Lay your burden down, God is not a jerk

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

I was reminded of that passage from Matthew’s Gospel when watching the video below (via Joe Jervis). It’s part of an interview with David Blankenhorn, who founded the National Fatherhood Initiative back in the 1990s, but may be most famous for his role as an expert witness in support of California’s Proposition 8, the law banning same-sex marriage (John C. Reilly played Blankenhorn in the all-star staged reading of 8, Dustin Lance Black’s play based on the court transcripts.)

Blankenhorn has since changed his mind and he now supports marriage equality. In this video he responds to a question about the “spiritual or religious dimension” of that change:

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Here’s my rough transcript of what Blankenhorn says there:

You ask if there was any spiritual or religious dimension. I’m a Christian and I grew up in the church and I think of myself as trying to live, you know, a Christian life. For me, I’m not saying this would happen to everybody, but for me, when I was able to change on this issue, it felt like a burden had been lifted. … It just felt like I had been carrying around a weight, and it felt like the weight was just not there, you know? And I think it was because I had, I felt that at some level, I was, you know, pointing the finger of condemnation at other people, and I was saying … “Bad!” … these people, “Bad!” … “Oh, sin! Wrong!” Based on, you know, who they are. And when, from a spiritual point of view, just my own spiritual life, when I felt that I was no longer doing that? I felt better.

This struck me as remarkably similar to what Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire said about her own sense of relief when she allowed herself to stop opposing marriage equality:

[Gregoire] came into office a supporter of gay rights, but not marriage. “And it’s probably the biggest occasion in which my religion, something that I hold very dear, stood in the way of me doing what I thought was right,” she says.

Gregoire is Catholic. In 2011 she changed her position on marriage. As a lawyer she kept coming back to the concept of separate but equal. But it didn’t sit well with her. It was at Thanksgiving with her husband and daughters that she told her family she would not only come out in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed, but she would lead the effort to pass the legislation.

“It resulted in all of us hugging each other and crying,” she says. “I look back on it, it was an emotional moment for me.”

What Blankenhorn describes as a great weight or great burden, Gregoire identifies more precisely as the experience of allowing religion to stand in the way of doing what you believe is right.

That burden, that discomfiting sense that religion and goodness are at odds, is something I’ve seen dozens of Christians wrestling with when it comes to the simple justice of marriage equality. Their instinct, their conscience, their sense of fairness and rightness all compel them to support equality, but religion stands in the way. Religion says there’s a rule, a text, a verse, a passage, some words on a page somewhere — and that those words trump your conscience, your sense of fairness, your desire to be kind, and just, and loving to your neighbors.

If you let that happen, it won’t sit well with you. You will feel like you’re carrying around a weight.

And unlike Blankenhorn, I am saying that this will happen for everybody: If you let it go, set it down, and stop allowing religiosity or rules to overrule what you know is right, you will feel the burden lift. You will feel that immense relief when suddenly that weight is just not there.

In a recent post, Rachel Held Evans discussed “The Scandal of the Evangelical Heart,” asking:

What makes the church any different from a cult if it demands we sacrifice our conscience in exchange for unquestioned allegiance to authority?  What sort of God would call himself love and then ask that I betray everything I know in my bones to be love in order to worship him? Did following Jesus mean becoming some shadow of myself, drained of empathy and compassion and revulsion to injustice?

A while back I wrote about similar questions in a post called “Maybe God is a better person than you think.” That post included my second-hand garbling of Pascal’s idea that “Christianity is bound to be despised unless it seems like something that a good person would wish to be true.”

Or, to put it more directly, if Christianity is something that a good person would not wish to be true, then Christianity seems despicable.

That, I think, is the burden that Blankenhorn describes. It’s the fear that his faith might be something despicable. That it might even be despicable to him — something that he, at his best, could not in good conscience wish to be true. That’s the same fear that Gov. Gregoire and Rachel describe.

Another way of describing it would be to say it’s the fear that God is a jerk.

So listen carefully: God is not a jerk. God does not want you to be a jerk. So if you ever feel like God’s will, or God’s commands, or God’s rules are compelling you to act like a jerk — to betray your conscience, to be unloving, unjust, unkind, unfair — then that’s not God.

Get out from under that weight.

