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The Musings of an Agnostic

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A guest post by Ben Berwick. Ben lives and writes in Essex, England. You can read more of his writing at Meerkat Musings.

When Bruce Gerencser invited people to write a guest post for his blog, I thought to myself ‘let’s give it a shot’. Then I thought to myself ‘I actually need to think of something worthwhile to say’. Cue further introspective musings.

In the end, I wanted to speak of a journey – voyage – that I’ve been undergoing for, well, pretty much my entire life. It’s a trip towards… not atheism exactly, but certainly towards being agnostic, especially as I get older. It sounds daft for someone who is not yet forty to be considering mortality, yet my thoughts often drift in that direction. I’d love to believe I haven’t even quite completed half my lifespan, and therefore my anxious thoughts about death are ridiculous to have, but the thoughts persist, much like a bad penny.

I’m aware of the pull – one might say power – of religion. We look for meaning, peace and certainty throughout our lives. The absolute belief in an eternal afterlife where we can be with our loved ones and fulfil all our greatest desires is a powerful lure. Who doesn’t want an eternity of bliss? I don’t want oblivion, even though the scientific, logical part of my brain tells me there’s nothing beyond death’s veil. Yet I cannot bring myself to accept the positions of the religious, that we are told offer certainty of life everlasting.

The problem is not merely that I cannot reconcile the science/logic aspects of my thinking with supernatural notions. There’s more to it. As a kid, my teachers and preachers introduced a version of the Bible that was quite sanitised; as an adult, I found with great clarity that there are many horrendous acts within its pages, and many positions that I cannot abide by (such as the views on women and LGBT rights). Not every Christian takes these views to heart (the members of the Church where I got married are among the nicest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met), but many do, and I’ve had my share of heated arguments with them.

We’re told about forgiveness and love a lot by people who don’t want to practise these ideas. Is that in spite of or because of their religious upbringing? And I must include a caveat that there are many religious people who are good people, absorbing the best practices of their faith. As I said earlier, I’ve met some of them.

Unfortunately, the encounters with the evangelicals (and others) have left me wondering how organised religion creates tribalism and how it poisons people. The Word of God has been historically used to wage terrible wars (in some parts of the world it still is), and to justify all sorts of commands that to me, seem cruel and heartless. The stance of the religious right on abortion and life is hypocritical and it regards women as cattle. I’ve seen this attitude from both evangelicals and also a former Muslim sparring partner, and so it’s not strictly a Christian issue, but more a general religious one.

With that in mind, whatever my viewpoints on Christianity as a wide global, organised faith, I have more or less the same viewpoints on other religions. They claim to hold the high ground on morality, they claim to see life as precious, yet history is filled with conflicts between different religions and even within the same religion. There has been a lot of blood spilt and a lot of persecution because of religion.

It wouldn’t matter so much if religion were a personal thing. In the past, when I was at my most ‘religious’ (not that I can ever really say I’ve been pious), I saw it as a deeply personal, private thing. The trouble is, it’s rarely the personal, private relationship that it should be. My apathy for organised religion is in part formed by the idea that it can forced upon others, in various ways. The religious right believes nations should pass laws that endorse the views of the faithful, regardless of the impact of those laws on others.

If you’re not religious, you should not be bound by religious rules, yet to the fanatics everyone should be held to them. I can’t follow such beliefs.

The other side of my move towards being agnostic is based on science. There are facts about the age of the universe and the earth, there’s the state of the world we live in, there is tremendous suffering and pain, and then there is God, who is absent. We have a being described as omnipotent and omnipresent who could remake the world in an instant, if they are as powerful as their followers claim. Yet they do not intervene. We are told we are being tested, we are told God works in mysterious ways, we are told to attribute anything positive to God. We do not see any of God’s workings yet we are meant to devote ourselves to worshipping this being and the codes and rules of their holy texts (despite the numerous contradictions between them all), even though many of those rules are arbitrary and in many cases cruel.

I can’t reconcile these facts with faith. Yet I want to believe that there is something after death, because I want to be in my daughter’s life forever. I want that hope. I want to watch for eternity as humanity (hopefully) grows beyond what it is now. I want to watch us soar to the stars.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Guests Posts: Stating the Obvious . . .

