Sunday, August 13, 2006

Christian Language and Tolstoy's Onion (Peter)

This was a parable that somebody told at a prayer and discussion group that I was in when I was part of the Episcopal Church at Yale. I think it was originally a short story by Leo Tolstoy.

A woman died and could not go to Heaven because she had been mean and cruel to everyone all her life. She went to Hell, and from there she prayed for mercy. Was there no way she could be admitted to Heaven?
The angel who guards the gates looked around and asked all the souls in Heaven, "Is there anyone here who has ever had a kind word or an act of generosity from this woman?" Only one stepped forth. He said that in life he had been a starving beggar, and one time this woman had given him an onion. The angel told him, “Bring me the onion.” It wasn’t much of an onion—small and shriveled—a pretty poor meal even for a beggar. Would it be enough of an act of kindness to raise the old woman out of Hell?
The angel took the onion and reached down with it into Hell. The old woman grasped it and the angel began to pull her up. The thin dry stalk seemed like it might snap at any minute, but as she held onto it, her feet were lifted from the ground. The other damned souls around her saw her beginning to rise Heavenward and they grabbed at her skirts and her feet, hoping to be pulled up with her. The onion stalk was so spindly. Would it hold?
The old woman looked down at the other damned souls clinging to her and yelled, “Let go! It’s my onion!”
And with that, the onion broke.

I have always taken that as a cautionary tale aimed at those who would make their religion into an exclusive club. But the new insight this week is that hollering at the Christians to stop consigning the rest of us to Hell might not be something we do just for our sake, but for theirs as well. That perhaps those who want to slam the door to salvation shut behind them and then stand there demanding the password before letting anyone else in—that they might be in the same position as the old woman shouting “Let go! It’s my savior!” and that confrontation from a place of compassion (as one might do for an alcoholic) is more appropriate than simple, reactive rage.

Of course, the only way to do that kind of confrontation is to be very secure oneself. You can't be effective if you've got something you’re still trying to prove to yourself about your own relationship with alcohol (or with God, as the case may be). Having once believed, myself, that the only way to satisfy God is to believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ and accept Him as one’s personal Lord and Savior, …

Hmm. Where was I going with that sentence?

1) The reason it is so difficult for me to hear and work with Christian vocabulary in a universalist context is that I was once so fluent in its other, more literal uses. I have read the Bible with the eyes of a fundamentalist, and when I hear Jesus say “None may approach the Father save through me,” it always feels like a cop-out not to take him at his word.

2) The loving confrontation is really with myself. The old woman with the onion will go wherever her own higher self and deeper nature discerns that she needs to go. My issue isn’t with her. My issue is with the angel, because when I meet him, the reason he isn’t going to let me into Heaven is that I’ll spit in his eye. And I’ll do that because I believe that he will consign me to Hell if I don’t give him the right password (“I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and accept Him as my personal Savior and I promise to make everybody else do the same and if they don’t I will help you stoke the fires of Hell.”) And this isn’t really about the angel, is it? It’s about me, having internalized that message.

3) Except it isn’t. It's also out in the world. I had a student last year who was a skinhead neo-Nazi. (No exaggeration. This kid had a shrine to Hitler in his basement.) And he was always looking for ways to justify hating—not hating anybody in particular, just hate all by itself as a way of being. And the only remotely Christian thing I ever heard him say was once when he made the comment “Homosexuality is wrong because it’s against God’s laws.” Now, liberal theologians can pontificate all they want about how Christ’s message is really about love, but they are never going to be able to say it loud enough that a kid with a shrine to Hitler in his basement will hear them. But our Christian heritage, the religion that conquered the Holy Land, supported colonialism, justified the enslavement of Africans and the extermination of native Americans and the forced conversion of Jews and the burning of Witches and…and…and… you get the idea. That is loud enough for this skinhead punk to hear, even down in his basement.

So I really want the Christian church to STOP USING LANGUAGE THAT IS IN ANY WAY AMBIGUOUS ABOUT REPUDIATING HATE.

Which, of course, is a pretty tall order. “Don’t say anything that could possibly be misunderstood by anyone.” Sounds simple enough. Why can’t people just do it?

So what do I do, given that there are no words that will bear the weight of what I want to say? What I took away from this past week at Yearly Meeting is not that the Christian vocabulary is OK; it’s that the words—any words—are not the thing that’s carrying the message in a Quaker setting.

Maybe not in any setting.

Quakers do not just listen to the silence; they speak the silence. I don’t mean they speak from the silence (though they do that too). I mean that Quakers, besides listening for the Spirit behind whatever words might be said, also carry the Spirit and live out the Spirit and hold the Spirit so that it is there to be discerned.

9 comments:

Sarah said...

. . . I guess I'm just on a commenting roll.

1.) I like the parable.

2.) "But the new insight this week is that hollering at the Christians to stop consigning the rest of us to Hell might not be something we do just for our sake, but for theirs as well. That perhaps those who want to slam the door to salvation shut behind them and then stand there demanding the password before letting anyone else in—that they might be in the same position as the old woman shouting “Let go! It’s my savior!” and that confrontation from a place of compassion (as one might do for an alcoholic) is more appropriate than simple, reactive rage."

I mostly agree, but I dearly dearly wish that you'd said 'exclusive Christians,' or 'fundamentalist Christians' instead of 'the Christians.' Ouch.

3.) "liberal theologians can pontificate all they want about how Christ’s message is really about love, but they are never going to be able to say it loud enough that a kid with a shrine to Hitler in his basement will hear them."

