“Jesusland” by Ben Folds includes a powerful verse against the energetic piano and soaring harmonies:
Town to town
broadcast to each house, they drop your name
but no one knows your face
Billboards quoting things you’d never say
you hang your head and pray
While the music and rhythm sound uplifting, the message of the lyrics is a sharp criticism of the Bible Belt, where I grew up, where I live. Folds confronting the disconnect between the ideology found in the words of Jesus in the Bible and then how Christians have manipulated those words and ideals for justifications significantly not Christ-like sits in a long tradition including Thomas Jefferson stating that he believed everything said by Jesus but little said about him (and revising his own version of the Bible to reflect that stance):
Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. (To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse Monticello, June 26, 1822)
To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, May 21, 1803)
I was born and then have lived all of my 53 years in the South, the upstate of South Carolina, a stark example of a Bible Belt state where fundamentalist Christianity is blended seamlessly and unselfconsciously with rabid state’s-rights commitments and fervent patriotism as a veneer for a solid faith in the free market.
I have labeled my home region of the US the self-defeating South because these often contradictory ideologies not only have created scars on our history but also continue to leave us in a constant state of being battered and bruised, especially children, women, and people of color.
My South raised the Bible in defense of slavery.
My South outlawed interracial marriage while waving the Bible.
My South fought the integration of schools, including whites shouting hate and scripture at children being escorting into Little Rock Central.
Like the angry white Christians shouting hate and their narrow faith at the Little Rock Nine, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” quickly follows the defenses of corporal punishment as the topics of domestic violence and child abuse have been spurred by controversies surrounding NFL players.
As Larry Morrison details about Biblical arguments for slavery—”The emphasis from proslavery defenders was always upon a literal reading of the Bible which represented the mind and will of God himself” (p. 16)—so too are Biblical arguments for spanking children.
Unlike me, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in the Midwest. In his collection Palm Sunday, Vonnegut confessed, “Toward the end of our marriage, it was mainly religion in a broad sense that Jane and I fought about” (p. 175).
And then Vonnegut—as he often did—shared his upbringing as a Free Thinker, leading to his casual references to himself as an atheist or agnostic. In a speech delivered at Hobart and William Smith College (May 26, 1974), Vonnegut explained:
So a modern, secular education is often painful. By its very nature, it invites us to question the wisdom of the ones we love….
I have said that one guess is as good as another, but that is only roughly so. Some guesses are crueler than others—which is to say, harder on human beings, and on other animals as well….
But it is reasonable to suppose that other bad guesses are poisoning our lives today. A good education in skepticism can help us to discover those bad guesses, and to destroy them with mockery and contempt. (pp. 178-179)
Vonnegut as Free Thinker recognized that “bad guesses” were often most corrosive when linked to the Word of God; therefore, he called for “a new religion” (p. 181)—necessary to combat “hypocrisy”:
I am willing to drop the word religion, and substitute for it these three words: heartfelt moral code….The trouble with so many of the moral codes we have inherited is that they are subject to so many interpretations….This is good news for hypocrites, who enjoy feeling pious, no matter what they do. (p. 184)
Vonnegut in this speech focused on the tragedies of continuous war and rampant consumerism to the expense of the survival of humans—concluding as only Vonnegut could about the need “to do whatever we need to do in order to have life on the planet go on for a long, long time”:
This is bad news for business, as we know it now. It should be thrilling news for persons who love to teach and lead. And thank God we have solid information in the place of superstition! Thank God we are beginning to dream of human communities which are designed to harmonize with what human beings really need and are.
And now you have just heard and atheist thank God not once, but twice. And listen to this:
God bless the class of 1974. (p. 191)
In 1974, I didn’t know about Vonnegut, but I was on the cusp of two important realizations of my life: the need “to question the wisdom of the ones we love” (my parents and community) and my own aversion to the hypocrisy of the Bible Belt I called home.
A decade later, 1984, I was teaching English in the high school I had attended, in the classroom where my favorite teacher, Lynn Harrill, had taught before moving on to administration. And then, about another decade later, my students—most of whom attended the Southern Baptist church that sat literally in the middle of the district’s four public schools—joined the national fad of wearing What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) bracelets and T-shirts.
Teaching public school in the Bible Belt throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I can attest that religion was never absent from school, including prayers still be announced each morning over the intercom.
The WWJD movement highlighted for me, however, how in the South superficial religiosity trumps any genuine heartfelt moral code, as Vonnegut called it. Students leading lives that were in fact not Christ-like were the most fervent about the WWJD paraphernalia, creating a great deal of tension with students who were acting Christ-like (in many ways) but not calling attention to it.
Two things remain with me about those years teaching, watching young people too often slip comfortably into the hypocrisy of the Bible Belt (something about which I blame the adults, and not those students).
First, and ironically, the WWJD merchandising was an accurate portrayal of commitments in the US to the market, to consumerism over all else (especially ethics).
And second, what a wasted moment.
Like Vonnegut and Jefferson, I too am comfortable with embracing a world in which humans behave in ways that are Christ-like:
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5: 38-39)
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:24)
I have a Who Would Jesus Bomb bumper sticker on a file cabinet in my office, and am certain that if this guided our policy in the US, we’d be a much better people.
It is 2014, 40 years since Vonnegut’s essentially optimistic speech.
I fear I cannot share his optimism, having slipped from the healthy skepticism Vonnegut endorsed into a solid cynicism.
As I have written about and raised in my classes my strong stance against all corporal punishment, based on decades of solid research, I have been bombarded with “My parents spanked me, and I turned out OK” as well as the expected refrain: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
All while I lie down each night still living in Jesusland, the Bible Belt where we endorse teaching children lessons with fear and pain.
I am left to muse as Vonnegut did four decades ago, but I think about Who Would Jesus Spank and simply cannot find a credible answer other than not a single child.
“Human dignity,” Vonnegut offered in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “must be given by people to people”:
If you stand before me, and I do not credit you with dignity, then you have none. If I stand before you, and you do not credit me with dignity, then I have none….
What could be more essential in a pluralistic society like ours than that every citizen see dignity in every other human being everywhere? (p. 194)
I can’t imagine anything different uttered by Jesus, and I can only add, including children.
So it goes.