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Yesterday, I asked readers to contact me if they were interested in writing a guest post for this site. The first readers to contact me were two Evangelicals banned from commenting on this blog. So let me state the obvious: if you are banned from commenting on this site, you are not eligible to submit a guest post. Not-going-to-happen-ever.

End of discussion.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Are You Interested in Writing a Guest Post?

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I am always interested in having people write guest posts for this site. If you are interested in writing a guest post, please use the contact form to email me. You can choose any subject. If you are a Christian, you can even write a post telling me how wrong I am about God, Christianity, and the Bible.

Have a story to tell about your life as a Christian and subsequent deconversion? Testimonies are always welcome. I have found that readers really appreciate and enjoy reading posts about the journey of others away from Evangelicalism. Perhaps you are someone who has left Evangelicalism, but still believes in the existence of a deity/energy/higher power. Your story is welcome too.

If you worried about grammar or spelling, don’t be. Carolyn, my ever-watchful editor, edits every guest post before it is published. If she can turn my writing into coherent prose, trust me, she can do the same for yours.

Anonymous posts are okay, as are articles previously posted elsewhere.

Several readers have emailed me in the past about writing guest posts. I am w-a-i-t-i-n-g. 🙂 Seriously, if you have something you would like to say, I am more than happy to post it here. The ball is in your court.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

New Bethany Home for Girls: The Dogma that Followed Me Home

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I first published this post by my dear friend Cat Givens years ago. Edited for spelling, grammar, and readability.

When I was growing up in northeast Ohio, my family attended a Baptist church. It was one of those places where you’d meet every Sunday morning and then again Sunday evening. Bible study on Wednesday night. Soul-winning every Tuesday evening. Thursdays were youth group nights, and on Friday or Saturday we may have some other activity and then back again on Sunday.

We learned about heaven and hell. They preached a lot about hell.

I can remember being taught as a young child to tell everybody I came in contact with about Jesus and how to be saved. If I neglected to tell someone, then on Judgment Day this would happen: the person I did not tell would be led before the Lord God. I would be sitting behind God with the rest of the saved people. God would turn the person I neglected away, saying he did not know them. As they were led away, they would see me behind God and scream, “WHY? Oh, WHY didn’t you tell me?” And as they were led away to be cast into eternal fire, damned for all eternity, their blood would be dripping from my hands. Pretty heavy stuff for a kid, huh?

I was a bit of a rebel in my teens, and I’d run away when I got the chance rather than face the consequences at home for my actions. Finally, when I was almost fifteen, my parents were at their wit’s end. I was in the Detention Home for running away yet again, and they sought out help from the “experts”. A nice lady at the United Way told my parents that doctors were having success with rebellious children by hospitalizing them and giving them intense psychotherapy.

My parents met with the doctors, then the doctors met with me. “Yes, they could help me,” they assured my folks. They told Mom and Dad I could be transformed into a willing obedient child and would change my “criminalistic way of thinking”.

I was sent to a local hospital’s psych ward, housed with mostly adults (this was 1974, and there were no children’s wards at that time here). I was locked up with a bunch of strangers. I was shot full of “behavior modifying” drugs which made my physical movement robotic. I also received electroshock therapy treatments. Thanks a lot, Dr. Vallaba! Some of the men abused me while I was in there. I thought I fell in love with a man who said he and Bob Dylan shared a soul.

After the doctors had used up all my parents’ insurance money, they wanted to send me to another hospital in Connecticut. However, Mom and Dad had been talking to the preachers. They had another idea. Off to a girl’s home in Louisiana for me: New Bethany Home for Wayward Girls. I would remain there for a year.

Surely, this would save my soul and make me a compliant teenager, my parents and preachers thought. Unfortunately, at New Bethany, the same type of hellfire and brimstone attitude prevailed. I was not allowed to wear pants, as that was considered a sin. I couldn’t listen to any music besides Southern Gospel, as that was also a sin. I couldn’t talk about my past, as I had no past. I had to be called by my first and middle name because I was to become a new person.

