that God did not want humans to know good and evil, that he did not desire for us that we should even be ashamed of our nakedness. The notion that God is good, or that God is anything in particular inherently categorizes God; it is what our language does. It imposes boundaries upon him. And we are seeing the fruit of that tree in our present-day culture wars.
God’s name is invoked to say that the United States should be a more moral country, indeed that as a nation, we should (re)turn to him. But the notions of good and evil that Christians impose upon us are precisely what divide us from God, the God who did not want us to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the God who expelled us from the Garden of Eden when we did so. Our original sin is that we ate that fruit which he forbade us.
I’m going to say that again: Our original sin is that we chose the forbidden knowledge of good and evil, not in whom we love or how or under what circumstances or in whether children are the products of such relationships. And the original good was in innocence, prior to consequence, prior to everything that happened (to the extent that it happened) afterwards, and certainly not in the avarice that the wealthy would have us believe is good.
And for those who would proselytize, that you even dare to think of God in the third person is blasphemy. He is paradox.
- Christopher Densmore, Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, 1999).↩
- Gen. 2:9, 25; Gen. 3.↩
- Timothy K. Beal, Religion and Its Monsters (New York: Routledge, 2002), 3.↩
- Cornel West, Living and Loving Out Loud: A Memoir (Carlsbad, CA: SmileyBooks, 2009), 100-101.↩