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.

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the Origin of My Species

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“B-9! The tumor is benign! B-9!”

I stood in the background among the trees, feeling awkward as the dozens of family members searched their small paper cards for the number that will give them the coveted Bingo, oversized red blotters in their hands, filled with dripping red ink.

“I-23! I act 23! I-23!”

The campsite is as beautiful as I remember it, though it’s been years since I have been here. Large luscious pine trees, thick foliage in varying shades of green, wildflowers and pussy willows, a gentle cool breeze, rich dark chocolate soil. The area is covered with trailers and tents. A campfire smokes and pops off to one side. Card tables littered with playing cards, Styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, and aluminum soda cans. Island Park, Idaho holds powerful memories of my childhood, my origins.

“B-4! B-4 this, we had lunch! B-4!”

I have been out of the closet for nearly five years now, yet this is my first time seeing some of these family members since my grandmother’s death, over five years ago. I look around the room and think of the extension of relations. Brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces; aunts, uncles, cousins with their spouses and kids; grandparents’ brothers and sisters and their kids and spouses and grandkids. I don’t recognize about a fifth of the people here and have no idea how I am related to them.

“O-68! Oh, to have an IQ over 68! O-68!”

My mom looks up and gives me another small wave. She’s happy to see me, I know. She’s happiest when surrounded by family and chaos, and here there is that multiplied by one thousand. A few of my sisters give me similar waves, and they are happy to see me too. But no one gets up. I arrived during Bingo, after all. Hugs will have to come later.

“N-32! ‘n my heart, I’m still 32! N-32!”

I close my eyes for a moment and just… feel. There is a growing panic in my insides, an old familiar fight or flight response. I grew up in this environment, this chaotic loving family, hidden in plain sight. A gay kid who pretended to be straight for a few decades. Being among them again after all this time, it brings back those old familiar panicked feelings, that sense of otherness, of being different. I haven’t felt like this in years.

“I-16! I’m a good Mormon, and I don’t date til I’m 16! I-16!”

Someone calls out Bingo and they get to choose a prize: either a bottle of Diet Coke or a bag of Licorice, and then the next round is announced, a version of Bingo where you have to create a giant X on the card. I take a seat in a dusty camp chair toward the back as the cards are cleared and the new game begins. A handsome young man sits next to me and it takes me several seconds to realize it is one of my cousin’s sons, a kid I haven’t seen in probably six years, when he was 12. He’s holding a book in his hand, wearing a t-shirt and shorts.

He extends a hand. “I’m not sure we’ve met. I’m Casey.”

I smile and shake his hand, such a Mormon thing to do, something I still do in my interactions, shake hands when you first see someone. “I’m Chad.”

He leans back in his chair. “I’m reading the most wonderful book.”

“Oh? What’s it about?”

The Bingo competition begins again. “N-37! ‘n 37 seconds, I’ll kiss my wife! N-37!”

He smiles and holds the book up. “It’s about a man who fell in the paths of sin. He struggled with pornography and masturbation, and eventually had sex outside of marriage. He wrote this book about his repentance process, how he obtained forgiveness from the Lord, and made his way back to the church. It contains lots of quotes from the modern prophets.”

I feign interest, looking at the book briefly. “It sounds very serious.”

“Well, yes. But I’m leaving on my mission to the Phillipines in a few weeks, and I want to read everything I can to be prepared. I only get two years as a missionary to bring souls to Christ.”

I smile, and we fall into a comfortable silence as the Bingo game continues. This kid, that was me, back in the late-1990s. Carrying my scriptures around with me constantly, keeping a constant prayer in my heart, knowing that if I worked at it hard enough, God would take away my attraction to men. I was pure, innocent. I had no idea how the world worked, what was out there. I was caught up in this simple god-fearing existence, oblivious to how much pain I was in. Two years spent completely dedicated to God while I was a missionary in the eastern United States, and I hadn’t come one lick closer to a cure.

I stood up and patted Casey on the shoulder briefly. “Congratulations, man. You’re going to be an amazing missionary.”

He thanked me as I walked away, back through the trees to the dusty trail where I’d parked my car. No one noticed me leaving, they were all focused on their Bingo cards.

