Natural disasters and man-made tragedies are vying for Christians’ attention these days. As usual, they’re busy trying to insert their religious notions into all of these events–sometimes innocently and sometimes out of a desire to grandstand. But in their rush to attribute their survival or escapes from these events, they’re forgetting to ask some very key questions. This omission is deliberate; they’ve been carefully taught to avoid all of the uncomfortable questions that’d reveal that their religion is a farce. It’s been going on since long before I was a Christian, and nothing seems like it’ll stop them from using perfectly earthly events as props for their faith. But I’ll show you how we can find those questions today–and you’ll likely never hear Christians’ prayers or breathless tales of escape again without thinking of them, if you weren’t already in the habit.
Where I’m Not Ashamed Went Seriously Wrong.
The reason this topic has been on my mind is because the Christian movie we’ve been talking about, I’m Not Ashamed, presents its heroine as a martyr for the modern fundagelical church universal–and makes the unspoken-but-understood claim that the Christian god knew that the massacre was going to happen and let it happen in order for her to meet her martyr’s death.
This claim isn’t an uncommon one in that end of Christianity. Since their god, they think, is totally in control of absolutely everything, it stands to reason to them that he is in control of all the terrible, dreadful events that happen as well. His complicity in these events ranges from simply allowing them to happen without lifting a finger to help anybody all the way to him orchestrating the childhoods of cold-blooded killers so that they will grow up to one day roam a school seeking innocent blood to shed. The level of divine activity in these events simply depends upon the beliefs of the individual Christian interpreting them.
Ever since Rachel Scott died, Christians like this Sarah Palin worshiper have been capitalizing on her story to make a self-serving point about martyrdom. It’s not enough that she was murdered; oh no, she must be murdered because she was supposedly brave enough to maintain her faith in the face of an impending murder committed specifically and especially because she was Jus’ Bein’ Christian. They don’t even care which murder victim they’re talking about–they’ll use whichever name comes to mind because frankly, they’re all interchangeable and have the same amount of truth to them (and then, like that Christian did in the link, have to go back and amend their post while still insisting that the point totally stands!).
The Myth of Jus’ Bein’ Christian.
Jus’ Bein’ Christian is a Christianese phrase that Christians use to make themselves look persecuted and put-upon. It is used in two ways. Its first and main use is to convey a mental image of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ getting hassled out of the clear blue sky by mean ole atheists (or Muslims, or Chinese Communists, or secular educators, or whoever they see as opposing their overreach in that situation) for doing nothing offensive whatsoever, perhaps calling very minor attention to themselves through such innocuous acts as praying over meals, wearing Jesus-themed clothing, or quietly and politely declining to take part in certain activities.
The Christians using this phrase in that first way are indoctrinated to believe that of course all non-Christians are utterly and completely offended to the point of violence when they witness any act of devotion that a Christian might make, no matter how innocent or small or private.
That might come as a huge shock to non-Christians, since as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, most of us don’t notice or care about stuff like Christians bending their heads to pray privately over their meals or crossing themselves when concerned or upset. Those observations are borne out in a survey conducted by Five Thirty-Eight asking agnostics and atheists how they feel about relatively minor expressions of Christianity (the survey was requested by none other than Patheos’ own Catholic convert, Leah Libresco, but AFAIK she had nothing to do with conducting the survey itself). Interestingly, the survey showed a large gulf between how uncomfortable Christians thought their displays made others and how others actually felt about these displays–a similar gulf that we observed a year or so ago in the “Talking Jesus” study that Rosa Rubicondior dug up.1
In the Five Thirty-Eight survey, private shows of devotions did make some atheists and agnostics uncomfortable, but generally speaking most of us didn’t really care until the Christian tried to involve us in their devotions–like by saying “I’ll pray for you” or even outright asking to pray with us, or trying to talk to us about whatever we believe. Even so, the stuff that we’d associate with really and truly “just being Christian” only made a relative few atheists and agnostics uncomfortable. Chances are most of us grew up in Christian homes so we saw this stuff all the time and didn’t associate it with anything worrisome. So it’s beyond weird that Christians keep trying to play the Jus’ Bein’ Christian card as often as they do.