There was an Evangelical preacher who ran the place, Rev. Mack Ford — an acolyte of Lester Roloff. He and his wife, Thelma, founded the home, taking in rebellious teens from all over the country. They also took in the unwanted girls whose parents abandoned them there. We were required to comply with every rule. Not doing so resulted in us getting whipped with a belt. That was the easy punishment. If a girl acted out, often she would be forced, after lights out, to stand in the hallway on her tiptoes with eggs or tomatoes under her heels. If she slipped and squished one, she’d get a whipping with a belt or hit with the switch. Runaways from the home were usually caught, and then, after a sound whipping with a belt from Bro. Mack would be handcuffed to their beds, and a ‘trusted girl” would be given the key. Their meals were served at their beds. These rebellious girls were only uncuffed for bathroom and shower breaks. Once Bro. Mack determined they had sufficiently repented, the cuffs were removed.

Everything we did was strictly controlled. We were told not to trust our conscience, as the Devil could be in there, so only trust the Bible. And trust Bro Mack.

Every day after chores, we would have chapel. There we would learn about hell, how the love of God brought us to this place, and how we must repent of our evil ways and change. Then we had breakfast. After more chores, off to school — a trailer down the street with one teacher and learning packets. It was an ACE school . . . Accelerated Christian Education. (Please see My Life in an ACE School.) After school, it was time for chapel again, and then lunch. Then chores and free time, and then chapel and supper. Even our bathroom breaks were timed, and we actually had to count the toilet paper sheets, begging for more through the bathroom door if we needed it. We were often awakened in the middle of the night. Sleep deprivation — what Brother Mack called “breaking down the will” — was the norm. I could go on and on, but I think the picture is clear. This was a brainwashing Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) cult, and we were the subjects.

After nearly a year, I got to come home. And yes, I was changed. I was a good little obedient Baptist teenager who addressed her parents and all adults as “sir” and “ma’am.”

At my new Christian high school, I was more conservative than most of the staff! We would only have chapel once a week at this school, unless it was “spiritual emphasis week.” During “emphasis” week, we would have chapel every day. Chapel was where we were told about how the devil tries to get every teen to be worldly and do evil. We were ripe for the danger of hellfire! We must be saved. We must repent if we do anything displeasing to god. I recall Mr. Russell, the gym teacher, leading us in prayer, asking God to kill us rather than let us live to set a bad example!

Throughout high school, I loosened up quite a bit. I still believed the dogma, but wasn’t quite so hung up on the rules. I began to read the Bible for myself. It didn’t read the same on my own as it did with a preacher interpreting it for me.

After graduation, I began to think more for myself.  I sought out a therapist who helped me overcome the guilt and confusion.  Gradually, I was losing the dogma and forming my own spirituality. I found god in nature and other human beings. I read about other religions and philosophies, realizing there are many paths to enlightenment. I enjoyed comparing the teachings of my youth to the myths and stories from other cultures and religions. I saw beauty and truth in many forms and rejected the hellfire and brimstone from my upbringing. Or so I thought.

I recently found a movie that was shown to us “wayward girls” at New Bethany. It was about the communist takeover of the United States. I really wanted to see this film again as an adult without expecting a great revelation and insight. The movie, along with another about hell, arrived the other day and I watched them. The acting was way over the top, and the subject matter was absurd. There on the screen, a little boy had a bamboo stick driven through his ears so he could no longer hear the gospel. Communists on horseback terrorized citizens, and the blood and guts spilled! Demons tormented people in hell, and worms ate at the burning flesh of the damned.

What happened next is what shocked me the most. As the choir sang “Just As I Am” and the preacher pleaded with the congregation to come to the altar and get right with God, I felt uneasy and a little sick. Fear and dread took hold, and then the panic! What if it was true? Would my children go to hell and be tormented for all eternity because I chose to raise them as free thinkers?

Mind you, this is NOT how I believe, yet here it was, all this dread and fear and worry. I felt horrible and confused. It was as if a great wave had pummeled me, and I was breathless! I contacted a woman raised similarly and found that she, too, suffered from this occasionally. First, we discussed brainwashing and conditioned response, and then I began to examine more carefully what had happened to me (and others).

It was twenty-plus years of dogmatic teachings that took my emotions and spilled them out in front of me like many dice. I realized that this memory’s emotional effect needed to be changed. I found discussing these reactions with my therapist to be helpful, as were his words of encouragement.  I reminded myself that it was out of love for my children I chose to NOT subject them to this stifling negative dogma. And I’m glad of it, as I would never want them to feel the way I did right then!

