Skeleton of myself

I reduced myself before you.

I sucked in my stomach and puffed out my chest,

Seeking to be both small and strong.

I lay at your feet and cried

At my own unworthiness.

I raised my arm to the square

And demanded you notice me.

I ignored your harsh words,

Convinced they were only for my good.

I took on a new name

And thrust my hands in the air

While I begged you to hear the words of my mouth.

I listened, ever so carefully,

So sure that in the silence

I would find you.

I walled off entire sections of me,

separating them from the rest,

forgetting that they were there.

I held my breath

Until I forgot how to breathe.

then turned blue from the cold.

I tried anger, pain, depression, apathy.

I tried being a martyr.

I gave two years. Ten. Twenty.

I placed a ring on my finger

And made promises I couldn’t possibly keep.

And as the years passed,

I slowly, ever so slowly,

Withered away,

Becoming the skeleton of myself

That you expected all along.

And then one day,

The sun hit my skin just right,

And I realized,

With finality,

That you were there all along

For you were never there to begin with.

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Mrs. God

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Despite the warnings not to, I once picked up an anti-Mormon pamphlet. I was a missionary at the time, and we had stepped into a Christian bookstore, casually browsing. My companion casually glanced over my shoulder as I read.

In poorly drawn comic strips, the pamphlet tore apart the Mormon version of God. Instead of believing in a divine being, it said, Mormons believed in an immortal alien, one who had once been a man before ascending to godhood and inheriting his own planet. God called his planet Kolob, it said, and he had pure white skin, white hair, and a white beard. He created Earth and possibly other planets so that he would have a place for his billions of spirit kids to get bodies and to be tested, so he could sort the good ones out from the bad ones.

More than anything, the pamphlet emphasized that God had millions of wives, a great eternal harem of women. They had all been mortal women like him, and he had claimed them, bounding them to him forever. They were his property, and the billions of spirit children descended from all of them. Though this may not be a direct quote (hey, it’s been 20 years), the pamphlet stated something like “Mormons don’t believe in a God. They believe in a white alien immortal who engages in endless Celestial sex with his millions of goddess wives.”

My companion and I had laughed about it at the time, and then quickly put the pamphlet back. We had always been instructed not to read things like that, because it could cause us to doubt our very testimonies and belief systems. He and I never talked about it again. But the pamphlet stuck with me. It made me give serious thought to the ideas I had around God for the first time. The pamphlet had worded it all in very abrasive ways, but it hadn’t said anything that was necessarily wrong.

I was taught all about God growing up. Above all else, I was taught that he was a loving father, one with infinite and unconditional love, who knew my heart and thoughts, who knew every choice I would ever make before I could make it. He expected repentance when I made wrong choices, prayer, ten per cent of my income, and strict obedience to all of his commandments, and in return he promised me eternal salvation and glory. And, yes, I was promised that the most very righteous would inherit his kingdom, in other words I could become my own god with my own planet someday.

But we were also taught about the origins of God. “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become,” they taught. God’s name was Elohim, and he was once a mortal who had been obedient to his god, and thus he had become his own God. Which meant there was god before god, and a god before him. It was like one giant capitalistic society, with vast trusts and inheritances built in. Follow the rules, and get the rewards. Don’t, and God will judge you (justly of course) as being worthy of one of the lesser levels of heaven, where you’ll just hang out for eternity. Unless you commit the extreme sin of denying God himself, then it’s Outer Darkness for you. (Those letters are capitalized, cause Mormons believe that is an actual place. Outer Darkness. Where the evil souls float for eternity, no bodies allowed).

And God did live on Kolob, his planet base somewhere in space. And he did look like a white-skinned man with a beard in all the Mormon pictures. And Mormons did believe in polygamy, and they did believe that God practiced it. And they did say that he was our literal father, and he did have billions of spirit children, which probably meant he had millions of wives. And that meant I had a Heavenly Mother in addition to a Heavenly Father. We just didn’t talk about her. I didn’t know her name. But apparently she was once a human too then, and she had gotten to Kolob by sealing herself to God in life, one among millions, and then he had taken her to Heaven with him. That’s how human girls now were supposed to do it. Men got to inherit God powers and kingdoms, and women got to attach themselves to men and go along for the ride. And presumably my Heavenly Mother was just one of those women, and my only Mother, so those other millions would be my Great God-Aunts?