  • Hexep

    Boom! Zapped into atoms, soul sucked out through the eyeballs to be microwaved for a trillion trillion years, and probably have your own memories re-written so you’d forget everything you thought was good and be constantly trapped in everything you thought was bad. Hell, you might even be made to think you’d actually  done it. Evil is unlimited.

    I am a cynic, and I don’t bother to deny it. Experience has persuaded me to see the world in cynical terms; it persuades me to see the world beyond in cynical terms, as well, and I believe that the Powers of the Universe are inherently unkind, alternating between being uncaring and being actively cruel. The only answers to the problem of evil that make any sense to me that the universe is wholly material or that Heaven is capricious, and I don’t have the frame of reference for the materialist world-view.

    I wish I weren’t such a cynic, but I suppose I should be careful what I wish for and say that I wish I were convinced otherwise.

  • Carstonio

    Regardless of the historical context or the intended theological message, my reading of the story is always myself in the place of Abraham, and the torturous emotional conflict that I would feel if someone with absolute power over me demand that I destroy that which I love most. I’ve been in a few real-life situations where I’ve done things that were embarrassing or irrational or incomprehensible, because the person demanding them had previously threatened me or else was just an intimidating personality. Anyone with power is capable of abusing it. Anyone who has expectations of you is capable of denying you safety and security if you don’t meet those expectations.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tuibguy Mike Haubrich

    Call me naive, but I am still of the opinion  that all gods are the creation of humanity’s imagination.  The conceptions of right and wrong and morality are passed through generations of modified inscripturation, so the question of whether or not god is a jerk is really misdirected.  The question is whether or not the committees that modified the scriptures are jerks and seek to formalize their jerkiness through authority.  The Catholic church seems bent on proving their continued jerkiness and use the “Mystery” gambit to state that the question of how love for God requires such vile disregard for human needs is not resolvable by mere mortals.  It’s a bit like passing the buck to the unknowable.  “It’s not just me that hates abortion and contraceptive and gays, it’s God.”

    But it serves quite fruitfully their needs.  

    As loathsome as Pastor Steve Anderson in Arizona may be, he is just doing a straight reading of both the New and Old Testament regarding the roles of women in society, and the fact that you excuse God as not being a jerk is a matter of taking what you want from the scriptures and discarding the bad parts.  Of course, that is only human.

    “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
    Susan B. Anthony, in an address to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1896).

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Nope.  Never have.  But your original comment did not bring up that question, which is probably why more than one person took issue it.

  • Murfyn

    Are you cynical about your cynicism?

  • Hexep

    Oh-ho-ho, you cut me to the quick!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sue-White/1605859612 Sue White

    Yes, it was oversimplified.  Basically, it seems to me that most believers have a conception of God that reflects their own values.  Listening to some people, you would think that God likes everything they like, right down to ice cream flavors and sports teams.

  • Mark Z.

    Even if there were ostensiby amicable interaction between the two, that power imbalance would still be there. Most likely Abraham would always be aware of his powerlessness.

    Yes, and as you know, all relationships are about power, and nothing else.

    He could have seen the demand to sacrifice his son as almost liberating, and realized that he had nothing to lose by standing up for his dignity and personal boundaries.

    He could have, but, to be blunt about this, not everyone has your particular skewed hyper-modernist view of the world. There is more to life than standing up for your personal boundaries. I know that leaps of faith don’t make any sense to you, but people still attempt them, and sometimes the rewards are great.

  • Carstonio

     I don’t know what you mean by hyper-modernist.

    For me, sad experience has taught me that relationships are largely about the expectations that others have of me and the consequences for me if I don’t meet that expectations. If others are pleasant to me or cruel to me, it’s because my actions are causing them to have positive or negative views of me.

    And personal boundaries may not be the right phrase. It’s more about being caught between doing what one thinks is right and avoiding negative consequences from others, and wanting to be free of that conflict. The situation I sometimes encounter is when two people have irreconcilable expectations of me, where it’s impossible to avoid negative consequences from at least one of them. Inside my head I hear myself saying to them, “Look, either work this out between the two of you, or forget it, but just get off my back already.”

  • Hilary

    Fair enough.  As I said, YMMV I’m not trying to insist my interpretation is the only one or the right one.  Sometimes I think the bible is the ultimate ink blot test – what you see in it is more a reflection of what you bring to it then anything else.  It makes total sense that you read it through your own personal life experiences.