At least, it’s beyond weird until we realize that no, the Christians using this excuse weren’t just innocuously showing devotion to their faith in a quiet, private way. They want us to think that, but that’s not actually what’s going on. Usually what’s really happening is that the Christian is being extremely offensive or even breaking laws and is well aware of the unacceptability of their behavior–but wants to be seen as a poor widdle victim. This act is performed to gain undeserved sympathy and perhaps provide a little foothold for future overreach. When you hear the phrase “Jus’ Bein’ Christian,” you can mentally amend it in your mind to “Being Incredibly Obnoxious and Boorish Around Others.”
For example, a Christian who’s been denied an opportunity to proselytize a public school’s kindergarteners might claim that he or she is being persecuted for merely wishing to volunteer while Jus’ Bein’ Christian. People who hear this story are expected to go WELL I NEVER! and lament how sadly atheistic our modern society has become–and perhaps lend that Christian tangible support in trying to accomplish their original intentions.
It’ll take a little sleuthing to discover that Christian’s dishonesty and ulterior motives–this information is never volunteered. If a naysayer does dare to suggest that maybe the Christian in question wasn’t really Jus’ Bein’ Christian, chances are the Christian using that ploy will be terribly offended.
The terrible part to this common Christian tactic, however, is in its second and less-common usage: that when a Christian does genuinely suffer some terrible offense through no fault of their own, chances are that person was simply victimized for no religious reason at all.
And that’s where we find Rachel Scott.
She wasn’t killed because she was Christian. She was shot from a great distance by the two killers who spotted her on the lawn with her friend from their vantage point at the top of a staircase. Nobody asked her anything about her faith; she was killed instantly with the first barrage of bullets. From that far away, one wonders if the killers even knew who she was, much less that they were aiming at a religious girl (though frankly, they might have guessed this, since most of the kids in that school were Christian, statistically speaking). Then the killers went to work on the school, targeting other students randomly and capriciously until they got bored. Nothing in accounts of the massacre suggests that they were targeting Christians. They mocked some students over their religious faith, but they also mocked other students over stuff like race and athleticism.
She wasn’t Jus’ Bein’ Christian and murdered for it. She was simply murdered for no real reason at all. She didn’t do anything to deserve that fate. She was neither an outstanding Christian nor a ghastly one; she was just a regular kid who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She wasn’t martyred for Jesus at all and certainly wouldn’t have chosen that fate for herself.
And Christians can’t handle that idea.
Prepared by “God.”
Very quickly after the massacre, a narrative emerged of the two killers being these bullied malcontents who were taking their revenge on the evil jock bullies who’d tormented them and made their lives hell. In that narrative, they were atheists who were particularly targeting strong, faithful Christians–and the two martyrs who were singled out for their ire were Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott. The fact that Rachel was their first victim might be what catapulted her to the lead part in I’m Not Ashamed, which also assigned to her the questioning-under-fire that was supposedly asked of Cassie Bernall–and which actually was asked of Val Schnurr, who alone of all three girls survived the encounter.
This narrative, we know now, is flat wrong. It was an appealing narrative to Christians for what ought to be obvious reasons; their religion was just beginning its fall from dominance (a fall that hasn’t yet reached bottom today), and those with ears to hear could perceive that young people were starting to drift away from their various churches–it was that first trickle of ex-Christians that I myself was part of in the mid-90s.
It’s a terrible thing to contemplate Christians being so opportunistic as to pounce upon a tragedy like Columbine for their own agendas, but that is exactly what happened. Very quickly they began selling the idea that their god had been “preparing” Rachel Scott for her martyrdom.
The opportunists who created I’m Not Ashamed sure bought into that notion hook, line, and sinker. Speaking of the dead girl’s journals like they’re addendums to the Bible itself, they write on their Indiegogo, emphasis their own:
The writings showed a teenage girl who walked with Jesus. A deeper look at Rachel’s writings show a girl who the Lord was preparing to die.