What good is spirituality if it does not lift one up? I examined what I actually do believe, and did some reading from some positive authors. I watched the movies again with my husband, and we laughed and shook our heads. The effect was more benign but not gone away completely, so I shall work on these memories some more, bringing in more humor and love. Still, I am amazed this dogma has followed me for so many years.

Has anything like this ever happened to you?

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Digging

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

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There was once a Catholic priest with an inquiring mind. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was a Jesuit. He also believed that Christian teachings are just part of the answer to the question of what we came from and why — and where we could go. Science is another piece of that puzzle, and it could be joined with faith in philosophy, classical and current. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was French.

The Church authorities weren’t always pleased with his work and, while his books weren’t placed on the Index, some weren’t published during his lifetime. In the meantime, though, the prelates, in France and the Vatican, did whatever they could to detour his scholarly and scientific work. (Perhaps it had something to do with his use of the “E word” to describe human development, intellectually and spiritually as well as physically.) So, he went to China, where he joined a scientific expedition that included a fellow Jesuit.

This French priest would have a hand in what was considered one of the most important scientific discoveries of the time:  Peking Man, the oldest set of remains that were recognizably human found up to that time. Among other things, it indicated that the human race was about a quarter of a million years older than previously thought.

During the last three decades of his life, he would return to France only for visits with family and friends.  He devoted his time to research, which took him to Africa and the United States as well as China.  

So, what got me thinking about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? The discovery of remains of Native Canadian children buried on the grounds of Catholic boarding schools funded by the government — and the priest sex-abuse scandals.

I’ll admit that it’s difficult for me not to think about the latter when I hear about the Roman Catholic Church:  I am one of many who suffered and survived that terrible history.  Although thousands of former altar boys and others who grew up in the Church have come forward during the past few years, we are still only a very small minority of those who endured exploitation by those who were seen as God’s proxies:  Many, many more didn’t live to tell their stories.  

Nor did those Native children who, although they died far too young, endured more and greater indignities than most people.  Those kids were taken away from their families and communities, and the schools’ curricula were aimed to, among other things, deracinate them: Their language, customs, spiritual beliefs, and everything else that formed their identities were taken from them. In doing so, the schools made the young people dependent on a church and culture that never would treat them as equals: In many Native cultures, teachings secular as well as spiritual have, as a purpose, making young people able to live off, and in harmony with, the Earth. But, even in its most benevolent forms, Christianity teaches the exact opposite: that humans have dominion over the mountains, rivers, seas, and the flora and fauna that grow, roam, swim, and fly in them.

I have read many reports about the discovery of those boarding school burial grounds. I also made what some would consider a mistake: I read comments that readers left in response. Some condemned the Canadian government and the Church. A few had ideas about what could or should be done. Then there were those who believed the reputation of the Church was being unfairly besmirched. One commenter wondered, “Why do they have to dig up the past?”

I wonder whether the person who made that comment consciously chose that phrase: “Dig up.” I saw it again on the Facebook page for alumni of my old Catholic school. They heard about the priest who abused me and, probably, other kids — and another priest (whom I knew) who took advantage of other kids. Some said, in effect, that those of us who told our stories were lying, which didn’t surprise me. They didn’t want their rosy memories of those “simpler times” beclouded by dark intrusions. In that sense, they were like another alumnus who asked the same question as the commenter on the story about boarding schools.

“Why do they have to dig up the past?” Church officials probably asked the same question about Pere Teilhard de Chardin and his fellow researchers. And, like some of my old classmates and people who heard the news about the boarding schools, they are doing what they can to deny what “digging” has uncovered — and to vilify us for daring to tell, not only our own stories, but those who didn’t live to tell theirs, whether they died twenty or two hundred years or millennia ago.  

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Just the Man for the Job

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

(Warning: Sarcasm follows!)

Rudy Giuliani’s law license has been suspended in New York. That means Donald Trump could be headed to prison . . . unless he faces a sympathetic judge and jury. In that case, he might be sentenced to community service.

Now, we all know that such a sentence works best when the person sentenced is given a job commensurate with his or her talents, skills, experience, and temperament. Now, I don’t know how many slots there are for guys who’ve destroyed everything in their path to build garish condominium towers and casinos — and stiffed everyone, from the ones who mixed the drinks to the banks who lent him the money. But I should think that there must be something out there for a reality TV host, spreader of alternative realities, and all-around huckster, I mean, communicator. And I can’t help but think there might even be a job for someone who, after James Alex Fields Jr drove his car into a crowd of people who were protesting the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville (and killed Heather Heyer in the process) declared:

I think there is blame on both sides. You look at, you look at, both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides, and I have no doubt about it…you had people who were very fine people on both sides.