    Take care

    Hilary

  • Worthless Beast

    Since this story has been brought up, I immediately thought of an alternate interpretation of the story that interested me:

    http://buzzdixon.com/christianity/the-story-of-isaac-or-derp-derp-derp-derp/ 

    Please don’t shoot the messenger.  I read this blog and thought it was interesting, nothing less, nothing more. 

    For the run down for those who need one before they click: The writer proposes a personal theory that Abramham had a reason for wanting to sacrifice Issac that had nothing to do with any “command from God” he might have thought he heard, but, instead, may have been an act born of lack of faith in a son who may have had something wrong in the headmeat.

    I probably remembered this post because it almost echoes something I put in a fantasy fiction novel of mine in regards to elaborate systems for “human sacrifice.” (If you ask me to explain my novel’s plot, be in for a long post).

  • Mark Z.

    1. By “hyper-modernist” I mean the way that, in these conversations, you try to take the position that you reject all preconceived ideas: that God is merciful, that God is anything like anyone expects or believes God to be, that God or gods exist, etc. To all of this you say “Not necessarily.” And you’re right, it’s not necessarily. But as you’ve said, you have some very strong preconceived ideas (based on your experience) about how relationships work, and you can’t avoid bringing those assumptions in.

    I can’t fault you for this, because I have a lot of the same assumptions. But you have to recognize and examine the ways that your experience is skewing your perception, or you’re likely to mistake it for Just The Way The World Is.

    2. When I say that “there’s more to life than standing up for your personal boundaries”, I say it as someone who’s made a damn prison cell out of his personal boundaries. This is Hell, nor am I out of it. And so when you assert “defending personal boundaries” as the most noble and honorable choice in a bad situation, I want you to escape, but I also want me not to go back there. My instinct is to believe you’re right, and if I ever follow that instinct, I’m fucked.

  • Carstonio

    I honestly don’t know how relationships work for others. All I know is how they have often worked for me in the past, and how they often work for me in the present. Just as I have no way of knowing whether gods exist or don’t exist, I have no reliable method for predicting other people’s emotions and behavior. I can’t seem to tell the difference between really hurtful comments and harmless teasing. When I make mistakes, very often the ones that make others angry are the ones that I wouldn’t expect to do so, and vice versa.

    So my perspective on relationships may appear to involve preconceived notions because I’m always preparing for the worst from others, like stocking up supplies for a hurricane that may or may not come. I perceive myself as deeply vulnerable, partly because of my inability to read others, and partly because I don’t trust myself to perceive when I’m pushed around by others. My marriage experienced strain because I was rolling over for my parents in ways that were affecting my wife, and I still feel guilty that I didn’t stand up to them when I should have.

    For me, “defending personal boundaries” isn’t about being noble or honorable, but simply refusing to let others mistreat me. I’m not sure exactly what metaphorical prison cell you’re describing, and I won’t violate your privacy by asking for details.

  • Carstonio

    I honestly don’t know how relationships work for others. All I know is how they have often worked for me in the past, and how they often work for me in the present. Just as I have no way of knowing whether gods exist or don’t exist, I have no reliable method for predicting other people’s emotions and behavior. I can’t seem to tell the difference between really hurtful comments and harmless teasing. When I make mistakes, very often the ones that make others angry are the ones that I wouldn’t expect to do so, and vice versa.

    So my perspective on relationships may appear to involve preconceived notions because I’m always preparing for the worst from others, like stocking up supplies for a hurricane that may or may not come. I perceive myself as deeply vulnerable, partly because of my inability to read others, and partly because I don’t trust myself to perceive when I’m pushed around by others. My marriage experienced strain because I was rolling over for my parents in ways that were affecting my wife, and I still feel guilty that I didn’t stand up to them when I should have.

    For me, “defending personal boundaries” isn’t about being noble or honorable, but simply refusing to let others mistreat me. I’m not sure exactly what metaphorical prison cell you’re describing, and I won’t violate your privacy by asking for details.

  • Hilary

    I’ve come across this theory too, from a very different source.  In his book “how good do we have to be” Rabbi Harold Kushner talks about this story, and mentions that someone else had pointed out that Isaac carries a lot of the symptoms of Down Sindrome - not too quick on the up take, born to older parents, easily fooled/accepts what people tell him at face value, his parents worry about him finding a wife.  Perhaps what Abraham was hearing was the voice of a culture that would slay imperfect children.  Instead it was God who told him to stay his hand, that even an imprefect child is fashioned in God’s image and even that life is holy.  Look, please everybody don’t come at me with a dozen cherry-picked quotes to the contrary, it’s just an interpretation in a book I like.

