She was born when I was 18 but I eventually grew up. When she was a young adult I asked Jessica to forgive me for the times I’d pulled her hair, for the slaps and unkind yelling she endured as a young child.
Forgive as you would be forgiven is not a prescriptive command but a factual description of what heals human relationships. If I’ve learned anything over my 60 year journey it’s that forgiveness as a way of life is open to anyone of any faith or no faith.
Brains change based on our behaviors not because of what we say we believe. Belief is only meaningful in that it can either lead us to reconsider who we are imitating or confirm us as being “right” and therefore in no need of healing. So the “act” (in both senses of the word) of forgiving others works for the forgiver as well as the forgiven. It connects us with the empathy we have within us that competes with our primate prime directive to be controlling bastards.
It was no coincidence that the farther I traveled away from my fundamentalist evangelical Calvinist background the more open I became to imitating forgiving behavior. In my mind my dominating and controlling actions had been “justified” by my “call” to “lead” a family as a patriarchal practitioner of the biblical misogyny that all-too conveniently fit my selfish male primate desire to control those around me.
Calvinism is the perfect religion
for males who are real bastards
and want an excuse to stay that way
Calvinism is the perfect religion for males who are real bastards and want an excuse to stay that way. I’d been told that “God’s plan” included a directive for men to dominate “their” women and children. Calvinism — and all other forms of patriarchal religion Islam included — is tailor made by male primates for other male primates who are mean. selfish and insecure It gives them guilt-free a pat on the head to do what comes most naturally: be jerks. It is too human relations what Ayn Rand is to teenage boys and billionaires of the nastier kind: justification to never feel empathy, in other words to never grow up.
This notwithstanding we still look for a quick, magical fix because our primal capacity for cruelty is hard to own up to. For instance I’m not proud that in the late 1980s I broke the entertainment industry anti-apartheid boycott and worked in South Africa and South African-controlled Namibia directing movies, because I needed the money. I had just fled my financially secure high paying life in big time American evangelical religion, where I was a minor celebrity and nepotistic sidekick to my evangelical leader father.
When I walked away, my family was broke. (I’ve explained and/or rationalized this exit in my books Crazy For God and Sex, Mom and God .) Excuses notwithstanding, in my own way I was exploitative of the apartheid system for my own ends. But here I’m not just talking about the “big evils” like doing a small part to enable apartheid. I’m talking about who we are in daily life. And I’m looking at how our theology actually can make us worse than if we’d never heard of God.
I’ve been unkind to my children
and cruel to my wife when
kindness and good sense
would have cost me nothing
What I regret most deeply when looking back in sorrow isn’t my “big mistakes” (say working in South Africa or spreading the fear-filled mythology of the Religious Right) but the many times I’ve been unkind to my children and cruel to my wife when kindness and good sense would have cost me nothing. So: How to change our primate brains’ biology so the change becomes real?
DNA evidence confirms there is only a 1.2 percent genetic difference between us and chimpanzees. And our human primate history is full of people just like us. Primates are into dominance and hierarchies. Aggression is the norm to increase status. And dominance is necessary. It helps to reduce the amount of actual violence, because someone’s “in charge.
Our primate nature is on display when we slap a child, bully others in school, or spew anger at our lover, partner or spouse. And if that tendency to dominate others is excused by some insane literal reading of the stupider bits of that collection of Bronze Age/Roman/Greek/Jewish era myths we call the Bible then we use that religion as an excuse. Enter the idiots talking about how women should “submit” to men. Enter the godly kooks trying to prevent gay men and women from marrying because of some passage in the Bible. Enter me slapping my kids as a young father with “spare the rod” BS ringing in my ears.
Our chosen or inherited labels neither change nor protect us and they certainly offer no protection of the people we love from our primate viciousness. So when I reflexively find myself praying for the protection of my family I find I’m really begging God to protect them from me.
Unlike the lower primates, who seem to revel in their viciousness, we deny the truth about who we are and/or look for a quick fix. Enter the theologians, Bible teachers, imams, rabbis, pastors and evangelists with their “explanations” and “remedies.” But their words ring hollow because all of their arguments are entirely circular. They quote their Old and New Testaments, the Torah, the Koran etc., as “proof” of the life-changing “truth” of their texts, never answering the only real question: What makes them think anything in their particular “sacred” text is true?
