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So It Goes

May 1, 2009

At last night’s press conference, President Obama mentioned reading an article about torture. He said he was struck to read that as the United Kingdom fought for its existence in the Battle of Britain, about 200 Germans were their captives. According to Obama:

Churchill said, we don’t torture — when the entire British — all of the British people were being subjected to unimaginable risk and threat. And the reason was that Churchill understood you start taking shortcuts, and over time that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.

Today, I saw an article about a Pew Research Center poll that reveals that increased church attendance correlates with tolerance of and support for torture.

Practically all of my friends have been annoyed with me at one time or another for my obsession with the sentence, “Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.” It comes from the novel Slaughterhouse -Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It is a gorgeous quirk of the English language that a sentence composed of two sweet declarations can evoke a wistful response from every reader. So it goes.

One of the characters in Slaughterhouse-Five is a novelist, and some of his books are described by Vonnegut’s narrator. When Obama’s lesson about World War Two was juxtaposted in my mind with the results of the Pew poll, one of the novelist’s stories screamed to my attention. What follows is Vonnegut’s description of the book within his book:

The Gospel from Outer Space

The visitor from outer space made a serious study of Christianity, to learn, if he could, why Christians found it so easy to be cruel. He concluded that at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low. But the Gospels actually taught this:

Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected.

The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn’t look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being of the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read out loud again:

Oh, boy — they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!

And then that thought had a brother: “There are right people to lynch.” Who? People not well connected. So it goes.

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.

So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn’t possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was.

And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!

From a secular standpoint, torture is corrosive. No less a genius than Winston Churchill stood by that truth, even as the continued existence of the free world was in grave doubt. If religion were of any value at all, it would reinforce this truth not just when it is pragmatic to do so. It would reinforce this truth all the time. Yet here we are in the United States in 2009, and the people to whom this is an open question are the pious. The saved.

If this country is to be saved, it is not just the Muslim fundamentalists who must be stopped. We must restrain ourselves. If the followers of Jesus Christ can not see that, they have nothing to tell the rest of us about morality.

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