    Good luck with your novel

    Hilary

  • http://wateringgoodseeds.tumblr.com/ Shira Coffee

    This post touches on the problem, or at least half the problem (as I see it) with Biblical religion, Jewish and Christian. Throughout the Bible we see people who have projected their own personalities and beliefs onto the canvas called God. Yes, people who are jerks tend to insist that God is an even bigger jerk, but the other half of the situation is that people who are decent portray God as similarly decent.

    The only way around this problem is to stop projecting one’s personality… but the Biblical religions are sadly lacking in techniques to examine, untangle, and (if needs be) detoxify our personalities. 

  • histrogeek

     Someone probably brought this up, but there is a rabbinic argument that God didn’t want Abraham to go along with the sacrifice of Isaac. As in the traditional view, the command was a test (a nasty, weird, and sadistic one to be sure) but unlike the traditional view, Abraham failed the test. He was supposed to pull the same thing he did with Sodom and try to talk God out of the sacrifice. Instead he just went along like a big dumb asshole. The last minute intervention was to stop Abraham from irrevocably failing as well as saving poor Isaac, who by this view was never supposed to be in danger in the first place.
    I’m not sure if this view is more than a modern attempt to get around a genuinely awful section of the Bible, but it still has a lot of appeal. OK God is manipulative but in a less horrible way. More tough love to make someone more self-reliant, less a “Who’s your daddy?” power play.

  • Carstonio

    I’ve read about that rabbinic interpretation. Reminds me of the test that Andy Garcia faced in The Untouchables, where Sean Connery taunted him with anti-Italian slurs to test his readiness to take on Capone.

    The difference is that Garcia’s position on the Ness team was voluntary. Abraham’s relationship with the Genesis god was more or less compulsory, like a child’s with a parent or a young student’s with a teacher.

    My own experience with people is that I rarely know where I stand with them, and my automatic fear is that my safety and well-being are at risk when I don’t have good standing with others. I react to anger in others like many people react to snakes or spiders. If I were in Abraham’s position, I would perceive my choices as either carrying out the command and enduring a lifetime of crushing guilt for taking my son’s life, or defying the command and risking death or suffering as punishment. While the latter is obviously the most moral choice, I would still feel like I was doomed either way, like a child being raised by a violent, emotionally unstable alcoholic.

  • Hilary

    I brought this up earlier - and some of the traditional interpretations I found that bring up the belief that Abraham failed the real test go back almost 1,000 years FWIW.

  • jane

    wow, that Sunday song just made me feel sick in my stomach, literally. So glad you found a different path, even many years later.

  • histrogeek

    I had no idea that interpretation was as old as that. Pretty much puts away my statement that this is a modern interpretation designed to explain a very nasty passage.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    I’d been thinking about this a bit during this conversation. It seems a bit strange to me  that Abraham would go to bat with the big guy to save the town full of angel-rapists, but when God asks him to off his own son, that‘s the order Abraham decides to follow without question?

  • http://blog.carlsensei.com/ Carl

     Abraham should have told the god that it was a monster, refused to sacrifice Isaac, and dared the god to do its worst to himself instead.

    In the Sodom story, Abraham begs God to spare the city, and God agrees to do so if he can find 10 good people in the city (He didn’t). In another incident, Moses begs God to spare the Israelites, and God agrees.

  • Hilary

    Something I’ve noticed about the stories of Abraham – as much as he can stand up to God on issues outside his family, he doesn’t have a lot of emotional competence for domestic politics.  He can’t get much of a working situation between Hagar and Sarah, for example.  It reminds me of stories about men who can be so confident on the battle feild or board room, but who’s personal lives are a mess.

    I also keep in mind something I overheard my rabbi say – that a lot of these stories are more along the lines of ‘this is what not to do – they were recorded so we could learn something from our tribal ancestors mistakes.’ It makes a lot of the Genesis stories more palateble.  Besides, if people that screwed up can be valuable and beloved by God, there’s not much worse we can do to loose favor. 