In the movie itself, on numerous occasions they have Rachel saying, a mystically befuddled expression on her face, that she simply can’t see herself in the future. One of her last scenes involves her drawing a rose weeping black tears (she seems to have made roses, eyes, and tears her usual doodling fare). A teacher comes by and counts the tears: THIRTEEN of them! ZOMG IT MUST BE JESUS! The enthralled teacher expresses her admiration for Rachel’s artistic skill2 and asks Rachel why she decided to draw exactly thirteen tears, and Rachel shrugs and admits that she really doesn’t know. You can all but hear the Christians creaming their jeans as they squee over the idea that JESUS TOLD HER TO DRAW THIRTEEN TEARS, THIRTEEN FOR THE THIRTEEN VICTIMS, ZOMG ITZA MEERKUL Y’ALL!
So in the Christian mythologizing of this event3 we have a young woman who was led as if she were a lamb to her own slaughter at the hands of evil ole atheists, meant to be a martyr to inspire millions of other young Christians to hold onto their faith in good times and bad–an especially potent reminder in the feverish imaginations of all those preachers and apologists irresponsibly telling Christians that the Endtimes are upon us.
Because yes–indeed–Rachel Scott’s martyrdom plays into the fantasies of all those Endtimes-obsessed Christians in fundagelicalism. The seeds of that obsession were already bearing fruit in my day–that was Biff’s favorite topic and that of many young Christians in our denomination. The idea was that there was coming this horrific time of great persecution of Christians–a time when Christians will be murdered no matter how innocuously and privately they practice their faith. This time, called the Tribulation, would come either right before or right amid or right after the Rapture, that great catching-up of all the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to Heaven (as accurately relayed and foretold in the Left Behind book and movie series, take your pick about whether you like the Nic Cage or the Kirk Cameron version). Somewhere in this would be Armageddon, the final world war to end all world wars, and then the world would end, the judgment would take place, and Christians would go to their final reward while all the bad Christians and non-Christians would get what was coming to them at last.
So obviously Christian leaders will be very, very interested in ensuring that their young charges are properly indoctrinated to maintain their faith through this terrible persecution coming their way. The massacre at Columbine High must have seemed like a big waving flag announcing that the Tribulation was at hand and that the first martyrs to the faith were meeting their fates.
A Little Sliver of Doubt.
But then the questions start to occur to people who still have a bit of compassion in them or who aren’t so young and so indoctrinated that they can still wonder about this stuff.
Really, it’s the same questions and points that critically-thinking listeners might immediately think of when informed of a ZOMG MEERKUL in other contexts:
- Why would a god “prepare” Rachel Scott for death and not one of the other fervent Christians in that school? The movie presents her as the only TRUE CHRISTIAN™ there, but her Bible study group appears to have other high-school people in it and there are certainly other Christians in the school. In fact, the movie only shows one other student in the school who is very openly Christian–which is to say that he wears a cross necklace and talks up Christianity with Rachel shortly before the massacre. If my reading of his name and the victim list on Wikipedia is correct, then that young man was also murdered that day. Was the black Christian guy not important enough to “prepare” like the pretty white girl was? Indeed, the likelihood is that most, if not all, of the murdered students were Christians just like Rachel was. In a New York Times piece written in the wake of the massacre, “churches and prayer groups” are described as institutions that “defined life for many people [in the area].” In fact, that NYT journalist found that the survivors of that day headed for their churches, not for the counselors their school provided. We’re talking about a really religious area, it seems, though it doesn’t seem so now; echoing the rest of the country, only about a third of its residents now describe themselves as religious. But in 1999, the picture looked very different. Granted, Cassie Bernall was another student mistakenly granted martyr status, but they definitely weren’t the only two fervent Christians there. We don’t even see another really fervent kid in that school till the day of the killings.
