Friday, January 15, 2010

Sing Along

I have had a number of talks over the years with religious people about the rituals involved in their faith.  The vast, vast majority of these discussions and experiences were with various Christian denominations, including time spent at church camp and other religious activities that I ended up in.  In many cases when the exact meanings behind the rituals or words involved in the songs were brought up the believers were quick to deny any real importance behind them, and for most of my life I tended to believe that.  Just today though I started to think more about it and I find that my position on religious ritual has changed substantially.

For example, a couple years ago I ended up at a religious event where hymns were being sung.  One of the songs contained the phrase "Jesus is lord" over and over again.  In fact, at least 2/3 of the song was simply those words repeated time and time again.  At the time I just dismissed this as pathetic songwriting and unpleasant to listen to, but I think it deserves more thought than that.  The second major example was more recent when I was hearing some Christmas music in a store.  The song in question contained the phrase "Jesus our savior" which is both quite common in Christian song and considered fairly tame by most people I have met.

When I have discussed these sorts of phrases with people who are religious I have always been met with the argument that it isn't a big deal.  Always it has been portrayed that the songs are familiar and pleasant and that people don't really listen to the lyrics.  The idea goes that if people who sing these songs generally act decently towards others than there must be nothing wrong with them and that since they have been around forever the words are comforting and not offensive.  I don't buy that anymore.  These songs are saying that Jesus is our savior, and the obvious consequence is that since I reject that savior I am not going to be saved.  Note that not being saved has a well defined meaning in the Bible - An eternity of misery and torture in hell.  If you sing songs that proclaim Jesus as our savior, you are in fact singing songs that say

"Sky is going to burn in hell for eternity for his beliefs."

Now these people that I have talked to generally are decent folks.  They don't want me to suffer eternally for the sin of disbelief, but they are willing to devote large parts of the lives, their time and have their community, morals and behaviour directed by an organization that absolutely believes this.  These people enjoy their religious community and they certainly don't want to turn their backs on it because of the massive disruption and inconvenience.  They also have tended to protest that their churches are moderate ones, ones that don't preach hellfire and damnation and are inclusive and accepting.  Again, those defensive statements are largely going to be true.  Many churches do accept homosexuals, working on Sundays, questioning of dogma and women with open arms in ways that the Bible would not approve of, which is great by me.  However, those churches still have Bibles in them, they still sing songs of being saved by Jesus, and they still proclaim to the world that the religion they are part of is right, which means they still support the statement

"Sky is going to burn in hell for eternity for his beliefs."

Of course so far I have taken it as an article of faith that these statements and rituals are meaningful and oppressive.  If you don't buy that, let us do a thought experiment.  Just imagine for a moment that a new building was constructed down the street from you.  This new building is a beautiful building with nice architecture.  In this building people get together regularly to sing and socialize and they are looking for new members for their group.  Sounds a lot like a regular church so far!  Now imagine further that the people that go to this building go there to wear white hoods.  They call themselves the Ku Klux Klan.  They sing songs with phrases like

"White people are the true people and black people must all die"

which are accompanied by beautiful organ music from the talented choir director.  They spend time together, bring their children to the building for regular education about how white people are the best and black people must die and are eager to talk to people about coming to their building and joining in their rituals.  They like to hand out pamphlets about their beliefs and hopes for the world.  What do you think of this?  If you are anything like me your immediate reaction is

HOLY HELL what are these maniacs doing here?  This is completely bonkers!  These guys are talking about killing people!  Their literature literally talks about murdering people who don't agree with them!

Certainly some people would inevitably respond that the Klan is a dangerous group of maniacs who are violent.  The Christian church is responsible for the Crusades, devout Muslims blow themselves up to kill those from other religions or even those who are from the 'wrong' sect of Islam.  Christians committed genocide against Muslims in Yugoslavia and Muslims blew up the twin towers in 9/11.  Violence is very much a part of religious tradition.

You might yet argue that racism is different than religiousism.  Hating someone because they are from a different area is not quite the same as hating someone because they believe in a slightly different version of the same book but I cannot imagine how they could be really differentiated in terms of morality.

Yet it is possible to argue that the texts of the Klan are evil, but one would be forced to concede that the Bible regularly and enthusiastically supports total genocide against those of the wrong religion and that death is a reasonable penalty for disbelief.  Both beliefs and textual quotes range from the simply offensive to the outrageously hateful and murderous in these two examples.

So then what is the difference between a church promoting the Bible and a Klan group promoting their agenda, presuming that neither of them actually goes out and does anything violent or destructive?  Say for example if the people in the Klan meeting never actually stage demonstrations or attack blacks or do anything really bad, but just sing their racist songs and hand out racist propaganda?  The most obvious difference of course is that the church will be accepted.  People might be slightly put out depending on the denomination and area, but by and large it just won't be a big deal.  The Klan building on the other hand would be littered with graffiti, surrounded by protesters and might even be the target of arson or some other such extreme action.  Certainly those who wanted to go there and sing their songs would not find their lives comfortable in the slightest.

Keep in mind here I am not comparing a gentle, easygoing United Church to a bloodthirsty band of Klan members intent on burning crosses and beatings.  I am comparing a gentle, easygoing United Church to a gentle, easygoing Klan organization.  The conclusion you must reach from this exercise is this:  What is said in the texts of an organization matters to people.  The content of your songs and rituals is important.  We as a society care about these things and the precise content of them is relevant to our choices.

If you do not support massacre of unbelievers, if you do not believe that atheists who act morally are going to burn forever in torment and if you do not support a belief in the fundamental corruption of mankind, then supporting a institution that does believe those things is hypocrisy.  Suggesting that those words in the songs, those texts held sacred and those rituals performed are not important or should not be taken literally is wrong.  The reaction to the statements above will be proof enough of that, barring of course any Klan members who might read this.  If you do not believe it, do not support it.  You can believe in a good creator who watches over us all, community and morality without supporting a history of violence, exclusion and persecution.


  1. Ok, I'm going to argue with you about one thing.

    "These songs are saying that Jesus is our savior, and the obvious consequence is that since I reject that savior I am not going to be saved. "

    Your logic is faulty. You're assuming that since A implies B (where A = accepting Jesus and B = being saved) that notA implies notB which is wrong from a purely logical point of view.

    Now, I will grant you that there are many sects which say things like "accepting Jesus is the Only way to be saved", however this is not universally true. So...can the meaning of the song depend on the particular beliefs of the person doing the singing?

  2. Here is the thing: One huge part of the Bible is the concept of original sin, the idea that all of humanity is forever tainted and fallen due to the actions of Adam and Eve. Being saved from this wretched state is what Jesus is all about. The statements you quote and the logic you use is correct, but those statements are within a context of the Bible. Within the context of the rest of the Bible it is in fact abundantly clear that Jesus is required to save you from original sin.

    I suppose there might be a group of people that believe in Jesus, believe in being saved, and yet somehow avoid believing in the original sin parts of the Bible and also somehow think that there are many ways to be saved and as such Jesus is not strictly required, but just one of the options. Fair enough that those might exist, but I am not guaranteeing that my statements apply equally to every possible religion belief set, but rather the ones that are popular, powerful and public.

    Also, applying logic in that strict sense to those statements is to ignore the meaning normal people derive from them. If you asked 100 people if rejecting Jesus as your saviour implies not being saved you would hear that at least 95 of them agree that it does. It isn't logically sound out of context, but this is language, and the important thing is what meaning people take out of it, not what technically they should take out of it.