I asked about Heavenly Mother once, when I was a teenager, in my Seminary class. (Seminary was an actual class that I attended during high school hours, in between History and Algebra, at the church across the street). She was mentioned in the Mormon hymn “Oh My Father”, a hymn that had been written by Eliza R. Snow, herself one of the plural wives of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. One stanza was clear.

“In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.”

I had raised my hand and asked why we didn’t talk about Heavenly Mother much. The seminary teacher, a good man in his late thirties, who had been married for six years and now had five children under the age of five, had responded kindly, thoughtfully. “We don’t take the name of God in vain as a sign of respect. In the same way, God doesn’t allow us to speak about Heavenly Mother. She is far too sacred.”

I write all of this at the age of 39. When I try to reason through these logic puzzles of my former belief system, I crinkle up my nose like I’ve just smelled something unpleasant. There is no reason behind any of fit, it doesn’t hold up. Little things make me cringe (like if God is Mary’s father, yet he also fathered Jesus through her, but he is also Jesus…), and images of millions of women lining up in white with their faces veiled so that they can devote themselves to one man, well, that just flies in the face of every one of my values.

I have no idea if there is a God out there or not. I’m kind of leaning toward not. But if there is one, I’m just going to presume it is a she, not a he. Women give birth, nurture and sustain. Men chop and tear, rend and conquer. If I ever pray again, it will definitely be to Mrs. God.

Or is it Ms.?

 

 

 

Like Lambs to the Slaughter: a critical exploration of children in religion

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I came across a photo recently, quite by accident, while doing a google search for “crazy lambs”, looking for a funny image to cheer a friend up with. I initially just clicked past the image, but then found myself going back and staring at it for several minutes. I found it sad, entertaining, thought-provoking, profound, and painfully true.

In it, a small girl of about five is smiling, wearing a pretty, white, frumpy church dress. The dress is modest, extending up to her neck and all the way down to her hands. She has brown curly hair, a bit messy. She has on a small necklace. She seems to be missing a tooth. In her small hands, she holds a large knife, black handle with a long silver blade, in a delicate grip. The blade of the knife is making a small incision in the neck of a large white lamb, sculpted of butter or frosting; with just a small thrust of the knife, the head of the lamb will lop off and on to the plate. The lamb is peaceful, all in white, and on a bed of frosting and flowers, seemingly unassuming, unsuspecting, his head literally about to roll. Behind the girl stands a man, presumably her father. Not much of him is seen, only his black apron and his white sleeves, with his two hands guiding the girl. One hand lies suspended above her hands, guiding her to push the knife forward, the other hand holding the plate, ready to collect the lamb’s head.

I contemplated this little girl, about to mutilate a frosting animal as her family stood around her smiling and encouraging her. I pictured this as some sort of rite of passage, something the girl dressed up for, something she will be celebrated for. Her friends have all cut the lamb’s head off, now it is her turn. She’s been waiting for this for years, and she is so proud. Her dad gently guides her, the knife is freshly sharpened, and everyone celebrates and smiles. And one day, she will grow up and have daughters and a man can show them the same ritual.

Images from my own childhood, as a young Mormon kid in Missouri, flashed into my brain. All the little rites of passage. Making my first dollar, and learning how to give ten cents of that as tithes to the church. Taking the sacrament every Sunday and praying to be forgiven of sins. Entering the waters of baptism at age 8 and pledging myself to the church. Receiving the Priesthood at age 12, then 14, then 16, then 18, with new responsibilities each time. Going to the temple and undergoing a series of rituals, involving wearing sacred holy undergarments, getting a new name to enter Heaven with, and pledging my all and my everything to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I remember being walked up to the front of the Church during fast and testimony meeting at age 5, where my mom whispered in my ear the things to say to the congregation, a chance to bear my testimony of beliefs for everyone to hear. “Brothers and sisters, I would like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is true. I know God loves me. I’m thankful for my family. I can’t wait to go on a mission some day. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” And the crowd oohed and aahed, how cute, as the next child lined up behind, another parent whispering a testimony in their ear, just as their parents had with them years before.