“B-1! BYU is number 1! B-1!”

A few hours later, after a cup of coffee and a long walk in the glorious flowery fields near the camping lot, I returned. I had missed the family frying pan toss, the pinochle tournament, the talent show, the family crossword, birdhouse making, and horseshoes.

The next several hours were filled with conversations, awkwardness, hugs, rolled eyes, and laughter.

“Whose kid took the keys to my motorized wheelchair! Everyone stop what you are doing, the keys to my motorized wheelchair are missing! Who took them! Oh, never mind, they are here, in my bra.”

“Sorry for getting sweat on you during our hug! I guess I have become the sweaty one in the family!”

“Oh, my life is the same as ever. No one cares enough to even ask how I’m doing, so I’ll just sit back here and pretend like everything is fine. But thanks for asking.”

“Did you hear that Darrel told one of his kids to kick one of Kim’s kids in the balls because he thinks Kim is a terrible mother? Can you believe him!”

“I just want you to know that I think being gay is completely cool. I mean, I totally support gay marriage. It’s about time. And if anyone says anything against it, I’ll tell them what I think.”

“Did you hear about Darrel? I think he’s addicted to pain pills. Why else would he have said that?”

“Chad! I have a gay friend I want to set you up with. He lives a few hundred miles from you, but he’s a total sweetheart. Can I set you up?”

“Did you hear about Darrel and Kim?”

______________________________________

The next day, I head over to the campsite early and sit in the early morning next to a crackling fire. Most everyone is still asleep, except a few cousins and their kids making their way around camp in various tasks. I don’t talk to anyone, and I think about where I’ve come from, and all the memories I have here. I miss my grandparents suddenly, both gone for years, and I wonder how would feel about this expanse of dozens and dozens of lives that sprang from their simple, post-Depression love story.

In time, pancakes are being flipped and donuts are being fried. It’s a few more hours before the giant family potluck begins and I observe the spread of food, the same heaping dishes that I grew up devouring. Sugared cheese balls, potato chips, licorice, candied popcorn, instant potatoes mixed with cream cheese and sour cream and melted cheese, a heaping sugared ham. I take a step back and look at the table. There is one small bowl of green salad, ice berg lettuce with carrot shavings, a few bowls of fruit mixed in with whipped cream, and one big bowl of watermelon. Giant tubs of sugary lemonade at the end.

This… this is how I ate growing up. This is what was available. Grab as much as you can, then get more, then more. Huge meals every meal with snacks in between.

Soon the family raffle begins, a four hour long event where they call one number at a time, corresponding to a prize. Tickets are 25 cents each; some people buy five dollars worth, others buy five hundred dollars worth.

“Next up is a hand-crafted quilt! Number 252, who has number 252?”

I look around at the crowd, groupings of families sitting in lawn chairs, picking their plates clean. Kids burying themselves in dirt, babies being rocked by their mothers, men drifting off to sleep, women fanning themselves with paper plates. Every one of them will stay until every last number has been called.

The next morning, as I drive away, I find myself overwhelmed with gratitude, that I was raised in this insane and incredible family, an entire childhood that revolved around gossip, food, faith, and love.

Honorifics: a complicated prayer to a complicated god

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Oh God, the Eternal Father, hallowed by Thy name, Thy oh so many names.

Oh Elohim, Yahweh, Yeshua, Adonai, el Shaddai, Jehovah, Allah, Jesus, El Roi, El Elgon, Immanuel.

Oh great I Am, I Am that I Am, I Yam what I Yam and that’s all I Yam.

Oh All-Powerful, All-Seeing, All-Knowing, Unattainable, Unreachable, Unknowable, Unfathomable, Incomprehensible God

Oh Holy Trinity, Three-In-One, All-In-One, One True God, One-and-Only, One is the Loneliest Number.

Oh Abba, Heavenly Father, Father in Heaven, Everlasting Father, Son of God, Son of Man, Dad, Dada, Daddy, Poppa, Pops, Pop-Pop, Pappy, Sire, Paterfamilias.

Oh Creator, Comforter, Mediator, Savior, Judge, Jury, and Executioner.