“Very fine people on both sides.” Hmm . . . That shows us the man is capable of fairness and even-handedness. And how he was persecuted for it . . . by atheist transgender liberal Democrats—who live in places like New York and San Francisco, of course. The calls for his impeachment, which began practically the day he was elected, only grew louder because, you know, they just don’t understand how much he’s done for them.

Well, waddayano: A vacancy has just opened up — and Mr. Trump is just the one to fill it. The Right Reverend Monsignor Owen Keenan, late of the Merciful Redeemer Parish of Mississauga. (Is that Canada’s spelling bee equivalent of Mississippi?) Ontario has just tendered his resignation to Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto. Father Keenan will be a tough act to follow, especially given the circumstances that led to his resignation.

Recently, 215 bodies were unearthed at the Kamloops residential school run by the Catholic Church in British Columbia. Canadians, being liberal socialists who speak French, folks who try to right wrongs past or present, were outraged. In a survey that followed, two-thirds of respondents said churches that ran residential schools should bear responsibility for the abuses that happened in them. One couldn’t blame them for expecting Father Keenan, who claims reverence for the man (whether or not he ever existed) who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, to address their shock and grief. That he did, with this tidbit:

I presume that the same number would thank the church for the good that was done in those schools. But, of course, that question was never asked. And, in fact, we’re not allowed even to say that good was done in those schools. I await to see what comes to my inbox.

Now tell me, who can possibly follow up someone who says “good was done” in schools where native children were isolated from their families and cultures, and stripped of their customs, language and spiritual beliefs? Of course: someone who realizes there was “blame” and “very fine people” “on both sides.” Such a man no doubt understands that there is the “flip side” to every story: the technological innovations of Nazi Germany, the Mafia’s eradication from Havana under Castro, and the sudden drop in crime rates 20 years after Roe v Wade. Oh, wait, he can’t mention that last one in a Catholic parish, can he? But at least we can rest assured that good will be done under his leadership, whether or not we acknowledge it.

That is, as long as he stays out of jail.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Justice For Tulsa — And Olivia Hooker

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

He cradled the baby girl in his arms.  But he did not beam with pride; instead, his face took on the sober look of someone who realizes how much responsibility he has.

“Redemption,” he rasped.  “She is my chance at redemption.”

He’d killed.  It was not a boast or a threat ― or even a confession.  Just a statement of fact:  “I killed.”  Several times, many people ― about 600, by his reckoning.  That the murders ― yes, he called them that ― were sanctioned by his country and ordered by someone above him on the chain of command did not matter, he said.  They were murders, pure and simple, he said.

“I killed.  There’s no other way to say it.”  He didn’t wait for me to take in what he’d said.  Truth is, I couldn’t have, not until much later.  “And there’s no justice, there can never be justice,” he continued.  “If you are a human being, there’s no way you can justify killing another human being.”

He glanced at the baby in his arms.  “All I can do is to love her, give her the best life I can.”  That, he said, was his only hope of “redemption” and the only “step” he could take “toward justice.”

One reason why his words have stuck with me is that he is the sort of man he was:  a blue-collar guy from a blue-collar background.  His family went to church every Sunday but weren’t terribly religious otherwise.  He went to Vietnam, he said, “without much faith, with only a vague belief in God” and “came back with none.”

I thought about that man, long gone, when I heard about the events in Tulsa and Charlotte.  I am no historian, but somehow I sensed that the news, well, wasn’t new.  Like too many other American cities, both are simply re-enacting long-standing fears and resentments between white and black, police and civilians, and those who have and those who have not.

All it took was a few minutes on Google to confirm my suspicions.  Although Charlotte would witness neither the peaceful demonstrations nor the angry protests of the Civil Rights movement that rocked nearby Greensboro, it was a very troubled city, at least according to accounts like the one James Baldwin gave in The Fire Next Time.  

Like Charlotte, Tulsa also did not host peaceful protests or erupt into riots during the turbulent 1960s.  But the self-proclaimed “Oil Capital of the World” was the stage for one of the most destructive race riots in the history of the United States.  That conflagration, like too many others that came before and after it, was sparked by “ black ram is tupping your white ewe” rumors.