I looked back at the image, and I thought of the little girl.

“But, daddy, I don’t want to chop the lamb’s head off. I like animals.”

Honey, no one likes to chop the lamb’s head off, but it is what good little boys and girls do. It’s what Jesus wants you to do. Mommy and I love you so much. I will help you and be so proud of you.”

I thought of all the terrible and bizarre stories I grew up believing.

God commanding Abraham to take Isaac up in the hills, to tie him down, and to stab him through the middle with a knife, before saying ‘just kidding, Abe. I was only testing you.’ The lesson? You do as God says, whether that means stabbing your son, or laying there to be stabbed; you don’t have to understand, just do it and don’t ask questions.

God destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, tens of thousands of his children wiped out for sinning (where in other cases, sinning souls are saved out of love). He lets Lot and his family escape and commands them not to turn back. But when Lot’s wife turns around, curious likely at the fiery destruction of her home and all her friends, she is punished and turned to salt. Lesson: God will crush you if you deserve it, and he might decide to save you as long as you do what he says, but don’t question him or he can crush you, too.

Or one from the Book of Mormon: God commands Nephi to cut off Laban’s head, wear the dead man’s clothes, and steal his treasure so that Nephi’s family could have the scriptures in the wilderness. Surely, God could have found a way for Nephi to get the scriptures (the Liahona was left outside their tent magically, for example) that didn’t require him to violently murder a man and steal his things. Lesson: God will test you and make you do terrible things to prove you love him.

I pictured then all the terrible things people teach their children in the name of religion. The little girls in polygamist compounds who are married off at 14 to 70 year old men. The little boys in Aryan gangs who see Neo-Nazi tattoos on their father’s chests and believe a White America is the best America. The kids who grow up thinking marriage is forever, and only between a man and a woman, and you stick it out no matter what it takes, no matter the abuse, the infidelity, the lovelessness.

I was 12 when I sat down with a new bishop in our ward, a man I didn’t know, and he interviewed me to see if I was worthy to receive the Priesthood. Part of our conversation went like this:

“Chad, do you obey the law of chastity?”

“Chastity? What’s that?”

“Well, do you masturbate?”

“Um, I don’t know what that is.”

“Well, masturbation is when you stimulate your penis. It feels good and you touch it until you ejaculate. But that is a sin and it shouldn’t be done.”

Later, I went home and tried it out. A 12 year old kid with a 70 year old man learning about masturbation? I can’t tell you the number of young girls and boys I know who were sexually molested by church leaders in similar circumstances, the man behind the little girl gently guiding her to hold the knife. Just do as I say, it’s what Jesus wants.

And so much of the damage happens beneath the surface. Growing up, we focused most of our lessons in Church and family about love, and sacrifice for the greater good, and the blessings of being a Mormon. But the subtext, the things that are believed but not as actively taught: Gay people can be cured and made straight. Black people exist because God cursed wicked white men with black skin, and if they live righteously, eventually they will be made white again. In Heaven, one man will marry multiple women, have and create their own planets, and become Gods themselves. The subtexts of this religion, of any religion, and the sanctions it creates for profit, for abuse, for discrimination… it’s horrifying.

The dad in this picture, he may not think that what he is doing is horrifying. He may truly believe what he is doing is right. He teaches his daughter about Biblical sanctioned murder, Christ on the cross, and the destruction of cities and sinners, and believes it is right. And then he guides his daughter in using a knife to chop the lamb’s head off. And similarly, the parents who let their children receive interviews about sex from old men, then parents who marry off their teenage daughters, the parents who send their gay teens to reparative therapy, the parents who kick their questioning children out on the streets to homelessness, the parents who raise their kids to believe in justifiable hate of minorities… in their minds, they are doing the right thing, the good thing, the thing God expects.

Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, once said, “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose -or reject- when she becomes old enough to do so.”

I plan on raising my sons to be free-thinking, to love others, to have critical and searching minds. I will teach them to be moral, kind, charitable, and loving. But I will not let them hold knives to the necks of lambs.