- Why did this god’s “preparation” look so much like normal clinical depression? Rachel didn’t appear to think of her confusion and depression as being divine in nature at the time. Her near-suicide attempt (throwing herself off of a tall building) didn’t seem remotely religious, and neither did her reason for holding back (seeing her necklace and remembering the friend who’d given it to her). Her meandering journal writings sound totally normal to me–I probably wrote much the same bullshit in mine, and I’d reckon most teens go through a super-dramatic phase. Rachel’s feelings of future dread and loneliness aren’t divine; they’re normal, if possibly necessitating professional care. PostSecret regularly runs postcards declaring that their writers can’t see themselves surviving past a particular date or (strikingly young) age–and hopefully no overeager Christians are going to declare that the people who write these are just having divine premonitions of their future martyrdom, when all we’re seeing is the pain of a person who needs help and therapy and a little compassion. Illustrative of that point, I was friends with an internet celebrity in the Web 1.0 days who didn’t think he’d live past 21 and was very vocal about that point–and he wasn’t a Christian, just a really depressed young man who eventually got help and moved on with his life and is happy now. I’d think that a god who was seriously preparing a young person for martyrdom would make things a little more obvious than a point-for-point live-acting of a list of signs of depression.
- It’s downright offensive that so many Christians are so gaga over the “thirteen tears” thing when the reality makes clear that if a god was involved there, he’s an asshole. The tears Rachel drew in her last doodle–thirteen of them–were considered a total miracle by Christians then and now, a portent and sign. The problem is that the thirteenth victim was an adult who bled out while awaiting medical care. The police didn’t act quickly enough to aid the teacher, 47-year-old William “Dave” Sanders, who helped many students evacuate but got shot himself and died hours after the killers had suicided. If the police had done their jobs correctly, Mr. Sanders would have survived. What then would Christians have made of Rachel’s doodle? Would the 13th person have become Jesus at that point? If a god really needed Rachel to draw the correct number of victims with tears, then does that mean he murdered Dave Sanders to make the drawing fit? A truly loving and compassionate god would have sent a warning, not a cute doodle, anyway. (And… I really hate to say this, but I must: for all we know, someone added a couple of tears later to make the doodle fit with the number of victims; it’s not like tears are really hard to draw.)
- For that matter, why is Rachel a martyr but Christians don’t care at all about the other victims? Why would a god allow Rachel’s martyrdom to be diluted by the presence of so many other victims? It’s hard to see her as being some uniquely special victim when she’s one of thirteen victims total–not to mention dozens of other people who were injured but survived, like Val Schnurr (who was actually asked the question that is usually attributed to Cassie Bernall or Rachel Scott). Somehow I don’t imagine a martyr as being just one person out of dozens of other people who were randomly targeted and shot. And I really don’t think a real live god would negate the deaths of so many others–or allow those deaths as collateral damage.
- Why are Christians–who are supposed to be able to divinely discern the truth better because they’ve got JESUS POWER that non-Christians don’t have–so quick to fall for false stories that pander to them? The real narrative of Columbine looks absolutely nothing like Christians imagine. The moviemakers themselves didn’t even try to challenge the fundagelical version of the story in their rush to cater to their chosen market, who they knew wouldn’t challenge that narrative either in their rush to greedily devour it. This was a false narrative that got developed and set into stone within hours and days of the massacre, and it’s all but gospel now to fundagelicals–who still claim to have an objective morality that allows them to rightly discern the truth–an ability that they also commonly claim non-Christians lack.
- The big question, of course, is why a god needs a teenaged girl to die brutally and in horrific pain and terror. The whole Tribulation narrative is a false one, something that is intentionally fed to impressionable young people to radicalize them. We see the same thing happening in the 2006 movie Jesus Camp, in which the creepy middle-aged woman leading the camp openly admires radicalized Muslims for their fervor and total dedication to their cause (terrorism, let’s remember), and openly hopes that her leadership will produce American Christian children who are that fervent and dedicated.4 It’s a downright chilling idea to anybody who isn’t drinking the same sugar-sweetened kids’ drink she is. And it’s hard to imagine why a real god would ever need to kill a child to send a message to anybody. That’s the dick move of a god who either is too weak and puny to stop a child from being hurt, or who is too much of an asshole to find a better way to communicate a message. Or it’s merely evidence that no gods anywhere are orchestrating events or allowing anything to happen. Rachel Scott was a child. She’d barely begun her life. Whatever she felt or thought she knew about religion, she was too young to have really worked out for herself. She deserves better than being thrust into the position of false martyr to people who don’t even care enough about her to tell the truth about her life or her final moments. It’s grotesque to see Christians abusing her death to manufacture urgency in their adherents.
