160. pidgeonhole

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A few days ago in the New York Times there was a 5,700-word piece about Ashlyn Blocker, a.k.a. “the girl who feels no pain.” She was born with a rare condition called congenital analgesia, better known as “congenital insensitivity to pain.” It never occurred to me how important pain really is to social animals like ourselves, who are in almost constant danger from even the moment we are conceived.

These kids walk barefoot over broken glass, touch hot stoves, break bones, chew off parts of their tongues, all without feeling pain. When Ashlyn was very young, her parents brought her to bed with them, with her mother holding her hands “so [Ashlyn] wouldn’t chew on her skin or rub her eyes during the night.” The article begins with a story of her reaching into boiling water to retrieve a spoon. These children can lose limbs but only experience the fear of seeing that part of their body gone — but not feel a thing.

Last night I had a heated argument with my boyfriend, Jason. As most fights go, it was over something relatively minor. While cleaning his room he’d found a necklace that his grandmother had given him. This necklace has a cross dangling from it. When I saw that he had hung it up in his bedroom, I asked him if he had to have it there. He said that he did, as it carries importance to him as an artifact of his grandmother’s, who is still alive and very close to him. He’s had close calls with death, having survived a brain tumor and related medical complications, so I understand its significance to him.

However, I objected to the cross since for me it’s a symbol of oppression and torture, both in the historical and personal sense. Virtually since it was adopted by the Church as its emblem about 600 years after Jesus was supposedly nailed to it, it has gone before Crusader armies and presided over Inquisitions, both Catholic and Protestant. Ignoring the fact that the common form of the crux romanus was in the shape of a letter T, with a cross-piece attached to a stake, countless saviors have been crucified in myths throughout history: Krishna, Wittoba, the Celtic god Hesus, the Mexican god Quetzalcoatl, and the Persian god Mithras — to name a few.

Moreover, it’s a hideous torture and execution device. For those who say that it represents the love of God (John 3:16), it’s curious to me that it was so necessary for God to have himself murdered by the imperfect people he created as a sacrifice to himself to make up for how imperfect the people he made were — and are. Why not just forgive sins instead of literally making a martyr of yourself?

Of course, that presumes a major assumption that there are any sins to forgive. The so-called “original sin” committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden never took place because the Garden of Eden is fictional, just as Adam and Eve are mythical. According to Christian teachings, that first sin was imputed to the entire human race, therefore precipitating the need for Jesus’ supposed sacrifice. However, if there was no original sin to forgive, what was the need, exactly?

The real reason I find the cross so offensive though is that it represents for me 25 years of agonizing over my sexuality, and 28 years of desperately trying to believe what I believed the Bible, my church and my family told me I needed to believe. There were so many nights I was kept awake by the anguish I felt over my doubts and my perceived lack of belief, and as I got older the abhorrent sexual feelings for other men that were stirring within me. For Jason that cross represents his loved ones and his connection to his family. For me, it represents everything I’ve lost, and all of the time that I wasted trying to be a good Christian — time I’ll never get back.

I had a long talk last night at home with my friend Emily about the fight, and what it was really over. She asked a question that both Jason and my therapist Sarah have asked: do you blame yourself for not leaving sooner? Yes, I do blame myself for lacking the courage to come out earlier. But this is how Richard Dawkins opens The God Delusion, with a story about his wife:

As a child, my wife hated her school and wished she could leave. Years later, when she was in her twenties, she disclosed this unhappy fact to her parents, and her mother was aghast: ‘But darling, why didn’t you come to us and tell us?’ Lalla’s reply is my text for today: ‘But I didn’t know I could.’

Here’s the crux: I didn’t know that I could have left Christianity, or come out as a gay man. Yes, I had doubts and there were numerous red flags raised over the years that I learned to think my way around or ignore; but it was either follow the Bible, or go to Hell. More than eternal damnation, I was terrified of my parents’ rejection and the reprisal of my church community. It wasn’t until I’d drifted away from those relationships and the fear of losing them and God had faded sufficiently that I was able to speak my mind and admit that I didn’t believe in God.

Yes, religion is a tool that can be used for good or evil. Trouble is, there’s no one to be angry at. My parents were brainwashed, just as were the other adults in my life growing up were. Their only concern is for my soul, not my feelings.

Just as Ashlyn Blocker has no idea what pain feels like, those who haven’t suffered abuse at the hands of religious people can’t understand what the cross looks like to those who have. It’s beautiful to them, but a putrid symbol of hatred to me.

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