No Prosthesis for Jesus
To avoid hell, a Christian chose death over the amputation of a gangrenous limb. Gotta love that old-time, fear-based religion!
By John Sparks and Mary Beth Crain
A few days ago, I posted a blog describing journalist turned author Jennifer Skiff’s request for “God Stories” for a book she’s working on. And it struck me that just as there must be millions of people who’ve had experiences that convinced them of the existence of God—that’s the subject of Skiff’s book—there must be just as many who’ve faced trials or witnessed events in life that led them to seriously doubt, even reject, God. And so I put out a call for “Godless Stories.”
Although no one responded to my request in the comments section, I did receive several direct email replies—personal anecdotes and observations that readers said persuaded them that God is merely a human concept.
Yet another kind of reply came from Kentucky author John Sparks. He told the tale of an old Appalachian lady who, clinging to her brand of fundamentalist beliefs about salvation, chose to die a terrible, painful death rather lose a gangrenous limb and thus her place in heaven. It’s a tragic story, though not necessarily a “Godless” one; it doesn’t lead one to question the existence of God so much as the existence of certain people’s god.
Sparks email generated a lively discussion here at the SoMA offices, and senior editor Mary Beth Crain was inspired to tuck into her computer and bang out her views on the subject. Below is Sparks’ story, followed by Crain’s response.—J. Spalding
* * *
Some years ago I worked in the laboratory of a mid-sized rural hospital, which meant that I occasionally had to serve as a jack-of-all-trades for the pathologist if his own technician didn't happen to be available. One night I had to draw blood from an elderly patient suffering from developing gangrene in one limb. My father was an amputee and, thinking that the patient had been admitted for an amputation, I mentioned Dad's operation to the patient's sons and daughters who were present. They immediately corrected my mistake: this patient was not going to have an amputation, because her Christian faith was such that she felt she had to keep her body entirely intact for the Resurrection.
This particular belief is not too common, but by no means unknown, in this little section of the southeastern Appalachian mountains; more frequently, we used to get requests from family members to release amputated limbs to them for burial in the family graveyard. (My old man, though, God rest his soul, was a complete pragmatist, and whenever he got "phantom pain" in his missing leg he used to joke with me about throwing a bottle of liniment into the hospital's incinerator.) But since this family's minds were completely made up and I could do nothing more, I nodded, wished them and the patient the best, and went to process the tests.
Then my supervisor picked up an enormous red biohazard bag from the morgue floor and looked at the mortician. "Don't you want to take her intestines, too?" he asked politely.
"Lord, no!" shot back the undertaker. "Throw 'em in the incinerator, we've got no use for 'em!"
Guess who got assigned the chore of sealing up the bag for the incinerator. All I could think of, as I held my breath and got the job done, was Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace": the story of a poor but ambitious young woman who borrows what she thinks is an outlandishly expensive diamond necklace, loses it, goes head over heels in debt to replace it rather than let the owner find out about the loss, and then grows old working to pay for it—only to find out after many years that the original necklace she borrowed was paste, practically worthless, and replaceable with a pittance.
It's a hard thing to think that people can, and do, die for extremely deeply felt religious beliefs that in the long run turn out to be worth no more than a paste necklace, though it happens all the time—all too often nowadays, aided by explosives. And while we might scratch our heads in perplexity and frustration when we hear about the latest suicide bombing, this sweet old mountain grandmother leaves us with the sobering realization that none, absolutely none of us, are completely immune to deceiving ourselves in this way.
But if one finds oneself caught in the midst of a de Maupassant short story, one does begin to wonder: which is worse, no God at all, or a God with de Maupassant's sense of irony?
* * *
Mary Beth Crain:
John Sparks’ story made me ponder the irrational, perverted, and thoroughly self-destructive lengths to which human beings will go in affirming their faith in God.
There is religion—an ideology and a blueprint for living a supposedly “good” life. And then there is religious fanaticism—the taking to extremes of a religious doctrine that insures the destruction of someone—either the proponents of other religions or the extremist him or herself, or both—in the name of God.
Sparks’ tale of the old Appalachian lady who suffered a terrible, needless death rather than lose a gangrenous limb and her place in line for the Rapture is a wonderful, if distressing, example of religion gone berserk. Had someone invited this poor woman to follow her logic to its ridiculous conclusion, I wonder if she would have been forced to rethink her position. Then again, chances are that since she wasn’t thinking to begin with, the exercise would have been lost on her and she would have stuck to her illogical guns, no matter what.
It’s like the other night, when NBC’s Brian Williams was interviewed on CNN about his interview with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Williams discussed the Iranian President’s fanatical beliefs, among which is the firm insistence that the Holocaust never happened. “If we’d had the time,” Williams mused, “I would have offered to discuss this with him, and to bring in Holocaust survivors to dialogue with him and tell him of their experiences. But I don’t think it would have accomplished much.”
Of course not. Words like “discuss” and “dialogue” aren’t in the vocabulary of religious extremists. They’re too big of a threat to minds that must remain sealed shut in order for their insane ideologies to remain intact.
But let’s play with the old Appalachian lady’s belief system a little. According to her brand of rapture theology, the body must be whole—all its parts present and accounted for—in order for its owner to be assumed into Heaven. Well, what about a war vet who lost a limb in battle? Or somebody who lost a body part in a car crash? Or somebody who was born without arms or legs, like those tragic Thalidomide babies of the 1960s? Are all of these unfortunates, totally innocent of any wrongdoing, to be left behind, along with the sinners and apostates who never took Jesus unto them?
And what about Jesus himself? He lost a few pieces of his body on the road to Calvary and on the cross, didn’t he? Flesh was torn from him and never replaced.
Taking this train of thought further, what exactly do we mean by “whole”? Wholeness, in spiritual terms, means the confluence of body, mind, heart and spirit. Many of us have imperfect bodies, for one reason or another. But—and do forgive me if I’ve got it wrong—isn’t God is supposed to see and love the inner person, and to make that person whole through a relationship based on love and faith?
Our old Appalachian woman was obviously controlled by a fear-based religion so insidiously lethal that it overrode her very instinct for self-preservation. Essentially, she committed suicide—a heinous act definitely not sanctioned by any form of Christianity. What a double bind! It’s the kind of no-win situation to which all fundamentalist ideologies must inevitably succumb, and reminds me of the devout Catholic victims of the Inquisition, who found themselves faced with an insoluble dilemma. If they confessed under oath to a crime they didn’t commit, they would be guilty of lying before God and thus condemned to hell. If they didn’t confess, they would be tortured to death. Whatever and whoever God was, he wasn’t merciful, that’s for sure.
The old Appalachian lady is really no different from an Islamic suicide bomber. Both are destined to pay the same price for a ticket to Paradise—their own lives. Which leads us to ask, what sort of God is this, who requires us to commit suicide in order to merit eternal life?
I wish I could ask the old Appalachian woman—and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—that question. But, it being way too sensible for the fundamentalist mindset to comprehend, I’m sure that would be a complete waste of time. Religion isn’t only the opiate of the people—it’s often the cyanide. And if we’re not careful, it will end up killing us all. In the name, of course, of God.
Comment on this article here.
John Sparks, for several years an ordained minister of the United Baptist Church, is the author of "Raccoon John Smith: Frontier Kentucky’s Most Famous Preacher" and "The Roots of Appalachian Christianity: The Life and Legacy of Elder Shubal Stearns." He lives in Hager Hill, Ky.
Senior editor Mary Beth Crain’s last piece for SoMA was In the Soup: Pope Benedict Gets a Lesson in Irrationality.
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