Enforcing “correct ideas”
including theology is just
another manifestation of
biting and scratching
They use words full of bluster like “God says” or “Jesus says” or “the Prophet says.” But when they say, “The Bible says,” what they really mean is, “I say the Bible says.” If they were honest, they’d lace their sermons with statements like this: “When I say ‘God says’ what I really mean is whoever wrote this passage in the Bible (or Koran or Torah) said this and there is no way to know if this represents what any creator real or imagined may or may not want. Nor can I say for sure what the human author of this text even meant let alone who actually wrote this or why we take this writing any more seriously than what’s on the back of a breakfast cereal box.” So let’s be honest: Enforcing “correct ideas” including theology is just another manifestation of biting and scratching, primate behavior dressed up to look like something it’s not. So how can we change?
Monkey-see-monkey-do can be the road to either damnation or salvation. It all depends on whom we imitate. I’ve found that when I imitate Jesus’ life and teaching – forgive my enemies or at least forgive my wife after a fight – I can gradually change my brain, just as long as I keep repeating the action.
Instead of revenge, Jesus begged God to forgive his murderers. Now that is something new on this little planet.
So what? The biblical account of Jesus is all very nice, but how does “imitating Jesus” translate to me? I wasn’t there and I don’t even know if the gospel accounts happened. And “inspirational” Bible verses about Jesus are often dead to me, because they are just too familiar and polluted. I’ve heard them read (and “explained”) by people who told lies about things I could check out – say the money they stole from their ministry, the people they slept with and hurt, the pompous asses they became – and who used “faith” as just another method by which to bully and dominate others.
So how to “meet” a teacher I trust outside of trying to force myself to believe a far-fetched text about things that no one can agree on and that’s been pushed on me by people as imperfect as me? Sometimes we can find an intermediary. And she’s not always the Virgin Mary. I’m talking about my wife and daughter…
My wife Genie has been my “Jesus tutor.” Genie has copied Jesus over our 42-year marriage. And my daughter Jessica, who bore the brunt of my stupidity, youth and anger when I was a teen father sliding into my insecure selfish 20s, has copied Genie too. Jessica grew up and then forgave me for being a sometimes mean and always impatient young father. And I copied Genie and Jessica.
That’s the “how” of my changing some of the neural pathways in my brain for the better. I was set a good example and decided that theirs was the better way. That’s the “how” of my second chance to be a very different person than I once was–at least in the eyes of my youngest grandchildren.
I just wish I could
roll back the clock
My granddaughter Lucy (presently a 4-year-old) and my grandson Jack (presently 2-years-old) came into my life after my decades-long steep learning curve. Thankfully, they didn’t have to endure it. Others paid that price. That means Lucy and Jack mostly know me as the guarantor of unconditional love. (They are my former-Marine son John’s kids and live next door, and I see them for many hours each day, so to say we’re “close” hardly covers it.) I just wish I could roll back the clock and be the person they know today especially to my firstborn, back when Jessica was very young.
So who is this Jesus we can copy through others who copy him? Here are some possibilities. If the fundamentalists are correct (and why shouldn’t they be, because no one knows anything about God or the Bible) and every word of the Bible is “literally true” (whatever that means), when Jesus was nailed to a cross and asked God to unconditionally “forgive them for they know not what they do,” he was asking God to renounce vengeance–forever. He was asking for God to forgive everyone involved in his murder, and that included the Romans and Jews of his day who would never “become Christians” let alone pray the “sinner’s prayer.” Forgive them all unconditionally, Jesus asked. In other words, the idea of hell was abolished.
If the theologically liberal “side” is correct (and why shouldn’t they be because no one knows anything about God or the Bible) and the Bible is mostly myth (whatever that means) combined with garbled oral history screwed up by St. Paul and further deformed by hell-loving vengeful St. Augustine, and all the other power-hungry retributive abusers of the Jesus Story from Augustine to Calvin, then Jesus-The-Mysterious-Myth holds out just as much hope of salvation as a literal Jesus does. Because either way, if you imitate Jesus (or copy your version of Genie and Jessica copying him) you can change your brain and be saved from the only person with the capacity to punish you forever: yourself.
That change comes not because of magic or even God but because Jesus (or whoever wrote about him) actually had one great idea: Forgive! So who is this Jesus? Is he God or man, divine or “merely” wise? And where do we “learn” about him, from the Bible, from clever teachers in seminaries, from inspired pastors and/or from the traditions of the ancient church?