Possibly this is true, but you make it sound like that makes liberal Christian theology useless. Is Pagan theology going to change the mind of that kid? If it doesn't, does that make it useless?

4.) "our Christian heritage, the religion that conquered the Holy Land, supported colonialism, justified the enslavement of Africans and the extermination of native Americans and the forced conversion of Jews and the burning of Witches and…and…and… you get the idea. That is loud enough for this skinhead punk to hear, even down in his basement."

I am definitely ashamed of what people have done and continue to do in the name of the Christian faith which I claim as my own. On the other hand, I am a Quaker, and I am definitely proud of what people have done and continue to do in the name of the Quaker faith which I claim as my own. And a huge part of that Quaker heritage is also Christian. Which is why I'm here . . .

5.) It's impossible to use entirely unambiguous language. No matter what I say, to my Pagan friends, my atheistic friends, my fundamentalist friends, and my Quaker friends, someone misunderstands my beliefs. And I'm not going to stop using the language that I know and love because it could be construed the wrong way. That's cheating myself out of my own deepest beliefs.

I feel like I'm trying to argue with you, and yet I agree with you. I'm a universalist. I believe that there are many ways to the Divine. I find much Christian language hurtful. But even if it's hurtful, it's valuable, and I feel defensive and hurt when I feel I'm being accused of exclusivism or bigotry or collusion with bigots or complacency or what have you just for expressing myself in the most accurate way that I can.

Peter said...

Sarah,
You're comments are very much appreciated. I am in a process of self-examination and discovery here. I'm not writing essays about my set beliefs; I am pushing at the edges of what I know and understand and poking at old wounds to see if they still hurt.
You disagree with some of the things I've said, and you've taken issue with some of the way's I've said them (Yes, my language too can be divisive and alienating) but you have spoken from a place "low down to the truth" after listening deeply. Your words carry a depth that reminds me, also, to stay rooted in spirit as I speak.
I have a painful history with Southern Baptists from twenty years ago, and I catch myself still lashing out at ghosts sometimes. I often approach Christians with an attitude of, "You're going to smack me, aren't you?" But I cannot make that go away simply by pretending it isn't there. I am working this through to a place of (I hope) real healing, and I thank you for walking these few steps alongside me as I do so.
Blessings,
Peter

david said...

I love the onion story. Perhaps because it was Tolstoy's approach to Christianity that made it okay for me to consider myself Christian again.

Let's be clear about old Leo: he belived the institution of the church in Russia was NOT christianity becuase it supported the rights of the Tzars and aristocracy against the peasantry. And maybe it is time for more Christians to say to those -- yer gonna go the H-E-double hockey sticks types that what theyu are saying and doing is Christianity (more clearly than we already have).

George Fox's approach to reading bible stories is appropriate to your onion story too BTW. When you come across a story that makes you want to blame some other guy for sins and evil: wait until you feel the spirit that says you are taht evil person in the story: I am Esau, I am Cain, I am Herod, I am the woman with the onion.

nslator said...

"So I really want the Christian church to STOP USING LANGUAGE THAT IS IN ANY WAY AMBIGUOUS ABOUT REPUDIATING HATE."

Being Christian means trying to listen to the still, small voice through the teachings of Jesus. It doesn't guarantee we're any good at it.

The "church" is the people, not the institution (or the building). People are flawed. So will the institutions always be.

dan said...

Wow.

I remembered the story of the onion (though the version I heard did not have the woman's kicking at the other souls and onion breaking), and wanted to revisit it. Google (an interesting instrument of God, from time to time) led me here.

I don't have anything fantastically insightful to say, other than that I also carry vestiges of an old, rigid and exclusive Christianity into my current spirituality, and that it is particularly hard to be free of them. But there hard bits can't obscure the beauty of Christ's presence with outcasts and reprobates, or his message of love for the oppressed.

signmom said...

Can I echo for moment...WOW!

This post is so deeply speaking to where I am now also. Sort of. I have not been open enough to hold onto any form of Christianity and seek within a place of my own. I have allowed the language, those words that feel to me to be so exclusionary to do exactly that...exclude me. I am being richly blessed by this blog, by the people who regularly respond here with such opennes and seem so committed to sharing Truth as they see it while being balanced enough to see other Truth, even when they do not embrace it. I love watching this rage at language used be transformed to understanding. I am learning as you grow and am very grateful for that opportunity. I admire your courage in looking at this old wounds and poking them a bit....that ouch you hear is me as I am led inward to confront the way my own heart and my own Path has become exclusionary, exactly as it was intended NOT to be.

chrischris said...

This story of the angel and the onion comes from "The Brothers Karamazov" and was written by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky (who also wrote Crime and Punishment).

I have always been interested in this story and still to this day do not know who told me about it. None of my family or friends had ever heard of it. My grandmother was at one time a member of The Plymouth Brethren and went on to be very active in the Salvation Army, she was a great story teller and I wondered if it came from her - but my father had never heard the story either.

Bit of a mystery!!!!

chrischris said...

The story of the angel and the onion comes from The Brothers Karamazov written by Fyodor Dostoevsky (who also wrote Crime and Punishment.)

I have always been very interested in this story and have never been able to find out who told me about it in the first place. None of my family and friends have ever known what I was talking about.

I did wonder if my grandmother had told me as a child, she was a member of the Plymouth Brethren and then was very active with the Salvation Army. However, my father - her son, does not recall the story.

Bit of a mystery......

Anonymous said...

the door of hell is shut from the inside-C.S. Lewis

hell exists because there must be somewhere for people to go who reject God

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