On the morning of 30 May 1921, 19-year-old shoeshine “boy” Dick Rowland rode an elevator in the Drexel Building with a white woman named Sarah Page.  You can guess what happened next:  Accounts of the incident changed from one telling to the next, each taking on a layer of lurid exaggeration spun from stereotypes about violent, priapic black men.  The next day, Tulsa police arrested Rowland and began an investigation.

The fears that shaped those re-tellings of the story found a platform in an incendiary article in  the Tulsa Tribune that sparked a confrontation between black and white mobs around the courthouse, where the sheriff and his men barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the blacks, badly outnumbered, retreated to the nearby Greenwood district.

At the time of this conflict, the “Harlem Renaissance” was taking shape.  If Harlem was the Florence of Black America, the Greenwood District of Tulsa was ― as it was often called ― the Black Wall Street.  There was, perhaps, no greater concentration of African-American wealth than was found in the banks, hotels, restaurants, jewelry shops and other businesses in the area.  

The white mobs pursued the blacks into Greenwood, shooting at them and rampaging through homes and stores.   Tulsa’s police chief then deputized hundreds of white residents to descend upon the neighborhood commandeered gun shops to arm them.  He also commandeered private planes to drop bombs in the area.

It is no exaggeration to say that, twenty-four hours later, the Greenwood district had been wiped off the face of the earth.  Reports from the time said that 100 to 300 people were killed, but the exact death toll will probably never be known.  Bodies were bundled into trucks and shoveled into mass graves by the Arkansas River.  

The Greenwood district obliterated, the story of its destruction didn’t make it into history  books. I minored in history, but only learned of the Tulsa pogrom accidentally, when doing ― you guessed it ― a Google search on another topic.  Attention has come to it only during the past few years, as the lawsuits for reparations on behalf of the few remaining survivors have been filed.

One of those survivors is Olivia Hooker, 101 years old.  The next time you hear someone say that African Americans should just “get over it,” tell that person about Ms. Hooker. She earned a bachelor’s from Ohio State University, a Master’s ten years later from Columbia and a PhD in Psychology from the University of Rochester.  That, after becoming ― at age 6 ― one of the thousands of people left homeless from the massacre.  Oh, and she was the first African American woman to join the Coast Guard ― after the Navy refused her because of her race.

She is not seeking reparations for herself, she has said, as much as she is trying to ensure that the terrible events of Tulsa are not forgotten.  That is not surprising when you realize that during her life, she has been an educator (both of her parents were teachers) as well as a psychologist and advocate ― and that she joined the Coast Guard, she says, not because she was interested in a military career but simply to break down a barrier.

In other words, she wanted to achieve justice.  And that is what she still wants.

If the birth of a child can be someone’s chance at redemption, could it be that we are gifted with the very old to give us opportunities, however fleeting, to achieve justice?  If this is the case, people like Olivia Hooker are our last opportunities to do so, at least for those whose lives were destroyed by a racial pogrom in Tulsa in 1921.  And for those whose lives have been ended, or upended, by the tensions that have simmered and, at times, flared up during the near-century since those terrible days in Tulsa.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Catholic “Dominoes” Falling?

dominos falling

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

In 1968, I served at the funeral mass for someone who was killed in Vietnam. I knew him fairly well: He was the older brother of a classmate in the Catholic school I attended.

Though people said I was a “smart” kid I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand what my classmate’s brother was doing in a country none of us would have heard of had young men like him not been sent there. I tried to understand the explanations I heard from adults in my family, school and church, and in the media. The word “domino” often came up: supposedly, Vietnam was one. According to that narrative, if the country fell to the Communists, others would follow.

I don’t have the expertise, or the inclination, to debate such a theory. What I am willing to say is that another “domino” phenomenon may be at work today, half a century later. And I must say that I am glad to see the fall of the “tiles” I’m about to describe.