The bottom line is this:
Any god who lets a child die or requires a child’s death for its plans to work is no god worth our attention, much less our love and worship.
And any religion or ideology that worships such a being is no friend of humanity’s and is one we are best off avoiding.
A Sad Example of Low Christianity.
The story of Rachel Scott has become simply another example of “low Christianity” — that more folksy version of the religion that is more marked by magic rituals, folk beliefs, baseless superstitions, and bombastic bluster than its religious cousins that concentrate more on scholarship, quieter rituals, and less offensive magical beliefs. Her story goes on the exact same shelf as the so-called heavenly tourism books that are written by Christians who totally for sure and for realsies totally went to Heaven y’all, and then came back to share their breathless tales of what they saw with an adoring public, and of course the narratives about other super-big miraculous events.
The real Rachel Scott is lost somewhere amid all that imaginary stuff that Christians have added to her story. She died horribly and brutally, for no good reason, and I can see why that scares fundagelicals. It means that anybody could die in similarly brutal and meaningless ways and that there’s no real way to protect oneself totally from those ends. Fundagelicals in particular are prone to trying to find the “meaning” behind terrible events–as indeed we’re seeing in the many, many Christians trying to reconcile the Texas floods with their misguided belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, totally loving god. They almost seem desperate to figure out some way to make the world work with their beliefs; the results are haphazard and ill-fitting at best, offensive at worst. And I’m Not Ashamed is one of those offensive examples.
But in reality, Christianity doesn’t need martyrs.
It just needs more people who aren’t total goddamned hypocrites.
It’s just that for some reason they keep manufacturing false martyrs and false persecution instead of cultivating adherence and faithfulness in themselves.
When you hear a Christian gushing about escaping a horrible fate, or trying to assign meaning to a tragic loss, ask the dangerous questions–at least privately, to yourself. It’s purely human nature to try to find patterns everywhere, and tragedies are no exception to that rule. But when we assign a non-existent agency to an event that happened randomly or was senseless, we stress ourselves out–and use resources that we could put to way better use in showing compassion and in helping those who remain–and into preventing future similar events if it’s possible. Escape the urge to find meaning where there is no meaning. Concentrate on reality instead.
We’ll be looking next time at other ways that Christians think they can keep kids in the religion–not all of those methods are as terrible as creating and pushing false martyrs and the glories of martyrdom, but they’re about as effective. See you next time!
1 If you aren’t already reading Rosa Rubicondior, let me recommend it as an addition to your usual roster. The author of it deals primarily with matters of church/state separation in England and refutations of Creationist talking points–and does so with the desert bone-dry wit and humor that only Englishmen seem to be able to summon.
2 Um yeah about that: sorry, gang, she’s really not that good–very hesitant and derivative, about what one would expect of an uncertain young woman who perhaps feared criticism; given time, schooling, and the growth of thicker skin, she might have been decent though. The loss of an artistic spirit like hers is only one tragedy amid the many that day.
3 The speed of this process is pretty damn good evidence, in itself, of how quickly a real event can turn into total mythology with barely a kernel of truth in it, if you ask me. I’m not sure Christians should want people to know just how quickly and how completely that mythologizing can play out.
4 It seems like most of the kids in that movie are deconverted, disengaged, or seriously struggling now with the religious abuse they suffered in their childhoods, a decade after Jesus Camp. As one deconverted youth featured in the movie sums it up, “I think they had the best of intentions, but I see it as sick people trying to treat sick people. It’s their coping mechanism for figuring out why we’re alive. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, though, because it allowed me at such a young age to question my existence.” He’s now living communally with a bunch of stuck-in-the-60s psychedelic-using mystics in California and seems happy. He calls the preacher lady in the movie “a terrible fucking person who is fueled by the spiritual suffering of other people,” which works as well as anything I’ve ever come up with as a description of one of fundagelicalism’s most toxic leaders. We’ll be touching base on this topic sometime later.