Oh Lord of Hosts, Host of Heaven, Hostess with the Mostess.

Oh Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, First and Last, One Eternal Round, Sideways, Up, Down, Upside Down, Downside Up, Within and Without, Around, Over, Under, Inside, Outside, Inside Out, Outside In, In Every Heart and yet Bigger than the Universe.

Oh Lamb of God, True Vine, Living Water, Bread of Life, Bacon-Wrapped Supreme Deep-Dish Parmesan Cheese-Stuffed Crust Meatlovers Deluxe, Hot Fudge Ice Cream Sundae Pretty Please with Sprinkles and a Cherry on Top.

Oh King of Kings, Lords of Lords, Prince of Peace.

Oh Light of the World, the Word, the Word of God, the Word of Life, the Word to your Mother.

Oh Bridegroom, Good Shepherd, High Priest, Rock of Salvation, and also Paper and Scissors of Salvation.

Oh the Resurrection and the Life, the Way the Truth and the Life, Great Life Insurance Policy for the Hereafer.

Oh Master and Commander of Vast Hosts of Archangels, with whom Thou canst wipe out entire cities that look at Thou funny.

Oh Greatest of Patriarchs, Thou who puttest men on top and says women belong to their husbands and should always be pregnant and beautiful and in the 1950s like immortal Donna Reeds.

Oh Great Married God, Thou who never discusses Thy wife (or perhaps wives because polygamy is in the Bible, and also perhaps daughters because incest is too), Thou who hast created billions of children to populate Thy blue planet, go Thou.

Oh Great White Bearded Old Man in the Sky.

Oh Great Heterosexual God.

Oh Rich Wealthy God Who Has All the Things.

Oh God Who Created Man in His Image, which is only one image and that is why there is only one gender, one skin color, one sexual preference because Thy children are all exactly the same, just like Thou.

Oh Fickle God, Maker of the Cute and the Ugly, Crafter of the Rose and the Thistle; Designer of the Bunny, the Panda Bear, and the Spiny Lumpsucker; Crafter of Lemonade and Ludefisk; Maker of Hawaii and Nebraska.

Oh God who blames the Devil for all the bad things that happen, but then Thou created the Devil in the first place, so…

Oh Lover of All Thy Children, Thou Who Brings all back to Heaven as Long as they followed Thy rules like getting baptized or accepting Thou in their hearts, and as long as they give Thee lots of money.

Oh Great Tease in the Sky, Thou Who Hast Created Pornography, Sex, Drugs, and other Tempting Things and then said ‘Thou Shalt Not Do These Things’.

Oh Great Master of Selective Hearing.

Oh Great Utilizer of Tough Love, Thou Who Givest and Thou Who Takest Away, Thou who slappest Thy children and sayest ‘this hurtest me more than it hurtest you’ and ‘I did it because I love you.’

Oh God Who Can Do All Things, Except Maybe making a mountain even Thou can’t move.

Oh Great Venti Quad Shot Pumpkin Spice Cinammon Frappucino Soy Milk Latte in the Sky.

Oh Mighty Killer of Babies; Declarer of War and Bankruptcy; Giver of Cancer, AIDS, and Diarrhea.

Oh Powerful Bully who tosses over the chessboard when Thou art losing the game; Oh Stomper of Ants; Oh Great Hitler in the Sky, user of atomic bombs, plagues, earthquakes, famines, cyclones, tsunamis, droughts, hunger, hurricanes, and floods that kill billions of people when Thou feels grumpy (but thanks for that rainbow Thou gavest the few people on the ark afterwards, that was nice).

Oh Giant Narcissist in the Sky.

Oh Giver of the Best Invisible Hugs.

Oh Creator of Saddam Hussein, Sarah Palin, Judge Judy, Soulja Boy, and Khloe Kardashian.

Oh Giver of Truth, Thou Whose Name is used in Hundreds of Separate Religions, Thou who must get a kick out of each one saying they have the truth while Thou remains silent with a bowl of popcorn.

Give me this day my daily bread, then leave me the fuck alone.

Amen.

Joe America

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I’m an American, and I have an opinion about everything. 