For a millennium after Roman Empire disintegrated, the Roman Catholic Church exercised power that’s hard to imagine today if you’re not living in a theocracy. The monarchs of Europe “reported,” if you will, to the Pope, so a challenge to royal authority was, in essence, an attack on the Church. That is why Henry VIII’s “divorce” from the Church and the French Revolution were such cataclysmic events. Henry, in breaking away from the church and starting his own when the Pope wouldn’t grant him an annulment, effectively declared himself the Pope of England (to this day, the Queen or King is the Head of the Church of England, a.k.a. Anglican Church); when French revolutionaries lopped off the heads of their monarchs and nobles, they were effectively cutting themselves off from ecclesiastical authority, which was intertwined with their class system.

From there, the Church’s influenced weakened, however gradually: France and other countries passed laws that eliminated or limited religion from politics and other public discourse. In a few countries, however, the Church continued to exert its authority. Among those countries were Spain, Ireland and Poland, all of which were known, until recently, for their staunch Catholicism.

One could argue that in Spain, the unhooking of the Church from the nation’s culture and politics began in the late 1970s, after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who maintained nacionalcatolicismo as part of his dictatorial system. Today, while most Spaniards are at least nominally affiliated with the Church (it doesn’t let go of you easily!), they—especially the young—attend mass at rates on par with their peers in the Netherlands and Norway, which aren’t exactly known as ramparts of religiosity. (But, hey, they’re ahead of the UK, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Estonia!)

Ione Belarra is the Spanish Minister of Social Rights and the 2030 Agenda. Three weeks ago, she made her debut in Parliament. She wasted no time in expressing what too many of us have known and borne in silence. “It must be said that the Catholic Church has been and accomplice too many times in this country,” she pronounced. The Church has been “covering up sexual violence against children,” she elaborated. Such a denunciation of the Church would have been unthinkable a generation ago and possibly fatal a generation before that. Where it will lead, I don’t know, but I don’t think Spain will return to being the sort of country that got a special dispensation from the Pope Urban II for its role in the Crusades, or even the one whose “neutrality” in World War II was protected by Franco playing nice with Hitler and Mussolini.

In Ireland and Poland, Catholic domination of culture and politics endured a bit longer, in part because Catholicism served as a touchstone of identity as those countries were subsumed by colonial powers (England in Ireland and Prussia, Germany and the Soviet Union, among others, in Poland) that tried to erase all vestiges of their culture, including their language.

It’s been said that the first crack in the Berlin Wall opened when a shipyard electrician in Gdansk—guided, he claimed, by his Catholic faith—organized a strike that challenged the Communist regime in Poland.

Lech Walesa would later serve as the first President of his newly-independent country. In that post, and in his life afterward, he fought to liberalize the economy and protect human rights—of some humans, that is. While presiding over his country, he signed a law that sharply restricted abortion rights and said, of LGBT people, that he didn’t “wish for this minority,” which he “tolerates and understands” to “impose itself on the majority.” That’s the sort of language you hear from conservatives who don’t want to sound like bigots but who see equality as “special treatment.” Also under his presidency, publicly-funded catechism classes were introduced in the country’s state-run schools.

His expressed views on LGBT rights have moderated, which may reflect another change underway in Polish society, particularly among the young. In the most recent census, 96 percent of Poles were identified as Roman Catholics. While they attend church at higher rates than in other countries such as neighboring Czech Republic (which has one of the world’s lowest church attendance rates), if pressed, many—especially the young—find other things to do with their Sunday mornings and say they were “raised” Catholics but hedge, or give negative answers when asked about their current church affiliation. And, as in other countries, some claim to attend church more often than they actually do.

Activists contend that many people are counted as “Catholic” because they tick the box without thinking or because other people, such as their parents, fill out the forms for them. Now the “Chce sie liczyc” (“I Want To Count”) campaign seeks to encourage Polish people to think about their identity and, if they are so inclined, choose other answers such as “Christian,” “Deist,” or “Atheist.” That previous census counts presented a “very monolithic and homogenous Poland,” in the words of campaign leader Oskar Zyndul. That gave governments since Walesa’s the rationale—however unjustified—for passing and enforcing laws that restrict abortion access, in vitro fertilization, and LGBT rights, in contrast to the wishes of increasing numbers of Poles.