The good news is it doesn’t matter. The Jesus idea is powerful and true in that it “works” so where we learn about it doesn’t matter. We don’t even know those we live with, so how very silly to claim we know who anyone else really is or was. Our knowledge of those even closest to us is woefully incomplete and yet we muddle along. I can’t definitively tell you who Genie and my children are either. I’m not them. But that doesn’t stop me communicating with them any more than my incomplete or even wrong knowledge about who Jesus is stops me from learning the great idea – forgive – that is at the heart of the Jesus Story.
I don’t just “meet” Jesus in the Bible. I meet Jesus at midnight through a tired, thrice-divorced, seen-it-all nurse who gave up her day and night to do the dishes with me for our church but who will still be on night duty a few hours later. I meet Jesus through people who are atheists, agnostics, Muslims or nothing at all, except imitators of Jesus– no matter who they credit for their non-primate like loving behavior. In other words, they are forgivers. They might not have ever heard of Jesus, let alone “believe in him,” but often they are much more like him than some folks running churches.
I have seen the power of forgiveness work to heal my former religious “certainties.” Those certainties gave my primate nastiness a patriarchal theological boost of self-justification. So before I could change I first had to come to see myself as a persecutor. I had to forget the “biblical example” I’d been set by my evangelist preacher father as he sometimes abused my mother and instead copy the example of forgiveness and mercy my wife Genie and my daughter Jessica offered me.
she was the wounded person
who then rescued
Jessica grew up into a beautiful person with no trace of bitterness and she forgave me. By forgiving me, she healed us both. And if I may indulge a proud father moment, Jessica blossomed into a happy lovely mother of two and my best friend who I talk to almost more than to anyone else. She is a successful energy consultant to the European Union and runs a foundation linking alternative energy companies with the major power companies all over the world. I have no idea what Jessica believes theologically nor do I care. I only know who she is– a forgiver. She was my Good Samaritan but with a twist: she was the wounded person who then rescued her persecutor with these simple words: “I forgive you Dad.”
My two youngest grandchildren Lucy and Jack don’t know how I went from angry primate bullying teen father to 60-year-old benign grandfather. (Jessica’s children Amanda and Ben are teens now and Genie’s and my relationship with them is that of friends, family and equals not care givers to little children as it is with Jack and Lucy.) Lucy and Jack race around my home, paint, draw, scribble, listen to music -“Bach and crackers” as Jack calls it when asking for his favorite snack and music – bathe and poop, all the while experiencing and trusting in that change.
If I hadn’t actually changed but could talk a good theological game, what good would that do my grandchildren? What drew them into a world of my love wasn’t my ideas let alone dominant “leadership” but the fact that I genuinely don’t care how much paint they spill on my porch floor. I know that if anything ever happened to them that their grubby little paint footprints marking the spot where we worked on our art projects together would become iconic treasures and the most precious things in my house.
We can make our brains change by imitating the few who do. Sometimes we receive a reward for that change from a friend, child or grandchild as I did when Lucy, then three, set a table napkin on fire when she experimented with a candle. (I’d briefly left the room and our candlelit table to clear the dishes.) She had no fear in her startled eyes when she looked to see how I’d “react” after she called me back. As a blue sheet of flame curled up to the ceiling she was curious about it but not afraid of me. She has never been slapped by the hands that gently took the burning napkin away. And the voice that said, “That might not be a good idea Lucy,” spoke conversationally without a hint of yelling.
Lucy was fear-less in that moment, because (unknown to her) her grandfather has been playacting at being her “Jesus.” As I conveyed the flaming napkin to the kitchen sink – and explained about fire and what it does – I was passing on my gratitude for having been forgiven so many times. In other words I have been reached by the actual brain-changing power of the living gospel. Jesus — be he God or man or teacher or merely a fictional character — went far past mere niceness and answered our primal violence not with a terrified snarl but with “Forgive them.” And that very un-primate-like example has left the door to heaven wide open for you and me and those we love in the here and now, no matter what we call ourselves or what we believe.
(An earlier draft version of this article appeared here in 4 parts. Here’s the completed piece.)
To book Frank Schaeffer to speak at your college, church or group contact him at Frankschaeffer.com