    Histogeek – I’ve been studying parts of the Mishnah and Talmud, some of it going back 2,000 years when the Gospels were being written.  The level of prooftexting that goes into creating parts of the ethical system of modern Judaism from the Torah is mind-bending.  Sometimes I think much of the Talmud was worked out to re-create the tribal records of the Hebrews and Israelites into something more ethical and modern.  And by modern I mean within the last ~1,500 – 1,000 years as opposed to the last ~3,500 years. 

  • Nick Gotts

     “Christianity is bound to be despised unless it seems like something that a good person would wish to be true.”

    The prior question is whether Christianity is something that could possibly be true, because it doesn’t make sense to wish something to be true if it couldn’t be. The answer (because of both the doctrine of the hypostatic union, and the problem of evil) is “No.”

  • Mary

     “No matter how faithful we are, we are not allowed to sacrifice our children.”

    The problem it that in fact the OT God did approve of child sacrifice. Why is it that everyone remembers Abraham and Isaac but forgets about this story of a young virgin girl who was sacraficed to God for the winning of a battle?

    Jephthah Burns His Daughter

    “At that time the Spirit of the LORD came upon
    Jephthah, and he went throughout the land of Gilead and Manasseh, including
    Mizpah in Gilead, and led an army against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a
    vow to the LORD. He said, “If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will
    give to the LORD the first thing coming out of my house to greet me when I
    return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

    “So Jephthah led his army against the Ammonites, and
    the LORD gave him victory. He thoroughly defeated the Ammonites from Aroer to
    an area near Minnith – twenty towns – and as far away as Abel-keramim. Thus
    Israel subdued the Ammonites. When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his
    daughter – his only child – ran out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and
    dancing for joy. When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish. “My
    daughter!” he cried out. “My heart is breaking! What a tragedy that you came
    out to greet me. For I have made a vow to the LORD and cannot take it back.”
    And she said, “Father, you have made a promise to the LORD.You must do to me
    what you have promised, for the LORD has given you a great victory over your
    enemies, the Ammonites. But first let me go up and roam in the hills and weep
    with my friends for two months, because I will die a virgin.” “You may go,”
    Jephthah said. And he let her go away for two months. She and her friends went
    into the hills and wept because she would never have children. When she
    returned home, her father kept his vow, and she died a virgin. So it has
    become a custom in Israel for young Israelite women to go away for four days
    each year to lament the fate of Jephthah’s daughter.” (Judges 11:29-40
    NLT)

  • AnonymousSam

    *Nods* I was thinking of Exodus 13:13 and Numbers 18:16 myself. The line in Exodus just says that firstborn children shall be “redeemed,” the line in Numbers explains that they can be redeemed for 5 shekels. Sure, redemption, like redeeming sin, right? Well, that particular section of Exodus 13 is all about sacrificing firstborn animals. It’s hard not to suspect that the original meaning of the ritual was potentially grimmer (and certainly convenient for the priesthood).

    There’s also Leviticus 18:21, which forbids you sacrifice your children to Moloch. It doesn’t forbid sacrificing your children… just sacrificing them to one god in particular. That’s suspiciously open to alternate possibilities.

    The possibility was certainly there at the very least, and quite in keeping with the bloodthirsty attitude of the OT depiction of God.

  • Ursula L

    The problem it that in fact the OT God did approve of child sacrifice. Why is it that everyone remembers Abraham and Isaac but forgets about this story of a young virgin girl who was sacraficed to God for the winning of a battle?

    At least around here, no one forgets it.  We’ve been reminded of this, and more, via Fred’s awesome “Chik-Fil-A Biblical Family of the Day” series, which covered this story and many, many more about some truly dreadful Biblical families.

    The Bible tells a lot of stories about a lot of families, and most of the stories that make it into the book are stories about profoundly dysfunctional families.  Happy, well-functioning families make for boring stories, at least if the story is supposed to be about the family, rather than a story where the family background of the character is a minor point.  

  • Paul

    And the Israelites all did what they thought was right in their own eyes

  • Paul

    all have sinned and fallen sort of the glory of God. There are non righteous, not even one (all those born of a woman and a man that is)

  • EllieMurasaki

    So people born of a cis woman and a trans woman are righteous?

    Cool.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    You leave MacDuff out of this.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    How about a woman who gives birth through IVF using one of her own skin cells transformed into a male sex cell? Would she be giving birth to the second Christ? :p

    (Given that the offspring would be female, that could be very interesting.)


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