I live in the greatest country in the world. We have the strongest values, the biggest military, and the best schools. We are the country that the other countries want to be like. Here, we fight for what we believe in and everyone has an equal shot. 

This is the home of the American dream. That means it doesn’t matter who you are, what color your skin is, if you are a man or a woman, that you can be anything you want if you just work hard enough. Even if you grew up in the poorest city in the world, you can come here and grab yourself by the bootstraps and work and work and work and become a millionaire or a doctor or a lawyer or anything you want. 

America is the land of freedom. Everyone is free here. We don’t have to fight for it. We are free to be whatever religion we want. We are free to say whatever we want. We are free to vote. I bet you can’t name another country where that is possible. Yeah, I can’t either.

It’s not all sunshine and roses here for me, though. I got a wife and two kids. We both work and go to church. We are hard-working Americans. But I can’t pay off all my student loans, and the mortgage is a little bit too much. We can hardly afford vacations, maybe just one big one per year, and we only have two credit cards. We have two cars and a truck, but we don’t own any other property. We have health insurance, but it’s expensive for a family of four. My mom always told me I should be thankful for things like running water and electricity and Internet and that, but I work hard to pay for that stuff, why would I be grateful for something I work hard for? My wife got her Masters degree. I barely finished high school and she’s frustrated that I make more than her, but that’s just the way things are. 

I just want what every American wants. Lower taxes and the right to do as I please. I want paved roads, public parks and buildings, a good police force, a good school for my kids, a fair legal system, libraries, and all that, sure, but I shouldn’t have to pay so much in taxes. And I especially don’t want to have my taxes to go toward taking care of other people. Medicaid and Medicare, Food Stamps, feeding people in prisons, bailing out poor people in other countries–use someone else’s money for that. I’m trying to take care of my family. They can take care of themselves.

I live in a place where there is mostly white people. I’m so sick of all the political correct baloney that goes on. People keep saying that someone of another race doesn’t get the same chances as someone white, but I think that’s crap. We all have an equal chance. We need to focus less on this stuff and more on making life easier for regular American families, families like mine. If the police shoot someone of a different race, it’s probably because that person deserved it. Okay, we had slavery way back when, but I wasn’t a slave owner, and we give Native Americans their own lands to live on. I’m sick of hearing all the complaints about stuff that happened a hundred years ago or more. 

I keep hearing about all these topics in the news, like gay marriage and abortion, and I’m so sick of it. We need to get focused on the real issues again. Look, if someone chooses to be gay and wants to be gay with other people, that’s fine, I just don’t want to see it. Go live together and do what you want, but me and the rest of the world believe in the Bible, and it says you shouldn’t get married. And abortion is just wrong. If a woman is gonna let herself get pregnant, she should have the baby, don’t abort it and give it to scientists who are gonna do terrible things to it. Planned Parenthood needs to go. 

I don’t really like Donald Trump, but if he gets the Republican vote, he’ll get my vote over Hillary Clinton. Trump comes on strong, but he has the right idea. I deserve the right to own guns without interference. Muslims aren’t all terrorists but they should at least wear badges so we can see them and be prepared. And Mexicans need to stop crossing our border and taking our jobs–they can immigrate properly just like anyone else. Hillary is just gonna Email all the American secrets to everyone from her home computer again. 

And that stupid war on terrorism needs to end already. Just wipe out the Taliban and ISIS and get our troops home. I’m so sick of hearing about American troops over there. Get the hell out of those countries and let them handle themselves. We have plenty of problems around here to fix. Some lady was trying to convince me that problems over there are problems here. But it isn’t my problem that ladies in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to drive or that gay people in Russia can go to jail for years. Those are foreign problems, and we have enough to worry about here. 

I miss the 1960s. Things were perfect back then. Everyone had jobs, everyone was proud to be an American. We landed on the freaking moon back then. Why can’t America be more like that now. 

So anyway, I’m a normal American. I believe in God and Jesus. I love my kids. I work hard. And all I want is for the government to make my life easier, but stay out of my affairs. I’ll take care of me and mine, you take care of you and yours. It’s time to get Obama out and get someone new in. 

Sincerely, Joe America