Could Poland join other former Catholic bastions like France, Spain, Belgium and Ireland, which have legalized same-sex marriage and removed most or all restrictions against abortion? If we look at the Irish Republic, such a scenario in Poland may not seem so far-fetched. In 2015, the country James Joyce described as a “sow that eats its young” became the first in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. (Other countries and US states had mandated marriage equality through executive decrees or votes by legislative chambers.) Three years later, it finally lifted its ban on abortions. That same year, Pope Francis’s visit wasn’t greeted with anything like John Paul’s visit some four decades earlier. And pundits, Catholic and secular alike, talk about the “waning influence” or even “demise” of the Church in Ireland.

Ireland, like Spain and Poland, has been convulsed by revelations of decades, or even centuries, of priests sexually abusing children and all sorts of other horrors in Catholic monasteries, orphanages and hospitals. And the young, with more formal education and access to information and contacts with people who look, speak, dress, eat and worship—or not—differently from themselves—simply have less use for the Church than their parents or grandparents had. Those countries might be the next Catholic “dominoes,” and any attempt to stop their “fall” will be as futile as the efforts—and lives, like that of my classmate’s brother— expended to keep Vietnam from becoming a “domino” in another game.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Praying — For What?

derek-chauvin

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

I am praying for Derek Chauvin.

I overheard that pronouncement yesterday. Had I been inclined to butt into the conversation of the person who made it, I would have asked, “What, exactly, are you praying for?”

What Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd is murder. It can’t be called anything else. Though Floyd had been arrested and served jail (not prison) time before his fatal encounter with now-former officer Chauvin, he was not, as Candace Owens and others claimed, a “violent criminal.” Even if he’d fit Owens’ label, how would Chauvin have known as much unless he did a background check on him? And, even if he were as much a menace to society as Owens tried to paint him, it wouldn’t have warranted Chauvin planting his knee into Floyd’s neck. Former police department colleagues and supervisors said as much in their testimonies.

So, I think it’s fair to say that, like anyone else who was murdered, George Floyd died unjustly. Therefore, I believe, justice is not possible, even if it were possible to return Floyd to his place among the living. (That, by the way, is one reason I have opposed capital punishment for as long as I’ve known what it is.) While Derek Chauvin will be punished, as I believe he should be, nothing that can be extracted from him—time, money, even his life itself—can compensate for what he took from George Floyd.

I would assume that anyone who would pray for Derek Chauvin, or anyone else, believes that the God to which they pray is at least just, and possibly merciful. Given what I’ve said before, I can’t understand how a just God would allow George Floyd to die as he did. Although I don’t think an unjust being can also be merciful, I imagine that some people who are praying might want mercy on Derek Chauvin. They’d trot out a seemingly all-purpose Bible verse like John 3:16 or, if they’ve actually read the Book, something like Matthew 5:7 or 7:12—or James 2:13. The problem is, of course, that it appealing to God for mercy on Chauvin turns him into the victim, or at least the person in need of succor.

This is the problem with the Christian notion of forgiveness–which, I would guess, some people would ask for Chauvin in their prayers. Some have had the audacity and arrogance to say that Floyd’s family should “forgive” Chauvin and “move on.” How anyone can see a murderer—especially one who has been entrusted by his community and country with the power of life and death over another human being and, more important, with the trust that he will use that power rarely, judiciously and with the utmost restraint—as a victim in need of “forgiveness” is beyond me. (I say that as a long-ago Army Reservist who, thankfully, never exercised lethal force, except against a rattlesnake.) And who has the right to tell Floyd’s family how they should deal with their loss? If they choose to “forgive” Chauvin, whatever that means to them, that should be their decision alone.

In brief, although I don’t know what someone might pray for when praying for Derek Chauvin, I can only conclude it most likely has to do with making it easier for him to bear his guilt, and not to ease the pain of George Floyd’s family and loved ones, let alone to afford his life the meaning it had and thus to truly acknowledge the tragedy and horror his death really is.

So why didn’t I butt into the conversation of that stranger who offered a prayer for Derek Chauvin? For one thing, I’m a New Yorker, and we have a reputation for minding our business, or at least pretending to. For another, asking what the stranger meant by that comment would have been pointless, really: If that person’s God were truly merciful and forgiving, Chauvin wouldn’t have murdered George Floyd, whether or not he was aware of Floyd’s mostly-petty crimes—which, of course negates the need to pray for mercy or forgiveness, or anything else. Oh, and I have long since stopped believing in that person’s God, or any other, especially one who allows such injustices as Derek Chauvin using the power entrusted to him to murder George Floyd.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce Gerencser