Let’s go back in time a little bit.
I was raised with a typically schizophrenic Protestant image of God: one the one hand he was this all-loving daddy figure who wanted everyone to get along, but on the other, if you put a toe out of line he’d throw you into a fiery pit (because he loves you). Honestly I never thought about it much; church was just something you endured until it was time to go home and have Sunday dinner.
During Revival season everything was turned up to 11. If you aren’t Protestant or hip to the lingo, a Revival happens a couple of times a year to re-energize people’s commitment and uses charismatic speakers and guest musicians to try and bring new blood into the fold. Sunday School had special lessons, got to watch movies, did cooler craft projects. There were ice cream socials and all sorts of gatherings. I always looked forward to Revival because people were a lot less dour – something about all the hallelujahs felt right, or at least more right than the muttered call-and-response of a typical service.
One year our teacher sat us all down and showed us a movie about something called the Crucifixion. I’d heard of it in vague terms during hymns and sermons, but it never really registered that this was something that was actually supposed to have happened to a guy, and moreover, that God shoved his own kid off his cloud to be born, grow up, and then be tortured to death. The nuances of the story and any sort of theological depth were of course lost on me – but the blood wasn’t.
Our teacher let us watch what amounted to a very mild version of Mel Gibson’s Jesus Chainsaw Massacre from a few years back. It was definitely way more violent than children needed to see (this was back when people freaked out over children seeing violence, not just sex), but still fairly tame. Still, I was cursed with a fantastic imagination, and the sounds of whips and taunting voices made me very uncomfortable.
(Looking back, the memory of that film reminds me very strongly of undercover footage I’ve seen of slaughterhouse kill floors. Just think about that for a minute.)
What I wanted to know was why. Not “why did people kill this good person,” because even at that age I didn’t need an answer to that one. I wanted to know why any of it was necessary.
I was told that we were all sinners, and in order to save us, Jesus had to get the torture porn treatment. Because God let stupid humans kill his son, we could get into heaven. All we had to do was feel bad about it, then say we believed it was true.
I didn’t really have the vocabulary or the mental acuity to work out why I found the whole thing just a little hard to swallow, but it didn’t matter: logical answers weren’t the currency of the Southern Baptist ministry. The teacher began a long lecture, looking each of us in the eye repeatedly, telling us that it was OUR FAULT that Jesus had to suffer, and that ALL THAT BLOOD WAS FOR US, and LOOK HOW MUCH IT HURT, and YOU MADE JESUS DO THAT, AND DON’T YOU WANT TO MAKE IT UP TO HIM?
I’d never felt such soul-sucking guilt. I felt awful. Terrified, ashamed, small. I thought that somehow I, a little girl in a ruffly dress with a heart full of secrets, had been so bad that my badness traveled back 2000 years and killed a nice man.
I cried. A lot. And whatever prayers or vows or penance the teacher gave, I hit my knees and did it. I’m sorry Jesus. I didn’t tell them to do that. I would have told them not to. I’m so sorry.
As I walked up the steps to the baptismal a few days later, in a heavy robe over my jeans and t-shirt, I had the weight of the world on my shoulders along with the scratchy fabric.
It had been a confusing few days. Everyone was so happy for me, like I’d gotten an A+ in Savior-cide 101. Didn’t they get it? I personally was so bad, so fundamentally screwed up just by virtue of being born – let’s not even count actual bad things I’d done, or things that might have happened to me that I believed were my fault – that my badness forced God to kill his own kid. I couldn’t even conceive of circumstances that would drive my parents to kill one of us for any reason. Sure, fine, we were all sinners and had fallen short and so forth…but I took it very, very personally.
There was no sense of joining a fellowship, no joy in finding a place at the Heavenly Father’s Table or even the Heavenly Kids’ Table. I didn’t feel uplifted or blessed. I wasn’t thankful for the great sacrifice that would lift me out of bondage.
I felt like a murderer.
I was nine years old.
I was so nervous when I waded out into the warm water (in case you don’t know, Southern Baptist churches that aren’t situated near a convenient dunking stream often have basically a wading pool up behind the choir loft, the walls around it painted to look like a riverbank.) that I forgot my teacher’s advice to hold my nose while my arms were in the dunking position; I sputtered and coughed, but everyone was yelling “Amen” and didn’t really notice. The preacher, of course, righted me and made sure I was okay before patting my shoulder and sending me along so the next kid could have his turn.
Hopefully that lucky young man had no idea I’d just peed in the water.
Up next, Part Three: How to Lose Your Religion in Four DaysBecome my patron for exclusive online content and read new stories before anyone else!