A Saint, a Satanist, and a lawyer walked into history… Sounds like the first line of one of those jokes about three people walking into a bar. The payoff is a punchline that should make you laugh and maybe provide some insight into human nature. But the punchline to this one is more serious and more elucidating than the bar jokes.
I recently picked up a “Christian” flyer at a small business I visited, run by a nice couple from Orange County.
This little tract says:
Christianity does not require us to try to improve ourselves, do good deeds, get lucky in life, or even follow the Ten Commandments…We don’t earn our place in heaven by religious efforts or good deeds…Heaven is free.
It actually says that. So I started wondering about all those legal efforts to force everyone to worship the Ten Commandments in schools and courthouses and legislatures and every public space. If Christians don’t need to follow the Ten Commandments, then why do all the rest of the people have to read the Ten Commandments in every classroom and government office?
Money. Tens and hundreds of millions of dollars get raised every year by people who proclaim the desperate need to defend the Bible against encroaching rational thought. For a few decades, the neo-con branch of Christianity has preached that as long as you give money to campaigns to interfere in other people’s lives, you could consider yourself a holy person. All you needed to do was commit your faith to a business war against education, against equal rights (for monorities, for women, for gay people, for children), against unions, against health care, against immigrants, against small, militarily weak nations. And on and on.
Always against something. Against civil rights. Against regulating tobacco sales to children. Against letting women make their own health care choices. Always raising money for campaigns like Proposition Hate or immigration restrictions.
The concept of Christianity was turned away from the work of Dr. King, of Albert Schweizer, of Mother Theresa. Carrie Prejean on the catwalk replaced Helen Prejean on the deathwalk. Neo-con Christianity grew from something called the Prosperity Gospel. This faith teaches that anyone could live a hedonistic life, so long as they claimed on their deathbed that they repent everything and embrace Jesus. You can cheat, steal, lie, kill, set up graven images (like the Ten Commandments tablets), and reject all of Jesus’ teachings, just so long as you pretend, at the end, that you believe in Jesus.
It’s sort of interesting to sort out how this all works. In 2009, we lost Edward Kennedy, a man who lived recklessly in his youth, but spent most of his adult life working to better the lives of the poor and of minorities and the needy. Neo-con church leaders hated Kennedy. They reviled him for his political efforts and his social concerns.
But if you are a fundamentalist Christian, who believes that a person needs only to embrace Jesus as you slip away, then you must accept that Edward Kennedy, who suffered brain cancer for a year, and had months to reconcile himself to his religious beliefs, is now rocking in the bosom of Abraham.
In contrast, Jerry Falwell spent his entire life mocking the Bible and the teachings of Jesus. He pocketed tens of millions of dollars fighting racial integration. He took money from tobacco companies to preach the benefits of letting children smoke and chew tobacco. He preached a gospel of greed and selfish living. And he lived the life he preached.
Jerry Falwell was stricken by death one morning after stuffing himself with cholesterol and going to his office to work on business deals to make more money by attacking the teachings of Jesus. Doctors say that Jerry died suddenly, with no chance to reconcile himself with God. If you believe the neo-con gospel, you have to believe that Jerry is now reaping the harvest he sowed, and is roasting in the fires of hell.
Kennedy and Falwell lived lives that were very different from their public images. Kennedy was reviled until his death for sins of his youth. Falwell was praised as a Christian leader while openly, consistently mocking every lesson Jesus taught. They are not the only ones who are misunderstood and miscast in the public eye.
The Mesereau Free Legal Clinic recently relocated into a new home provided by the New Direction Christian Center in South Central L.A. The clinic is named for one of its founders, Tom Mesereau, the lawyer who defended Michael Jackson from the terrible charges made against him in Santa Maria. For years, Mr. Jackson was reviled as “Wacko Jacko,” as a presumed pedophile, as a drug abuser, and as a “freak.”
In 2009, Mr. Jackson died. Then the F.B.I. released their file on Mr. Jackson. The file revealed that the F.B.I. had investigated him for years and years, with the most comprehensive resources available. They investigated him with all the love and fairness that J. Edgar Hoover lavished on every black person who climbed “above his (her) station.” And with all their resources, brilliant investigators, and occasional tendency to shade evidence against defendants, the F.B.I. never found that Mr. Jackson had done anything wrong.
In 2009, the autopsy toxicologist reported that Mr. Jackson had no illegal drugs in his system when he died, and that he had died at the negligent hands of a “respectable,” licensed doctor/businessman. Like Dr. King and Senator Kennedy, Mr. Jackson was reviled in life for what people wanted to think of him, without regard to the truth. And like them, Mr. Jackson refused to fight back against the public clamor, instead focusing on pursuing his life’s work.
The Mesereau Free Legal Clinic fits a different view of Christianity. In Matthew 7:20, Jesus says
“A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.”
This is the Christianity that moved Albert Schweitzer to build hospitals in Africa; that moved Dr. King to change our nation; that moved Senator Kennedy to devote his life to public service, and that moved Mr. Jackson to give tens of millions of his music earnings to help those most in need.
Dr. King and Senator Kennedy and Mr. Jackson lived in the public eye. They had the wealth and the fortitude to ignore the neo-con lies and condemnation. Dr. King and Mr. Jackson set examples for other black men and women who live everyday with similar lies but don’t have the safety of wealth. This week, Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh jumped at the chance to remind the world that some rich white men are still eager to blame the victims for centuries of racial and economic exploitation.
But the Mesereau Free Legal Clinic helps those who are lied to or about by slumlords or sex-harassing employers, or abusive spouses, or “payday loan” sharks. By providing the Clinic a free facility to work in, the New Directions Christian Center is living the Christianity that Jesus taught; the Christianity that Dr. King lived and died for. The Christianity that gave direction to Senator Kennedy’s life and Mr. Jackson’s charitable giving.
Progressives do not need to believe in religion to understand that, for those who actually do believe, the joke of eternity is on Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts and all those who denigrate the teachings of Jesus. If there is an afterlife, they will be looking up from the flames to see Dr. King and Senator Kennedy sitting in glory, watching over the young lawyers at the Mesereau Clinic, who are tending the neediest trees in the orchard.
Progressives do not need to believe in religion to understand that the values that Jesus taught and that Dr. King and Senator Kennedy lived, are beneficial to the world whether or not there is a God or an afterlife.