Beyond Frankincense (September 2002)

I don’t remember her name, her age, or even what she had written on her wish list. It wasn’t important, it wasn’t the point, and none of the others in my youth group knew their kids’ names either.

We got on the train, ten white middle-class Christian teens, under the supervision of a woman we called The Chicken Lady because of her hair, and an old man we referred to as Mr. Uh, because he was someone’s grandfather but nobody seemed to know whose. It would be an overnight trip on the train to the reservation school in Arizona, and we all had heavy jackets and boots to combat the December cold.

Our church had commended us in advance for the kindness we were about to show: taking Christmas presents donated from our congregation to the poor children of the reservation who had none. Like the three Wise Men bearing gifts to the Christ Child, (sans camels to our disappointment), we would tromp in, shower the crayons, toy cars, and Barbie dolls upon grateful hands, and tromp back out basking in the heady glow of our own goodwill. This was our next step to heaven–reminding us of the needy, reminding the needy of Jesus. Mr. Uh handed out slick stacks of stickers for us to give out to the children, teaching them the inheritance of the meek in pictorial form with a longhaired hippie Jesus giving the world to the poor.

The Chicken Lady herded us off the train and into vans, where we drove for a long time through reservation land. The houses were crumbling under the weight of their own dilapidation, garbage littered the porches, and rusty car skeletons sulked into the slushy ground. It was night when we reached the school, and we were warned that some of the smaller children might keep us awake with their crying. They were homesick; they lived too far away from the school to leave for the holidays.

The Christmas celebration had been scheduled for the following afternoon, so we passed the time together in the common area and then in the dining hall, where an unspoken segregation striped the long tables brown and white. Almost giddily we went into the worn gymnasium holding our brightly wrapped gifts, and waited for the children to find us. I handed my gift to a girl whose name I still didn’t know and whose face I promptly forgot, and then we headed back to the dormitories.
I waited for a feeling of charity to come over me.

When we returned to California, I gave a short speech to the women’s group about our experience at the reservation. The audience clapped, five rows of well-off matrons in their Sunday finery, and we talked about all those squealing, happy children. We had given. We could go home with a clean conscience with which to finish the year.

I went home with neither a clean conscience nor a feeling of charity. My own suspension of belief for religious tenets had been stretched and snapped years before. The only reasons I had still attended church at all could be boiled down to two: I believed I could stay involved if only for the charity work, and besides, my mother made me go.

Once past those early Sunday school classes of Jesus-Loves-Me and David-and-Goliath, I ran into trouble. That smiling Jesus in our coloring books who loved everyone was actually hiding a darker side. He didn’t love the homosexuals, mentioned my grandmother. He didn’t love people who committed suicide, added my mother, or children who failed to obey their parents. Various teachers, relatives, and religious figures added to my slowly growing list: he also didn’t love the Jews, the Muslims, the Wiccans, the feminists, or the abortion doctors. Even Christians pointed at other kinds of Christians and said they wouldn’t get to heaven that way. The list went on forever, a seeming free-for-all of Jesus’s dispossessed.

The Bible gave me more questions and problems than answers. I studied Latin and Classical Greek in school, discovering the inexact science of translation: that one word can have a dozen different definitions, and that some of the real stinkers have more. It was guesswork at times, to pick and choose among the possibilities for what I felt fit the best in the context of the phrase, sentence, or paragraph. There were moments when it was completely subjective work.

God did not flick His Holy Bic and write the Bible, supplying us with a copy in every language. (As Barbara Kingsolver aptly notes through her character Brother Fowles in The Poisonwood Bible: ” ‘Darling, did you think God wrote it all down in the English of King James himself?’ ” – page 247). The Bible has been translated and retranslated and then translated again, each writer adding his or her own biases, guesses, and stabs in the dark. In this light, religion becomes even more disturbing when it is used to defend moral judgments, and then in turn used to influence political decisions. When no one knows for sure what was said, how could it be used in these ways? And why, just because something was written a very long time ago, is it assumed to be unassailable truth? Writers of the past had as many biases and agendas as writers of the present.

Carl Sagan, through his main character in Contact, brings up another interesting point.

Jesus made prophecies during his lifetime, fairly forgettable pieces that can be found in any fantasy book. Why didn’t he use this chance to say something that could eventually be proven, something he had absolutely no way of knowing about in that time period, a fact about math or science that could be substantiated centuries later? Why not take this one chance to offer to the future irrefutable proof that he was who he said he was?

For whatever reason, he didn’t. We are left with no concrete evidence, just a bunch of stories bound together and us quarreling with each other about times, places, and people. Perhaps something important was lost in the translation.

Eventually, under the weight of problems like these, I abandoned the doctrine altogether. So for me only the charity work remained, at least until the trip to Arizona. It wasn’t until much later that I understood the cruelty of what we had done. Organized religion, when all the platitudes and rituals have been stripped away, is only a business, one that works feverishly to maintain the status quo. While those children cried, too poor to afford the trip home, we had our tickets secure in the Chicken Lady’s coat pocket. It was all right, though, this difference between us, because the presents would make them feel better.

We did worse than put a band-aid on a broken leg. We saw someone with a hemorrhage and handed over a Jesus sticker.

It wasn’t charity. We did it for God’s approval, to tally up another point on our karmic scorecard. There was no altruism on that trip, just ten self-interested teens who liked the attention they received from the church and their families, who believed that a Christmas present somehow compensated for the desperate lives led by those children. We didn’t bother to talk to them. No one left with a new pen pal. We gave each other a wide berth because the only relationship that could exist between us was that of giver and receiver.

Charity, in its truest form, stands apart. To give without accolades, promises of eternal bliss, or even recognition, that is charity. At this point, religion and I parted ways.

Religion is a business, with a lovely mission statement about God and heaven and giving, but a business practice that ends up supporting inequalities rather than challenging them. It gains followers and makes money by identifying others as different, the “wrong” kind, and made it possible for me to meet another human being and not even have enough interest in her to learn her name. I should have been interested. I should have seen her as a person, not a charitable work to be performed.

Fighting for equality won’t have the immediate picturesque payoff of a happy child holding a present, and in a business, that’s not a very good sell. But it would have been a far greater act for us to show support of programs that would really aid the people on the reservation–money for the school, help for the poverty-stricken families trying to feed and clothe their children. Toys are soon enough forgotten. But equality can last forever.

Freedom From Religion Foundation